We continue to be concerned by the marijuana misinformation in circulation and, in particular, by the number of “expert” sources making bogus claims and even ignoring relevant scientific data in ways that — ironically — put the public at greater risk. (Herein, we use the botanical name of the genus, cannabis, rather than the politicized, propaganda slang term, “marijuana.”)
Case in point: In his Health Talk piece, “Is marijuana safe?” (Jan. 12-14), Alan Saltis, Regional Prevention Partnership coordinator at Rutland Regional Medical Center, writes, “Marijuana most likely won’t take your life, but can easily cause problems, even more than alcohol. Addiction rates have drastically increased recently. One out of six teenagers who try marijuana will become addicted. Twenty-one percent of all current marijuana users meet the criteria for addiction. For alcohol, the addiction rate for current users is only 13 percent.”
Mr. Saltis provides no sources to support his claims. To start, he should check out the current data on illness, death and destruction associated with alcohol in the U.S. compared to cannabis. According to the CDC (2018), an estimated 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually; more (than) 70,200 died from prescription opioid overdoses in 2017. Cannabis does not even show up in the death-from-overdose statistics.
Whether regular cannabis use even qualifies as addiction has been debated for decades. Are all addictions the same? Are we talking about physical or psychological addiction? Is cannabis addiction on par with heroin, opiates, alcohol and prescription drugs? Or addiction to shopping, television or smartphone use? Most experts on the long-term effects of cannabis consumption agree that if dependency or “addiction” occurs with cannabis, it is far less serious than opiates, tobacco and alcohol (Scientific American, March 2012), and probably less dangerous health-wise than the sugar, salt and fat in America’s diet. Research on dependency places cannabis on par with caffeine (Drugwarfacts.org). Note to all you daily coffee drinkers — you might be caffeine “addicts.”
Either way, for any member of the medical establishment charged with guarding public health to imply that cannabis is more dangerous than alcohol is itself dangerously irresponsible. For the sake of the public whose health he is charged with guarding, we call on Mr. Saltis to correct the hazardous falsity he has propagated in these pages.
Mr. Saltis also warns that what he calls “high potency” cannabis, with a higher concentration of THC (the main psychoactive component in cannabis), leads to “increase in effect (and) ... connected risks.” While it is true that, according to the Potency Monitoring Project at the University of Mississippi, potency has increased from an average of 1.7 percent in 1970 to 8.5 percent today, this does not translate into the consumer getting five times higher than in the 1970s. There have always been higher-THC concentrations available (e.g., in the form of hashish), and just as “responsible drinkers” adjust intake when switching from beer to whiskey, responsible cannabis consumers use less cannabis (PolitiFact.com). True, the demonization of cannabis has made it difficult for youth to gain access to models of responsible use. But the solution here isn’t further demonization any more than the solution to irresponsible sexual behavior among youth is to tell them to abstain. Desire for both sex and consciousness alteration are normal, and as many now recognize in the domain of sexuality, it is at our cultural peril that we deny them.
Saltis writes, “Heavy users are more likely to receive lower grades, drop out of school, have a reduced IQ for those who start as teens.” Such claims contradict a lot of science, including the study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which researchers comparing long-term cannabis use in teen twins found no IQ differences traceable to cannabis over 10 years. In fact, it turns out cannabis can be an IQ-saver: In Israel, which leads the world in medicinal marijuana research, doctors inject cannabis’ main psychoactive component into brains “to prevent long-term cognitive damage after brain injury” (Jerusalem Post, May 27, 2013).
Mr. Saltis claims “a growing amount of research indicates cannabis as a causative factor for several mental health problems. The risk for suicidal thoughts is increased on average 7-fold in teens using high-potency marijuana. Veterans who use cannabis regularly are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who don’t.” He continues, “There is also the risk of developing a mental illness, which increases 4-fold in heavy users.” Furthermore, says he, “The risk of schizophrenia in heavy users has doubled recently due to the increases in potency, which means 1 in 20 heavy users will develop the illness.”
Once more, no sources, no studies. Such claims were certainly common if unsupported views in the medical community during the 1960s and ‘70s. But what does today’s science say? The Journal of the American Medical Association (2016) reports research based on 34,000 American adults finding that cannabis does not pose a risk of mood or anxiety disorders for the general populace. Cannabis can even be used to treat depression and anxiety effectively; moreover, there are strains of cannabis used medicinally to mitigate the effects of schizophrenia. While it is possible that cannabis may trigger or exacerbate schizophrenia in those genetically predisposed, that group is extremely small and science is already sorting out whom this concern affects, and doesn’t affect. To the credit of the Vermont Department of Health, its report acknowledges the genetic factor, and notes that “schizophrenia is a rare disorder, whether marijuana is an exacerbating risk factor or not” (2016: 36).
In his conclusion, Saltis writes, “It will take effect more time to learn what the long-term use of higher-potency marijuana will have on public health.” The irony is that the dearth of research on effects is due to the U.S. government’s seven-decade prohibition on research unless it was focused on the negative effects of cannabis. And that data is thin, which is why you hardly ever hear about it. Our government has suppressed research that shows positive effects of cannabis use, or few dangers.
Another distortion of discussions in the U.S. arises from the lack of inclusion of the best research outside the U.S. in government analyses. We have in mind especially research from Israel, which leads the world in the scientific study of cannabis. Further, the evidence of more than 12,000 years of cannabis consumption around the world with largely positive effects is pretty solid evidence. The problems that arise stem from prohibitionists, politicians and other merchants of fear.
Those like Mr. Saltis, who pose as experts, but who turn a blind eye to the science, bring us to another significant concern — the crisis of confidence among the youth. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 68 percent of millennials (currently between the ages of 18 and 34) support the legalization of cannabis. Remember that they have access to science via the internet, and also have the testimony of brilliant proponents of cannabis from within the scientific community (e.g., true medical experts like Dr. Andrew Weil, Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Dr. Lester Grinspoon, as well as prominent names from across the sciences, such as Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman in physics, Stephen Jay Gould in paleontology, Kary Mullis in chemistry, etc. — some of whom are Nobel Prize winners).
These intellectual heroes who used cannabis might have served as positive role models of responsible use; but due to the kind of misinformed policy the Mr. Saltises of history have fostered, their example has remained hidden. On the other hand, authorities who defend hypocrisy-laden cannabis policy demonstrate their untrustworthiness to teens. They cry wolf about cannabis and thus maintain no credibility when they warn about real dangers.
Philip Lamy, Ph.D., and Brendan Lalor, Ph.D., are members of the Castleton University faculty. They are also part of a cannabis studies group at the university.