How Dangerous Is Marijuana?
FOR years, many people have regarded smoking marijuana as a “harmless” pastime. Even many scientists have felt that way, considering it a “soft” drug.
One result of this attitude is that the use of marijuana has spread rapidly. Tens of millions of people have tried it, with many millions becoming habitual users. At some social gatherings, it has been passed around as casually as candy.
Recently, though, some researchers have come forward to claim that marijuana is not a “soft” drug. They declare that it may do the following: cause brain damage leading to impaired mental processes; harm cell growth by hindering the ability of cells to reproduce; damage chromosomes and genes, the vital units that transmit hereditary characteristics; weaken the body’s resistance to disease; and lower levels of male sex hormones, leading to various sexual problems.
On the other hand, there are researchers who challenge these conclusions. They state that marijuana is not dangerous. Indeed, one writer asserts in the magazine New Times” “Smoking [marijuana] may be good for your health.” He said that it “might prove to be an unexploited wonder drug of the future,” and added: “[If] used in moderation, . . . [it] could help cure your asthma, relieve your migraine, inhibit cancer and give you a new lease on life.” But the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare states that there is no clinical evidence to support such extravagant claims.
Why this great conflict of opinions? It is due to several factors. For one thing, there are the preconceived ideas of those involved. A researcher who wants to verify one view or another can often, consciously or unconsciously, interpret test results to suit his purpose. Another factor is how a researcher conducts his experiments. If they are conducted in one way, they may give one set of results, but if in another way, they may provide something different. Also, it is true that in some animal experiments the amount of the toxic ingredient of marijuana given would far exceed what even a heavy user would be exposed to in a lifetime. Hence, for a variety of reasons, conflicting reports are being issued.
Yet, lately there have been more claims that marijuana is dangerous. A reason for this is that studies made recently were not possible years ago. It is only in the past several years that the toxic ingredient of marijuana, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), has been isolated for experimental use. But now it is being supplied to hundreds of researchers throughout the world.
Among those who claim that marijuana is harmful are some who once felt it was harmless. In fact, a number of these used it themselves but now have changed their views. Why? It is because they feel that, as reported by the Seattle Times, “the adverse evidence against the drug continues to mount in scientific laboratories.”
Dr. David H. Powelson at one time stated that marijuana was a “harmless” drug. But after eight years of research at the University of California he now offers his regrets for having had that view. Instead, he declares that marijuana is a “most dangerous drug.”
Dr. Robert Heath of Tulane Medical School comments: “When I started my studies four years ago, I thought marijuana was a relatively innocuous drug . . . I now feel it is very harmful.” The Portland Oregonian adds: “Dr. Heath is not the only one who is changing his mind about marijuana. Scientists working in labs all over the world are echoing the theme: ‘Initially I didn’t think marijuana was dangerous, but I now feel it is a very great threat.’” And in Canada, the Montreal Star Weekend Magazine says:
“Dr. Olav Braenden, the director of the United Nations narcotics laboratory, felt compelled to say recently: ‘In my opinion, it seems that as progressively more scientific facts are discovered about cannabis [marijuana], the more one becomes aware the potential dangers.’ . . .
“Here, in Canada, an ever-increasing number of experts in the drug field have been stepping forward to urge caution, if not to denounce outright the use of cannabis.”
Some researchers claim that even the moderate regular use of marijuana can have bad effects. As the Detroit Free Press notes: “Medical researchers are reporting new discoveries which indicate that marijuana and its big brother, [hashish]—are indeed dangerous to physical and mental health when used regularly, even once or twice a week.”
HOW MUCH MENTAL DAMAGE?
Is marijuana damaging to the brain, impairing mental functions, even when a person is not under its immediate influence? Its supporters say it is not, and cite several tests to back up their observations.
A team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania reported no difference between those who smoked marijuana and those who did not. They summed up their findings this way:
“A battery of the most sensitive neuropsychological tests now available could demonstrate essentially no difference between moderate users and nonusers of marijuana. These results agree with those of Mendelson and Meyer who employed similar tests with 10 casual and 10 heavy users.”
However, critics of marijuana question the validity of many random tests of users versus nonusers. The point is made that a better test would be that of observing the mental condition of an individual before he ever began using marijuana, and then testing that same individual after a long period of marijuana use. They cite the experience with tobacco smoking, that only after prolonged use do damaging effects such as lung cancer and other diseases appear.
In regard to the more immediate mental effects, several experiments have indicated that, generally speaking, the more mental ability and coordination a task requires, the less efficiently it will be performed by one who is under the influence of marijuana. The user may think he is doing better. However, he is like the person who has had several alcoholic drinks and thinks he is more proficient at whatever he attempts, but is really not.
Evidence of this has been presented in connection with automobile driving tests. Persons under the influence of marijuana could not start or brake their cars as easily as those not under its influence. At times they reacted as poorly as drunk drivers. They had trouble concentrating, their judgment was faulty, and the time of reacting was slowed.
Regarding longer-range mental effects of marijuana, Dr. Francis A. Davis, publisher of the medical journal Private Practice, says:
“Its early use is beguiling. It gives the illusion of feeling good, so the user is unaware of the beginning loss of mental functioning.
“In fact, marijuana impairs the user’s ability even to judge the loss of his own mental abilities.”
Dr. Davis claims that “chronic, heavy use leads to mental and physical deterioration that may be impossible to reverse.” He says that for some people such use can lead even “to outright paranoia.” And he also warns that “psychological changes have been noted in those smoking less than one [marijuana] cigarette a week.”
Dr. Jared Tinklenberg of the Drug Abuse Council in Washington, D.C., feels that marijuana interferes with memory by impeding the transfer of images from short-term to long-term “storage.” And Dr. Hardin Jones, a professor of medical physics and physiology at the University of California, says:
“There is now a growing body of evidence that marijuana smokers do have problems with memory.
“In my own work, which is directed to the evaluation and recovery of cannabis users, I have extensive proof that those who stop using marijuana are amazed when they witness the return of functions they didn’t realize they had lost.”
Inspector Gordon Tomalty, head of the Drug Enforcement Branch of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, noted adverse psychological ‘effects. After years of working with marijuana users, he said:
“The tragedy lies in the fact that so many of our youngsters turn to cannabis as an answer to their personal problems . . .
“Yet they find none of the answers they are looking for and any pleasure they may get from it is short-lived. In fact, it only serves to mix them up further . . .
“Of all the users I have seen over the years, I don’t know of a single person who has benefited from it. I think it simply retards the maturity process.”
COMPARISON WITH ALCOHOL
Some researchers who support the use of marijuana acknowledge that it can affect the mind. And, of course, this is why the majority use it, since it can produce a feeling of euphoria, or well-being, the “high” referred to by many. Also, it is admitted that with some users the mental effect is so strong that the user is referred to as being “stoned.”
However, supporters of marijuana say that, while it can affect the mind, it is no more dangerous than alcohol, since alcohol can produce similar mental states. But many others claim that there is a very real difference between it and alcohol.
It is pointed out that alcohol is not retained for long periods of time in body or brain cells. Of course, the long-term excessive use, or abuse, of alcohol can certainly damage the body and brain. But with moderate use, it is dispersed from the body in a matter of hours. Marijuana’s toxic substance, however, is not quickly passed off. It is said to persist and accumulate like DDT, which is why many feel that it is potentially more dangerous than alcohol.
For example, six doctors from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, in a letter to the editor of the New York Times, declared:
“Marijuana contains toxic substances . . . which are only soluble in fat and stored in body tissues, including brain, for weeks and months, like DDT.
“The storage capacity of tissues for these substances is enormous—which explains their slow deleterious effects in habitual smokers.
“Anyone using these substances more than once a week cannot be drug free.”
Dr. Andrew Malcolm of Toronto says: “Brain cells are particularly loaded with this fatty material and therefore there is a fairly high concentration of marihuana laid down in such cells.” He also said: “There are people who will tell you that there is nothing wrong with cannabis, but in the light of contemporary evidence, this is simply irresponsible on their part.”
Tulane University’s Dr. Robert Heath brands the comparison between alcohol and marijuana as “ridiculous.” He states that alcohol has “a temporary effect. Marijuana is complex with a persisting effect.” Hence, it is his contention that the prolonged use of marijuana “damages the brain.”
SEX HORMONE LEVELS
Controversy also surrounds claims of damage in other areas. For example, some say that marijuana use has resulted in lower levels of male sex hormones, which has produced problems related to the male reproductive system.
The New York State Journal of Medicine reports on three different observations in this regard. In one, three men between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-six suffered from malfunction of their reproductive system. It was found that they had smoked marijuana in large quantities for long periods, six years in one case and two years in another. Doctors believe there was a direct connection between their problems and the prolonged marijuana use.
In a study of 40 men from eighteen to twenty-eight years of age, the same medical journal related that 20 of the men had used marijuana at least four days a week for a minimum of six months, without using any other drug during that period; the other 20 men had never used marijuana. The publication noted that the male hormone levels were “significantly lower in the marihuana users,” and that a number suffered serious effects as a result. The report said: “The data suggest that chronic intensive use of marihuana may produce alterations in male reproductive physiology.”
But what about another study of 27 men, reported by the Journal of Medicine, where sex hormone levels were checked daily before, during, and after a 21-day period of marijuana use? In this case no significant changes were noted. Under these conditions, the authors of the test concluded that there was no association between marijuana use and male sex hormone levels. But there was a difference. What? The time involved was brief—three weeks—compared to the other two observations of harmful results coming from much longer periods of marijuana use.
OTHER POSSIBLE DAMAGE
In regard to claims of marijuana producing lower resistance to disease, as well as damage to chromosomes and genes, similar disagreement is evident.
Consumer Reports tells of tests that failed to show any damage to cell structure. Regarding disease, it cites a finding from tests at the University of California at Los Angeles, which stated: “There is no clinical or epidemiologic evidence to suggest that chronic marijuana users might be more prone to the development of . . . [cancerous] or infectious processes.” These results came from tests of the skin.
Other researchers conclude the opposite. Dr. Gabriel G. Nahas and his associates at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons reported, after complex tests, that the immune response of marijuana smokers was impaired. Dr. Nahas concluded that habitual marijuana smokers are damaging their defense against infectious diseases and also against cancer. He also noted that large doses of THC have produced “a decrease in DNA cell formation,” which suggested the abnormal development of genetic codes. Hence, he stated:
“The effect of THC is 10,000 times as strong as the effect of alcohol . . .
“Indications are that marijuana is extremely harmful, and its use should be discouraged. It is not a mild, mind-expanding herb. I deplore those efforts to make it socially acceptable or readily available.”
In regard to lung damage, there is more general agreement that marijuana smoke, like tobacco smoke, can be harmful. Scientists in Switzerland found that marijuana smoke “contributes to malignant and premalignant growth” in lung-tissue cultures. A Swiss medical research team concluded that marijuana damages lung tissues even more rapidly than does cigarette smoke. And Consumer Reports, in an article generally favorable to marijuana smoking, states:
“Though the evidence to date is far from decisive, there is no reason to doubt that marijuana smoke, like tobacco smoke and other kinds of smoke, may damage human lung cells. How much damage remains an unanswered question. . . .
“For very heavy users who smoke many marijuana cigarettes a week, of course, the risk of lung damage may be serious.”
THE JAMAICA STUDY
Defenders of marijuana cite a study made in Jamaica, the West Indies. Many residents of that land have long smoked what is called ganja, or marijuana. So it was thought that observations of the people there would result in conclusive findings.
A report based on these studies declared that no harmful effects were noted in the Jamaicans. The report concluded: “The data clearly indicate that the long-term marijuana use . . . did not produce demonstrable intellectual or ability deficits . . . There is no evidence in the results to suggest brain damage.”
However, this study and its conclusions have been challenged. Professor Hardin B. Jones of the University of California states:
“A study of marijuana (ganja) use in Jamaica that claimed to prove no harmful effects has been thoroughly discredited by Dr. John A. S. Hall, chairman of the Department of Medicine at Kingston Hospital, Jamaica, who found that the selection with which the study was done was faulty.
“He observed ‘20 per cent impotence . . . among males who have smoked ganja for five or more years’ and reported that ‘personality changes among ganja smokers . . . are a matter of common observation in Jamaica.’ Among the symptoms were apathy, retreat from reality and the incapacity or unwillingness for sustained concentration.”
Dr. Jones acknowledged that studies do appear that seem to refute the claims that marijuana is harmful. However, he says: “These studies invariably miss either or both of two points: The effects of marijuana take time to accumulate, and selected groups of subjects may not experience the effects that occur in most users. The active ingredient, THC, lingers in the body; 40 to 45 per cent of it remains after four days; 30 to 35 per cent after seven days, with slow elimination thereafter. Persisting brain burdens of THC account for impaired brain functions.”
A VITAL FACTOR TO CONSIDER
At this point the evidence about marijuana’s damaging effects is not complete. Much more research remains to be done. Yet, from the results that some have obtained, it is evident that there are at least possible serious threats to health.
In view of this, Dr. Robert L. DuPont, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the United States, says: “There is cause for concern and caution based on evidence from animal studies and some preliminary human studies . . . For now, it would seem the possible adverse effects should lead marihuana smokers or potential smokers to question whether it is worth the risk.”
Even a Consumer Reports article, published one month after its article defending marijuana use, admitted: “Marijuana, like any other drug, is probably harmful in at least some respects to at least some users at some dosage levels under some conditions of use.”
Yet, there is another, even greater consideration in this matter. It is the view of the One who created man’s body and mind, and who surely knows what is best for people. In God’s Word, the Holy Bible, we are counseled: “Let us cleanse ourselves of every defilement of flesh and spirit.” (2 Cor. 7:1) Surely, the sucking of smoke—any smoke—into our lungs deliberately is a defilement of the flesh. Hence, a person could not continue this practice and still be a true Christian.
In addition, since marijuana can produce a “high,” or a “stoned” condition, it is obvious that the mind could be laid open to wrong concepts. World Book Encyclopedia observes: “Marijuana causes various changes in the way a person feels and thinks . . . Marijuana can also cause a person to lose his sense of time and space. Minutes may seem like hours, and nearby objects may seem far away. The drug may reduce memory, judgment, and coordination. . . . Marijuana may increase a person’s willingness to accept new ideas without judging whether they are true or false.”
Could a God-fearing person expose himself to such an effect? The Bible states: “Beloved ones, do not believe every inspired expression, but test the inspired expressions to see whether they originate with God, because many false prophets have gone forth into the world.” (1 John 4:1) How well can a person test ideas to determine if they are true or false if he uses a drug that can “increase a person’s willingness to accept new ideas without judging whether they are true or false”?
Further, the Bible book of Proverbs says: “Thinking ability itself will keep guard over you, discernment itself will safeguard you, to deliver you from the bad way, from the man speaking perverse things, from those leaving the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness.” (Prov. 2:11-13) Will getting “high,” or “stoned,” on marijuana improve thinking ability and discernment, helping to safeguard one from bad ways and perverse speech? Hardly.
Regardless of what current research turns up about the short- or long-term effects of marijuana, true Christians avoid its use. They know that it is a defilement of the flesh, and that it can produce a mental condition that is contrary to what a servant of God must cultivate.
[Blurb on page 5]
Some automobile drivers under the influence of marijuana reacted as poorly as if they were drunk.
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‘Marijuana damages lungs more rapidly than cigarette smoke.’—Swiss medical team.