Marijuana—Why the Conflicting Views? What Really Are Its Effects?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Canada
OF ALL the drugs that have been used throughout the centuries none has caused more controversy in recent years than marijuana. Defenders of its use cite various studies and argue that it is not dangerous as are other drugs. Thus, they would make a special case for marijuana.
Opposers of its use cite their own sources and disagree as to the interpretation of certain other studies. Indeed, a verbal and printed battle seems to be constantly going on as to whether marijuana is harmful at all if used moderately. Is there any way to be sure?
There is an ever-increasing use of it, even in public, nowadays. Its use by those with higher education and professional status makes it seem different to some, even fashionable. And now, 11 American states have altered their laws so as no longer to consider mere possession of a small amount of it a crime. Lighter civil penalties are now applied to first convictions. Does all of this mean that marijuana is becoming more accepted and that in time it will share a status like that given to nicotine, caffeine and alcohol?
What Is Marijuana?
Marijuana is a drug prepared by drying the leaves, flowering tops, stems and seeds of the hemp plant known as Cannabis sativa. Hence, the name sometimes used for it: cannabis. Its common name is “pot.” In India it is called bhang. Hashish is another form of cannabis, made from the resin of the plant and usually pressed into the form of blocks or chunks of varying potency. Hashish and an oil made from it are of greater strength than marijuana.
The history of marijuana use in China reaches back some 4,000 years. It spread to India, where it came to be used in religious ceremonies. In some places its use was medicinal. But in Egypt, the effects that Napoleon saw from its use moved him to ban it there following his conquest. With such a long history, is it not possible now to know if marijuana is indeed dangerous to health and well-being? Why all the skirmishes between advocates and those who would ban its use?
As recently as 1975, the usually objective Consumer Reports seemed to indicate that the drug was relatively harmless. A report in Canada by the LeDain Commission (1973) implied the same. A U.S. government report, Marijuana: a Signal of Misunderstanding, along with a few other publications similar to it, such as Marijuana Reconsidered, have caused some persons to say that there is no conclusive evidence of physical damage or interference with the body’s processes even when large amounts are used.
Experts who felt it to be innocuous have been quoted freely: Dr. David H. Powelson, formerly chief of psychiatry, University of California at Berkeley; Dr. Harold Kalant of the University of Toronto; Dr. Robert L. DuPont, formerly of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the United States. There were also others. Frequent references to these have been made to show that there is no valid basis for concern over the increasing use of marijuana.
However, all along, warnings have been sounded: The World Health Organization has kept up its declarations against the use of marijuana. In 1972, Dr. Olav J. Braenden, director of the United Nations Narcotics Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, warned that marijuana is a dangerous drug. He based his conclusions on the findings of 26 laboratories in various parts of the world.
Yet, the general idea in the 1960’s and the early 1970’s was that not enough was yet known to say with any certainty that marijuana was harmful. Of course, there is a big difference between saying that something is not yet proved to be harmful and saying that it is indeed harmless.
A number of drugs that were at one time thought to be harmless, even beneficial, are not now viewed that way at all. Heroin and barbiturates, for example, were once thought to be a blessing to medicine, but that is not now the case with either drug. It should not be overlooked that even one of the foremost advocates of decriminalization of marijuana, Keith Stroup, executive director of the National Organization for the Repeal of Marijuana Laws (NORML), is reported as admitting: “There’s a lot that we still need to know about the drug.”
But why the obviously contradictory reports? Why have sources viewed as authoritative been on opposite sides in the controversy? Dr. Andrew Malcolm, a psychiatrist with more than 20 years of experience in dealing with drug-dependent people, explains: “Part of the confusion over cannabis today is due to the well-publicized and broadly accepted early experiments—notably the ones in the late 60s. These suggested that cannabis was a relatively mild intoxicant with few untoward effects. Yet there was no method available for measuring the tetrahydrocannibol (THC) content, the active ingredient of the drug, before 1971 when it was synthesized. So research has only been of real value since that time.”
What Is Showing Up Now?
But now the facts are accumulating. Sidney Katz, who specializes in medical and social topics, dealt with one of the definite dangers, in an article that appeared in the Toronto Star. As he put it: “An undisputed research finding is that a driver stoned on marijuana, is a dangerous driver. His perception of time and space, as well as his co-ordination, is impaired. . . . Well controlled studies of motorists in city traffic, intoxicated on marijuana alone, revealed that they missed traffic lights and stop signs, passed other cars recklessly, did poorly in manoeuvring their vehicles through traffic and were, at times, only vaguely aware of pedestrians and parked cars.”
It is also now known that the active ingredient in cannabis products (THC) is deposited in the fatty tissues of the brain. It remains there for a considerable time, one authority indicating “at least three days in active form,” with some particles still being eliminated “for at least eight days.” Others speak of some retention for from 8 to 18 days in the brain cells. Thus, the effect is there beyond the time of immediate use, causing fluctuating impairment of the senses for days. With repeated use comes also the added danger of a gradual accumulation and the effect of the chemical on the entire system.
There is likewise evidence of the effect of THC on the reproductive organs, with accumulations of it in the ovaries and in the testes. Chromosomal damage in test subjects who had not used other drugs has been noted. This is sound reason for persons who are planning pregnancies not to use this drug at all. Seventeen magazine in March of 1979 adds: “We already know that THC can cross the placenta (the organ that unites the fetus to the uterus, through which an unborn infant is nourished) when used by the mother, and any pregnant girl or woman who uses pot—or takes any drug at all—is a fool.”
There is no disputing the serious effects of marijuana on the lungs and the respiratory system of humans. Tests have shown the tar content of cannabis smoke to be “50% higher than that of tobacco.” That poses perils of lung cancer, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Research done by the Institute of Experimental Cancer Research in Switzerland indicates a higher degree of damage done to the marijuana smoker than to the tobacco smoker. Autopsies have shown severe lung structure breakdown.
Researchers Change Mind
The increasing amount of information indicating undesirable effects has caused some experts to change their minds in recent years. Dr. David H. Powelson, referred to earlier, now acknowledges that marijuana is not harmless and that he was wrong. Dr. Harold Kalant and Dr. Robert L. DuPont, both of whom were mentioned earlier, have also changed their views. You can see for yourself, in the box on page 9, what they are saying now.
The concern that they now express is valid. Dr. DuPont says: “While Americans were debating the question of criminal penalties for marijuana possession, the real tragedy has overtaken us almost unnoticed: the alarming levels of very high marijuana use among our young people.” The evidence now is that there are more and more children in the lower grades in school using cannabis. It is “the drug of choice” for 12- and 13-year-olds in Canada. What will be the impact on the developing minds and bodies of adolescents using cannabis?
Dr. Robert Petersen of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the United States, after mentioning great concern about younger marijuana users, said: “They are far more vulnerable, psychologically and physiologically, to the effects of any drug, and there is potentially a greater risk to them than to fully developed, integrated personalities.” A study conducted at Bristol University, done on 10 consecutive cases of young marijuana users where behavioral changes had been noted, revealed that all suffered from cerebral atrophy. The degree of atrophy correlated with the duration of marijuana use.
Instead of learning how to cope successfully with the problems of life, they try to escape by resorting to drugs. But, as a director of marijuana studies at the University of California at Los Angeles said: “Youth is a time of learning how to deal with life, how to cope, how to deal with stress, how to manage anxiety. If you don’t learn it then, when do you do it?”
No More Harmful than Alcohol?
There are those who would say that such views are extreme and that one is unduly excited about the effects on what is perhaps the minority, not the majority of users, especially moderate users. They consider the use of marijuana on the weekend or at a party to be no more dangerous than the drinking of alcohol. ‘Why,’ they ask, ‘should we be criticized for the use of marijuana when no stigma goes with the use of alcohol?’ Indeed, they would claim that the arguments against marijuana would be equally valid against alcohol consumption. Is there little or no difference?
“Molecule for molecule, THC is 10,000 times stronger than alcohol in its ability to produce mild intoxication,” says a doctor in Executive Health of October 1977. ‘Well,’ protest the drug advocates, ‘marijuana users simply don’t have to use a lot of the drug to get the same effect as does the heavy drinker. A little won’t hurt.’ But the same doctor adds: “It takes decades for irreversible brain changes to appear in the heavy drinker. In the marijuana smoker, irreversible brain changes may appear within three years.”
Another point: THC is fat soluble and thus stays in fatty areas, accumulating with continued use, as we have seen. Alcohol, on the other hand, being water soluble and being metabolized in a relatively short period of time, is handled differently by the body. On this matter, a scientist at the Donner Laboratory of Medical Research explains: “Alcohol is water-soluble food and is metabolized to provide cell energy.” [Italics ours] The end products, carbon dioxide and water, are easily and quickly disposed of completely by the body. So it is good to observe the point of view of a psycho-pharmacologist who said: “Marijuana is a very potent drug, and the biggest mistake we make is comparing it to alcohol.”
How Much Evidence Do You Need?
The mounting evidence that marijuana is dangerous cannot be brushed aside. A person might try to argue that he knows his own case best and sees no undesirable effects in his own life, so why should he be concerned about reports of harm to others. But, if the THC has adverse effects on the brain, can he trust his own estimation of its effect? A doctor gives this as a serious reason for believing that marijuana is the most dangerous drug now being dealt with: “Its early use is beguiling. The user is given the illusion of feeling good; he cannot sense the deterioration of his mental and physiological processes.” But others notice.
In a Toronto Star article titled “You’re Kidding Yourself If You Think Pot’s Harmless,” writer Joan Sutton quotes Dr. Norman Doorenbos as saying about evidence of this effect: “The most immediate is that it affects the thought process. It is characteristic of marijuana smokers to begin a sentence, then not be able to end it because they forgot what they were talking about.”
Does legalization of the use of cannabis in some areas mean that there really is nothing to fear? Ontario’s Attorney General Roy McMurtry said that some obviously view the action as being like “a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” As a result, cannabis use has increased in these areas. But in view of the recent evidence on the subject, he said: “It must be made abundantly clear to the public that concern about the possibility of harm from marijuana is greater today, not lesser.” Does that sound as if all is safe with marijuana?
Consider again the effects: Impairment of judgment of time and distance. Adverse effects on the memory, attention span, logical thinking. Damage to the immune system, the lungs and respiratory system. Danger of impairment of any children you may produce. Is that just the innocent use of a harmless relaxant that will make life easier?
Should there be those who would argue that the risks are worth it for the pleasures received, let them remember that all feelings of pleasure really occur in the brain. By a highly complex series of controls regulated by chemicals, the brain’s many marvelous functions take place. Thus, what is thought to be pleasurable when caused by a drug is really nothing more than a chemically induced disturbance of the normal functions of the brain. Is it any wonder, then, that marijuana use ranked next to opiates, ahead of alcohol, as the reason for admission to government-funded clinics for treatment in some 40,000 cases in the United States in 1974?
Make no mistake: Marijuana is a drug. As such, it, like other drugs, poses a real threat to your health and life.
[Box on page 9]
change of mind on marijuana
Some of the experts most often quoted as saying that marijuana was harmless have changed their mind. Among them the following:
Dr. David H. Powelson:
“At the time, I had not had any direct experience as a physician with marijuana users. . . . Within five years, I knew I was wrong; I knew that marijuana was harmful.”
Dr. Harold Kalant:
“I am rather more concerned about the use of cannabis today than I was when it first became a public issue back in ’66 and ’67. Then the available evidence seemed to suggest that it was innocuous. Now there is only one thing that I can say with any certainty and that’s that there is no such thing as a safe drug.”
Dr. Robert L. DuPont:
“The real issue is the health danger posed by this epidemic [of spreading marijuana use by the younger generation], danger of at least two kinds. One is the effects of the intoxication, ranging from the hazardous impact on driving to caring less about everything. The other area is purely physical. Here the concerns range from the regular occurrence of chronic bronchitis among marijuana users to the very real possibilities of harmful hormonal effects, effects on the immune system and possibly even cancer.”
[Picture on page 6]
‘a driver stoned on marijuana is dangerous’
[Picture on page 7]
THC impairs the senses for days
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‘any pregnant woman who uses pot is a fool’
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‘the biggest mistake is comparing marijuana to alcohol’