Young People Ask . . .
‘Is Marijuana Really Harmful?’
“Just a lot of propaganda.” That’s what a young man named David used to call all the scary reports he heard about marijuana. After all, he had friends who used the drug frequently, and they weren’t exactly dropping like flies. As far as he knew, none had died of lung cancer, suffered brain damage, or become sterile because of smoking marijuana. David therefore started using the drug himself.
LIKE David, many youths are turned off by what appears to be anti-pot propaganda. A survey revealed that almost half of one group of young marijuana users did not believe that it was harmful. And what about attempts to scare youths into believing that it is? Observed the Journal of Drug Education: “Fear-based anti-drug programs have tended to be relatively unsuccessful.”
Then there is the fact that even the experts can’t seem to agree as to whether marijuana helps or hurts. An article appearing in Science magazine said: “The possibility that marihuana use may be hazardous has produced a remarkable polarization among scientists . . . The naive individual seeking guidance is often hard-pressed to know whom to believe.”
Why, though, is there so much controversy over marijuana? Are those who speak ill of marijuana simply resorting to scare tactics? Many youths are suspicious. Says one 15-year-old: “I think a lot of stuff is printed to scare us. Nothing I’ve read has convinced me.” True, one should not believe everything one reads. The proverb says: “Anyone inexperienced puts faith in every word.” “But,” it goes on to state, “the shrewd one considers his steps.” Or as another Bible verse puts it: “Everyone shrewd will act with knowledge.” (Proverbs 14:15; 13:16) You therefore owe it to yourself to learn the facts about marijuana so that you can make an intelligent decision regarding its use. Let’s begin, then, by trying to understand why there is so much disagreement on this subject.
Why the Controversy?
The basic problem is that marijuana is extremely tough to study. It is a veritable chemical warehouse containing over 400 chemical compounds in its smoke. Of these chemicals, over 50, called cannabinoids, are found only in marijuana. True, only one such chemical—delta-9-THC—is believed primarily responsible for the drug’s intoxicating effect. But since marijuana is grown under varying conditions, marijuana varies greatly in potency from batch to batch. This can wreak havoc with test results.a Further complicating matters is the fact that marijuana is generally inhaled, not injected. It is therefore very difficult to give test subjects a controlled dose, short of injecting them with delta-9-THC. Doing that, though, does not tell scientists how that chemical affects humans when it is inhaled along with over 400 companion chemicals.
While common sense might indicate that breathing noxious fumes is unhealthy, proving that charge is not easy. Cancer-causing chemicals work insidiously slowly. That is why it took doctors over 60 years to realize that cigarette smoke causes cancer. So the fact that marijuana smokers do not seem to be dropping dead now does not mean that the drug is harmless. However, no one can say with certainty that marijuana smokers will one day come down with lung cancer. It may take decades before anyone really knows what marijuana’s 400 chemicals do to the human body.
Guilty Till Proved Innocent
No wonder, then, that there are so many contradictory opinions about this popular drug. Youths, though, who take this as a go-ahead for smoking marijuana are making a big mistake! In his book Marihuana Today, professor of biology George K. Russell reminds us that “among pharmacologists there is general agreement that a drug must be presumed harmful until proven otherwise”!—Italics ours.
Doctors have learned the hard way that it is risky business to call certain drugs harmless without the benefit of years of study and testing. During the 1950’s, scientists developed a drug that was hailed as a truly safe hypnotic, or sedative. Pregnant women by the hundreds took it. And then deformed babies started being born. The thalidomide disaster is thus a grim reminder that it is prudent to label a drug guilty till proved innocent.
The Jamaica Study
Why, though, have reputable publications seemingly condoned, if not endorsed, the use of marijuana? Psychology Today, for example, said: “Little clear evidence exists that [marijuana] is harmful.” But this conclusion was primarily based on a well-publicized study done in Jamaica. Psychology Today called the study “a splendid piece of anthropological research.”
At first glance the study seems authoritative. After all, it was commissioned by none other than the National Institute of Mental Health (U.S.). A team of anthropologists went to Jamaica (where ganja, a potent form of marijuana, has been popular for generations) and selected a group of 30 heavy ganja smokers and 30 nonsmokers. These were subjected to a battery of medical tests. The results? Reports the book Marihuana Today, “No significant differences” were found between the smokers and nonsmokers. The pro-marijuana faction rejoiced! ‘Finally they have proved that marijuana is harmless,’ they reasoned.
But how ‘splendid a piece of anthropological research’ was the Jamaica study? Experts point out that the study had a vital flaw: Only smokers who were in good health and who were “functioning adequately in the community” were selected for examination! No wonder that “no significant differences” between smokers and nonsmokers were found! The researchers may have eliminated from the study those who were physically and emotionally harmed by marijuana.b Too, the study has been accused of employing sloppy laboratory techniques and inadequate examination procedures. Dr. Carlton Turner, an authority on the subject, was quoted as saying that in spite of all the fuss made over this study, it “was never published by a scientific journal. It could not stand the scientific review process.”
Probably the most indicting evidence against the Jamaican study, though, comes from medical workers who have observed ganja smokers over the years. In 1972, Dr. John A. S. Hall, for example, who served from 1965 as Chairman of the Department of Medicine at Kingston Hospital, Jamaica, took exception to the claims that marijuana is harmless. He reports that lung problems and severe emotional disturbances are common among heavy ganja users.
“Serious National Concern”
In spite of all the controversy, scientists have learned some hard facts about marijuana. Recently the U.S. government sponsored the prestigious Institute of Medicine—an “independent scientific body that has not staked out a position in this highly controversial field”—to study this issue. The Institute’s panel of experts studied thousands of research papers and reached this grim conclusion: “The scientific evidence published to date indicates that marijuana has a broad range of psychological and biological effects, some of which, at least under certain conditions, are harmful to human health. . . . Our major conclusion is that what little we know for certain about the effects of marijuana on human health—and all that we have reason to suspect—justifies serious national concern.”—Italics ours.
How, though, should Christians view this matter? The Bible commands them to avoid practices that ‘defile the flesh.’ (2 Corinthians 7:1) It further tells them to “safeguard . . . thinking ability.” (Proverbs 3:21) But is there really hard evidence that marijuana is truly a threat to one’s mind and body? Future articles will explore these issues.
a Scientists say that the marijuana available in the United States today is more than five times as potent (in THC content) as that used just a few years ago! Likely this explains why earlier tests with marijuana often concluded that the drug was relatively harmless.
b Selecting subjects for testing presents another dilemma to scientists. If sick or emotionally disturbed marijuana users are examined, some argue that there is no proof that the marijuana caused their problems.
[Blurb on page 14]
‘What little we know for certain about the effects of marijuana on human health justifies serious national concern.’—Institute of Medicine in its report Marijuana and Health.
[Picture on page 13]
Youths doubt the claim that marijuana is harmful when they see professional people use it