While the debates over legalized marijuana rage, who is taking the time to ask the right questions and look at the facts?
PART 1: IF IT’S LEGAL, ISN’T IT SAFE?
Efforts to legalize the use of marijuana—for both “medicinal” and recreational purposes—continue to grow and find success in the halls of state and national governments. In mid-2018, Canada is set to become the first G7 nation to legalize recreational marijuana nationwide.
Is there cause for concern? Is the drug as harmless as its advocates claim? What danger is there in using marijuana?
This two-part Tomorrow’s World series by Stuart Wachowicz will answer these questions and more!
Over the past few years, numerous significant social changes have assailed the Western world—changes that have made our present social environment nearly unrecognizable to those who would have lived only two or three generations ago. Whether altered social roles of men and women, national and international security issues, communication via social media, evolving gender definitions, or even how right and wrong are determined—so much has changed.
In the 1960s, the first rumblings of social revolution shook the Western world, as a young generation widely embraced concepts of free love, rejecting centuries-old moral values and turning increasingly to hallucinogenic drugs for entertainment and escapism. The “hippie” movement of this era popularized one ancient hallucinogen, known as marijuana or cannabis. Since that time, marijuana use has grown exponentially in North America, despite its classification as an illegal drug. Both organized crime and local growers saw lucrative opportunities to market the drug to a growing audience. Huge—and costly—efforts have been made to enforce marijuana prohibition, with limited success.
Mounting pressure from advocacy groups and media have gradually led to a greater public—and hence political—movement to decriminalize or legalize marijuana. Currently, the legislatures in eight states in the U.S. have approved complete legalization, while others have varying degrees of decriminalization, along with tolerance of “medical” marijuana. Canada’s Liberal government has already approved legislation that would legalize cannabis by July 1, 2018. Obviously, governments view legalization as a popular measure—good for votes in subsequent elections.
There seem to be two driving rationales for decriminalization, or legalization. The first is a growing social belief that marijuana is a benign substance, and bodes no ill for the user’s health or society’s well-being. The second is a sense that law enforcement continues to spend vast resources on marijuana prohibition to little avail, while the drug’s illegal status allows organized crime to benefit from trading it. Hence, many reason that if marijuana were legal, public resources could be deployed elsewhere, while drug profits would benefit the economy and not criminals.
It seems most people now agree with these two positions. What could possibly be wrong with legalizing a harmless substance and denying criminals a marketplace? Yet there are voices of opposition. Oddly enough, the loudest objections to marijuana legalization come not from ultraconservatives or religious movements, but from a host of medical researchers. The pro-marijuana lobby heaps scorn on these voices, but offers little peer-reviewed research to counter the findings of some of the most respected medical institutions on earth. So what major concerns has modern medical research identified?
The use of marijuana as a hallucinogen is not new. For centuries, the lower classes of the Indian subcontinent heavily used marijuana. There are extensive historical references to such users living in poor conditions in towns, cities and rural areas. Such people were normally considered unmotivated, and were generally marginalized.
Interestingly, in 2013 Psychology Today reported a study published by scientists at Imperial College London and King’s College London that strongly linked significant marijuana usage to lower dopamine levels in the brain. Decreased dopamine impacts neurochemical levels in the brain and reduces motivation, making one prone to “amotivational syndrome” (“Does Long-Term Cannabis Use Stifle Motivation?” Psychology Today, July 2, 2013). This explains the ill-repute of ancient India’s marijuana smokers. Numerous clinical observations have supported this effect of cannabis in regular users.
This is alarming because of the scale of marijuana use. The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction (CCSA) reports: “The number of youth (22%) and young adults (26%) who used marijuana in 2013 was more than two and a half times that of adults 25 and older (8%) according to Statistics Canada’s Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol and Drug Survey” (“Marijuana and Youth,” ccdus.ca).
Now, with impending legalization, those numbers are increasing, prompting physicians to sound an alarm—one that the political class is apparently ignoring.
The Partnership for a Drug Free Canada has for years presented reputable, peer-reviewed, scientific studies showing the dangers and the social and economic costs of marijuana use. Yet, despite health experts’ endorsement of these studies, social pressure is driving the political agenda.
Who is right? Are concerns about cannabis unfounded? Surely, many will assume, if cannabis use is so widespread, it must not be very harmful to society. For example, some will point out that according to the CCSA, Canadian youth have the highest rate of marijuana use of any country in the developed world, yet without apparent detriment. However, looking a little deeper makes the scientists’ warnings appear more ominous.
The American Psychiatric Association publication Psychiatric News reported on a study appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine. The report concluded that “marijuana use is linked to multiple adverse effects—particularly in youth” (“Research Review Prompts NIDA Warning About Marijuana Use,” Psychiatric News, July 3, 2014). Lead researcher Dr. Nora Volkow stressed “that long-term marijuana use can lead to addiction…. The regular use of marijuana during adolescence is of particular concern, since use by this age group is associated with an increased likelihood of deleterious consequences.” The authors articulated that in 77 studies and literature reviews, negative health consequences were associated with marijuana usage.
The Globe and Mail reported on April 12, 2017 that the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Psychiatric Association and the Canadian Paediatric Society had been expressing their concerns to the Canadian government, with seemingly little impact (“What Canada’s doctors are concerned about with marijuana legalization,” TheGlobeAndMail.com). They are especially concerned about users under the age of 25, for up until that time the brain is still developing. Professor Christina Grant of McMaster University states, “We know that 1 in 7 teenagers who start using cannabis will develop cannabis-use disorder”—a condition that destructively impacts the teenager’s school, work, and family relationships.
The same paper presents evidence showing a strong link to psychosis development in cannabis users with a family history of mental illness, even indicating that no researched “safe limit” for marijuana usage exists. Dr. Grant continues, stressing that research shows teens who smoke pot frequently suffer long-lasting damage to maturing brains, manifesting issues such as reductions in memory capacity, attention span, and higher-level decision-making abilities. She also adds that MRI studies have shown “thinning” of the developing brain’s cortex, a region critical for thinking, planning and organizing.
Two years ago, the Ottawa Citizen reported on research from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA): “Teens who start smoking marijuana early and do so frequently risk lowering their IQ scores.” The article goes on to state:
“The growing body of evidence about the effects of cannabis use during adolescence is reason for concern,” said Amy Porath-Waller, the CCSA’s lead researcher on the issue…. “There is a need to take a pause and consider that this is the future of our country. We certainly want to prepare our youth so they can be productive members of society in terms of employment so there certainly is reason that Canada needs to be concerned about cannabis use among young people.” Equally concerning, she said, is the perception among many Canadian youth that cannabis is benign and has no effect on their ability to drive or their performance in school (“Early marijuana use can lower teens’ IQs, research shows,” OttawaCitizen.com, April 20, 2015).
Ironically, Canada’s government is pushing to legalize marijuana even as the nation’s official department of health, Health Canada, is giving dire warnings about pot’s proven medical hazards—all supported by recent, credible medical research. Health Canada’s website lists a decline in physical coordination and reaction time, loss of attention span, and reduced decision-making ability. It cites a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (“Persistent cannabis users show neuropsychological decline from childhood to midlife,” October 2, 2012), which demonstrated a permanent decline in IQ among persistent users. Health Canada also documents the associated risk of cannabis users’ developing psychosis or schizophrenia.
Marijuana’s effects can even impact an unborn child if the mother is a user. On its website, under “Health effects of cannabis,” Health Canada states: “The toxins in cannabis are carried through the mother’s blood to her fetus during pregnancy and in the breast milk following birth. Heavy cannabis use during pregnancy can lead to lower birth weight of the baby.” The government site also points out that such use by pregnant mothers has been associated with long-term developmental impacts on the children, including decreases in memory function, attention span, and problem-solving skills, as well as hyperactivity and a higher risk that the child will engage in substance abuse in the future.
All of these studies reflect more than numbers and statistics—they represent heartbreaking consequences in the lives of those damaged by marijuana use.
Some time ago, I received a letter telling the tragic story of a life irreparably altered from birth by pot. A section of the letter reads as follows: “I was what you would call a third-generation marijuana smoker. I was born into it… My first breath taken in this world wasn’t a lung full of fresh air, but weed smoke!… I could not learn reading, writing and arithmetic at an appropriate pace with others my age.”
The author of the letter indicated that marijuana drew him into a crowd that used “weed” and other drugs. While under the influence of pot, he began committing crimes, as the drug reduces one’s sense of consequence. By the age of 21, he found himself on death row in an Arkansas prison, convicted of multiple murders committed under the influence of the “harmless” drug, marijuana.
The writer, Kenneth Williams, came to terms with his situation and sought to warn others who have been, or may be, deceived by the lie that marijuana is harmless. He took full responsibility for his crimes, yet his life and learning ability were damaged even before his birth. He wrote a book to serve as a warning on this matter: The Unrelenting Burdens of Gang Bangers. In it, he wrote: “I share my story to warn others walking into darkness. Drugs like marijuana have led many to their deaths or a cold prison cell. It is harmful to users and to the nation. I am a living witness—at least for the time being.” Mr. Williams’ story bears out warnings provided by the Canadian Medical Association and, as we’ve seen, even by the Government of Canada’s own website. He was executed on April 28, 2017.
In a 2015 report entitled “Marijuana,” the Partnership for a Drug-Free Canada noted that even if one ignores the dangers of the hallucinogenic ingredient (tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC), smoking pot is still very damaging to human health: “Regardless of the THC content, the amount of tar inhaled by marijuana smokers and the level of carbon monoxide absorbed are three to five times greater than among tobacco smokers.”
We can add to these facts that marijuana’s higher burning temperature, combined with its smoking method, causes increased loss of cilia in the lungs, leading to increases in rates of life-threatening emphysema. (See, for example, Megan Howden and Matthew Naughton’s report, “Pulmonary Effects of Marijuana Inhalation,” on Medscape.com).
Interestingly, for years the Canadian Cancer Society has lobbied against tobacco smoking, winning widespread public support—yet many of the same people who wisely oppose tobacco usage often seem unconcerned about findings that marijuana is many times more damaging to the human lung.
Nor is the heart immune. Widely published physician and researcher Dr. Andrew Pipe and scientist Dr. Robert Reid, of the Ottawa Heart Institute’s Division of Prevention and Rehabilitation, have expressed serious concern over ongoing or increased use of cannabis in the general public. The online heart and cardiovascular research publication The Beat reported in June 2017 on their findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (2014) and the American Heart Journal (2013):
The authors found that marijuana use has been associated with vascular conditions that increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, although the mechanisms by which that happens aren’t clear.…
[Dr. Reid] also noted that marijuana use could be problematic for people with an irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, because it activates the sympathetic nervous system (“Legalized Marijuana and Your Heart,” The Beat, June 2017).
The article emphasized two impacts to your heart that occur when you use marijuana: both heart rate and blood pressure increase, and the blood’s ability to carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body is reduced. It summarizes the cumulative cardiovascular burden by saying, “The result is strain on your heart and a reduced ability to handle increased demands.”
As the saying goes, people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. And the facts about the dangers of marijuana to human health and well-being—whether it has been made legal or not—are all too clear. For those who take the Bible’s admonition to care for their body as God’s temple (1 Corinthians 6:19) created in His own image (Genesis 1:26–27), their response should be just as clear: “Legal or not, it’s not for me!”
But beyond questions of mental and physical health, other facets of the debate are heard in the halls of our various legislatures and from the lecterns of our academic institutions: What about the potential to reduce crime and drug use, in general, by legalizing pot? What about the professed benefits of “medical marijuana”? And—regrettably, the question too few are asking—what does God think about all of this?
For answers to these questions, look in the next issue of Tomorrow’s World for the conclusion in part two of our report!