Hard Scrutiny for a "Soft" Drug

New Studies Point to Health Dangers of Marijuana

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OAKLAND, California, JAN. 25, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The controversy over marijuana for medical treatment came into focus again this week as a court case got under way in California. Ed Rosenthal, who promotes the use of marijuana, went on trial in a federal court in San Francisco, the New York Times reported Jan. 21.



Rosenthal is on trial for his role in growing marijuana for medical use. His business operates under the local laws of the city of Oakland, which allow for medical marijuana. Federal authorities are fighting against the spread of such municipal ordinances.

California voters in 1996 approved a referendum, Proposition 215, which allows for medicinal marijuana. Since then another eight states have passed similar laws -- and legal battles have ensued, the Times said. Still unresolved is he underlying conflict between state laws, which permit medicinal marijuana, and federal law, which considers all marijuana use illegal.

An initial wave of referendums in past years had approved limited use of marijuana (also known as cannabis). But last autumn's polls saw a reversal, the Washington Times reported Nov. 26. Voters in Nevada rejected a move to legalize the sale and use of 3 ounces or less of marijuana. Voters in Ohio and Arizona turned down proposals to allow the drug for medical purposes.

Even before November, marijuana proposals had run into problems. Earlier in the year, medicinal-marijuana advocates in Florida failed to gather enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot. In Michigan, the state Supreme Court barred a proposal from the November ballot because of technical errors in the wording.

The gateway debate

One argument cited by opponents of marijuana is that users will then pass on to other, more dangerous drugs. This debate intensified in December when a RAND study seemed to support legalizers by saying that marijuana is not a gateway to other drugs.

Many of the media stories on the study were inaccurate, the Christian Science Monitor reported Dec. 16. Andrew Morral of RAND told the newspaper that he did everything he could to explain that the study did not disprove the gateway theory, but many did not want to listen.

The study, in fact, discovered a high incidence of progression from marijuana to heroin and cocaine use. RAND also found that the younger a first-time marijuana user is, and the more often he uses it, the more likely he is to end up turning to cocaine and heroin.

The problems of interpretation arose when the study noted that addicts might have a natural tendency toward drug use -- and that marijuana is just the first illegal drug they come across.

Another marijuana study recently appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Based on 311 sets of Australian twins, the study supports the idea that marijuana can lead to harder drugs, the Associated Press reported Jan. 21.

Only one of each of the twins had smoked marijuana before reaching age 17. Researchers found that the early marijuana smokers were up to five times more likely than their twin to move on to harder drugs. They were about twice as likely to use opiates, including heroin, and five times more likely to use hallucinogens, such as LSD.

The lead researcher, Michael Lynskey, admitted that the study has several limitations, including relying on participants' reporting of their own experiences. And it doesn't explain why early marijuana use may lead to harder drugs.

More carbon monoxide

What does seem clear is that marijuana use poses serious health risks. Many have incorrect ideas about marijuana, said John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, in an AP article Sept. 17. More teens enter rehabilitation centers to treat marijuana addiction than alcohol or all other illegal drugs combined, Walters said.

U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona noted that marijuana contains three to five times more tar and carbon monoxide than tobacco. And it affects the brain in ways similar to cocaine and heroin.

In the United Kingdom, the British Lung Foundation published a report stating that marijuana cigarettes have up to 50% more cancer-causing agents than tobacco, the Telegraph reported Nov. 11. The Lung Foundation said that 1960s research suggesting that cannabis cigarettes were safe can no longer be relied on. "Three or four cannabis cigarettes are equivalent to smoking 20 tobacco cigarettes a day in terms of the risk of lung damage," the report says.

Moreover, marijuana smokers tend to inhale four times more smoke with a cannabis cigarette, added Dame Helena Shovelton, chief executive of the foundation. "You inhale deeper and hold your breath with the smoke for longer before exhaling," she explained. "This results in more poisonous carbon monoxide and tar entering the lungs."

The mental health of marijuana users also raises concerns. Dr. Deepak Cyril D'Souza, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, said that people who smoke a lot of cannabis for a long period of time might be at higher risk of developing schizophrenia, BBC reported Nov. 6.

D'Souza presented new evidence on the link between cannabis and schizophrenia at the Institute of Psychiatry, at Maudsley Hospital in London. His research suggests cannabis may induce psychosis by its action on cannabinoid receptors in the brain.

Similar concerns were raised in a series of articles published in the Nov. 23 issue of the British Medical Journal. "The link between cannabis and psychosis is well established, and recent studies have found a link between use of marijuana and depression," the journal stated.

Regarding a link between marijuana and depression, the Journal admitted that there have been few studies on the subject. However, with the publication of new studies on groups in the United States and Australia, there is growing evidence of a relationship between the two.

While admitting the difficulties of establishing a direct causal relation between marijuana use and mental health problems, the Journal did state: "The explanation most accepted is that cannabis triggers the onset or relapse of schizophrenia in predisposed people and also exacerbates the symptoms generally."

Doubts had been raised over the methodology of some previous studies. As well, that many marijuana consumers also used other drugs led some to speculate that the other substances were to blame for the mental problems. But the Nov. 23 issue of the British Medical Journal published a new study that confirmed the earlier findings and established that it is marijuana, and not other drugs, that is associated with schizophrenia.

The Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, in its pastoral handbook on drugs published in an English translation last year, noted the health problems due to marijuana and stated: "Considering all the facts, it is irresponsible to consider cannabis in a trivial way and to think of it as being a 'soft drug.'" Medical evidence is increasingly showing the hard wisdom of this position.