MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Guest post by Michelle Dunbar

According to the CDC, more than 30,000 people died as a result of a drug overdose in 2010. Of those deaths none were attributed to marijuana. Instead the vast majority were linked to drugs that are legally prescribed such as opiates, anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, tranquilizers and benzodiazepines. As misuse and abuse of prescription medications continues to rise, the marijuana legalization debate is also heating up.

Nearly 100 years of propaganda, fear mongering and blatant misinformation regarding marijuana has taken its toll on our society. As the veil of lies surrounding marijuana is being lifted, more and more people are pushing for legalization. Marijuana is now legal for both medicinal and recreational use in two states and other states are introducing legislation of their own. Marijuana is approved for medicinal use with a prescription in 21 states and also Washington, D.C. with most other states expected to introduce legislation to approve use for medicinal purposes in the next few years.

Last year Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the medical correspondent for CNN, aired a controversial documentary, “Weed”, where he showed various promising medicinal uses for marijuana. He admits that he was wrong for many years about marijuana legalization, and after doing his own extensive research he is encouraged by the many real life cases he has seen where people with chronic, serious medical issues have been and continue to be helped by marijuana. He noted that marijuana does not have the dangerous side effects that many prescription medications do and that it is actually safer than many drugs being prescribed today. Dr. Gupta said in the program that there is not one documented case where death was due to marijuana overdose and he is right.

But as with any systematic paradigm shift, there will always be those whose minds are closed to change. So as the march toward legalization continues, there is new anti-legalization propaganda being written and spread through mainstream and social media. There have been multiple reports out of Colorado that there are now deaths attributed to marijuana overdose. Some say children were involved which automatically evokes feelings of fear in parents across the country. But when I tried to find more reliable sources to verify these articles, none existed. The AP reported on April 2 that a Wyoming college student jumped to his death in Colorado after eating a marijuana cookie while on Spring Break in Colorado. The autopsy listed marijuana intoxication as a “significant contributing factor” in the teen’s death. (Gurman)

Like alcohol, Colorado bans the sale of marijuana and marijuana edibles to people under the age of 21. But much like alcohol, teens that want to get it will always find a way. This young man was just 19, and his death has been ruled accidental. While it is true his death is tragic, is it a reason to reverse the course with marijuana? If you believe this is the case then you must consider the real dangers posed by alcohol. Many people who would like to see marijuana legalized say that it is much safer than the legal drug alcohol. Based solely on the numbers of hospitalizations and deaths, especially with young people, they would be right.

According to an article posted on Forbes.com in March of this year, “1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each school year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries.” The author, Dr. Robert Glatter, MD attributes these deaths to one of the leading health risks facing our young people, and that is binge drinking. This number is quite small in comparison to emergency room visits and hospitalizations of young people that are a direct result of alcohol use.

Taking the most heat are the marijuana edibles that are now for sale in states where marijuana has become legal. The concern is that children are eating marijuana laced candy and baked goods and becoming ill. This would seem to be confirmed by an article in USA Today that reported that calls to the Rocky Mountain Poison Control is Colorado regarding marijuana ingestion in children had risen to 70 cases last year. While they admitted that this number was low, it was the rapid rise from years previous that caused concern. To put this in perspective, there are approximately 1.4 million pediatric poisonings each year involving prescription medications not including marijuana. (Henry, et.al) That is an average of approximately 28,000 calls per state. Tragically several hundreds of these cases result in deaths of these children, with the highest rates of death involving narcotics, sedatives and anti-depressants. (Henry, et.al.)

Of those 70 cases reported in Colorado involving marijuana, none resulted in death. The results are quite clear marijuana is as safe as prescription drugs are dangerous. For those who want to weigh in on the marijuana legalization debate, it is important to do your research, look at the big picture and put everything in perspective. Alcohol is legal and heavily regulated, yet its use is linked to thousands of deaths each year. Prescription drugs are legal and heavily regulated, yet they too are linked to thousands of deaths each year. Marijuana, on the other hand, is not legal and not available in much of the country, and thus far has not caused one death from overdose ever.

Additionally, research is showing marijuana has promise in treating many diseases more effectively and safely than dangerous prescription medications being used today. From cancer to epilepsy to depression and anxiety, to chronic autoimmune diseases, scientists are just scratching the surface when it comes to the potential life-changing and perhaps even, life-saving uses for marijuana.

 

References:

Drug Overdose in the United States: Fact Sheet. (2014, February 10). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved May 4, 2014, from http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/overdose/facts.html

Glatter, R. (2014, March 11). Spring Break’s Greatest Danger. Forbes. Retrieved May 5, 2014, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/robertglatter/2014/03/11/spring-breaks-greatest-danger/

Gurman, S. (2014, April 2). Young man leaps to death after eating pot-laced cookie. USA Today. Retrieved May 5, 2014, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/04/02/marijuana-pot-edible-death-colorado-denver/7220685/

Henry, K., & Harris, C. R. (2006). Deadly Ingestions. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 53(2), 293-315.

Hughes, T. (2014, April 2). Colo. Kids getting into parents’ pot-laced goodies. USA Today. Retrieved May 5, 2014 from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/04/02/marijuana-pot-edibles-colorado/7154651/

10 Responses to The Marijuana Debate

  • The medical information being put forth pro and con is unreliable. There are just too many agendas behind all the claims. I favor leagalization because the penalties are so out of proportion to the offense of marijuana use. I do not see any way of getting rid of the irrational penal codes without legalization. After that I expect the benefits to less than hoped for medically. As for the risks of long term inhalation of burned plant products, we will have to see in this case. Reducing the role of the DEA, law enforcement and the department of “corrections” would be a clear social benefit and we have data for that.

  • Who is this person–Michelle Dunbar–and why is she posting here? The references are paltry. I welcome an honest discussion of THC, but will never believe that is makes sense to SMOKE anything. The post is simply an unsupported argument of special pleading. I agree with David CT, but wush someone, somewhere would report on marijuana with reliable references.

  • My apologies for the typos–the iPad seems to pull them out of the ether as I do not see them until after posting, even when I proof! Not so when I use the computer–weird.

  • While it’s true that is irrational zealotry at large in the anti-cannabis camp, there is also plenty of conspiracism and quackery in the opposing camp too – believing that cannabis “cures” cancer and it’s a plot by govt/Big Pharma to suppress this.

    The situation was well summarized by a blog post from Cancer Research UK. (I note they had to close the comments here because of the shit storm this topic always seems to generate.

    While there appears to be some evidence that cannabis-derived substances may have potential for some applications in cancer treatment, particularly in alleviating symptoms, there is no good evidence that cannabis “cures” cancer. I worry that the politics and fetishism over this substance (particularly in the US) attracts too much research attention that could more profitably be spent looking in other directions.

  • There are countless substances and activities people do or not do that they should have the freedom to choose for themselves — but are the focus of exorbitant amounts of government funding, regulations and enforcements. Most of these are equally controversial and of questionable scientific evidence…and costly to taxpayers. The marijuana debate is disingenuine without simultaneously calling to stop government interference in a vast range of things designed to control behavior — healthy eating and wellness programs, fat taxes, a surprising number of preventive wellness screenings and interventions, etc. Political correctness is virtually just marketing and political power. Under Obamacare, for instance, citizens are forced to pay for accupuncture, chiropractics, menu labeling, electronic medical records, and a range of ineffective and even dangerous things.

  • My article was simply to provoke thought about the marijuana debate. I am an expert on addiction and have been working with people struggling with substance use problems for 25 years. Many people are shocked to learn that I support legalization, for much the same reasons that DavidCT mentioned. The war on drugs is about growing the size of government and government control, and has very little to do with drugs itself. You truly can’t save people from themselves. Prohibition doesn’t work, it didn’t for alcohol and it doesn’t for drugs. But in the case of marijuana specifically, it is true that use of THC (not necessarily smoking it — there are other safer ways to ingest THC) and other substances in marijuana help with some neurological disorders, including epilepsy. This hits very close to home for me as my husband suffers from epilepsy and has been taking dangerous anti-convulsive meds now for more than 30 years. Those drugs have taken their toll on his liver and other organs, but we currently live in a state where medical marijuana is not yet legal or available so he must stay on them indefinitely. If he stops taking them he can have up to 100 or more seizures daily. So you ask who I am; I’m someone who has a lot more at stake in this debate than most people. I’m sorry my references were not up to your standards Irene, it was my understanding that this article needed to be interesting and easy for most people to understand. Perhaps it was too simplistic. So many people have strong opinions based on what they think they know that my real goal was to provoke thought and get people to do a bit of their own research on the topic before forming an opinion.

  • “Additionally, research is showing marijuana has promise in treating many diseases more effectively and safely than dangerous prescription medications being used today. From cancer to epilepsy to depression and anxiety…”

    Oh please, pretty please, Michelle, refrain from constructing false dichotomies. The treatments for depression and anxiety are not limited to prescription medications OR marijuana. Cognitive behaviour therapy is just one of many psychological treatments that have far more evidence for efficacy than marijuana.

    You most certainly have provoked thought about the marijuana debate: my apologies to all for not responding earlier.

  • They’ve been using marijuana in Israel for 20 years for PTSD.

    About 5 years ago the American Thoracic Society came out with the results of the largest study ever done on the association of head and neck tumors, throat and thoracic cancer in Heavy Marijuana uses.

    They founf no such correlation… At All and actually did find the marijuana smokers seemingly had some protection for smoking marijuana.

    ANd in a more recent study it said marijuana smokers had a larger lung capacity because of constantly holding your breath.

    It is no wonder that Michael Phelps has such Tremendous Lung Capacity ???

    He is known to hit a Bong every now and then.

  • Marijuana, on the other hand, is not legal and not available in much of the country, and thus far has not caused one death from overdose ever.
    I have a big problem with this claim. If something is not available, it seems reasonable to think that it causes no direct harm, but surely, that isn’t much to go on when deciding on its safety?

    Just because no deaths are reported is by no means a good enough basis for claiming that there are no such deaths. It is akin to acupuncturists or herbalists saying that their administrations have no risks. Marijuana is illegal, and therefore, reporting it as a probable/possible cause of death can have unfortunate consequences. If anything, this would be an argument for decriminalisation or legalisation because – given enough time – one could reasonably expect reporting to become better, and death by marijuana – if it exists – would unavoidably pop up over time.

    People who claim that marijuana is safe because it causes no deaths (no, I am NOT accusing Michelle Dunbar) have a very peculiar understanding of the word harm. Someone need not be killed for something to be harmful. I would argue that death can sometimes be the lesser of the harms caused by whatever product/disease/activity is under discussion. Measles-caused brain damage and the unfortunate effects of thalidomide come to mind.

    Also, just because alcohol is legal, is not a particularly convincing reason to legalise marijuana. After all, the fact that we are allowing people to climb Mount Everest and die there with great enthusiasm, does not seem to encourage us to allow people to go free climb Toronto’s CN Tower and splash down from there. I am not convinced that allowing this would be the better decision.

    That said, I am very much in favour of legalisation (and very much against mere “decriminalisation”, which I see as a severely discounted ticket for criminals to go all-out), not just of marijuana but all recreational drugs. Legalisation will make a lot of things a lot simpler. It will force criminals to leave this obscenely profitable field and look for other pastures. Quality control, which is now non-existent, will become easier to implement and monitor, at least for commercial growers. Studies of its effects will become a lot easier as well.

    It stands to reason that, unchecked, addiction would skyrocket, at least for a while. In a (perhaps futile) attempt to mitigate this, legalisation should go hand in hand with education. Why not, for example, have something akin to a drivers’ licence for marijuana (and other drug) users, which one would get after following lessons and succeeding in some type of test, before getting legal access to marijuana? People would then still have the (ill-advised) freedom to ignore the advice, but they would at least not be able to use the “ich habe es nicht gewüßt” defence when it goes wrong, and as Michelle Dunbar knows well-enough, it often does, regardless of how harmless this stuff is claimed to be.

    Even though I went to art school in the 70s, I have never used marijuana, and I never will. I just saw and see no good reason for a behaviour that has no demonstrable benefits. In my opinion, a “high” is not a benefit. Marijuana alters the brain, even if only temporarily, and it is completely unclear to me why I would want that for anything but pressing medical reasons and only if there are demonstrable benefits and only if these outweigh the risks.

    I see only one reasonable exception to this: the use in/by patients for whom there are no reasonable expectations of improvement, i.e. patients who lead miserable lives that are just about guaranteed to get worse. In such cases, we can – and probably should – ignore the detrimental effect(s), real or imegined, since the only reasonable alternatives are suicide or euthanasia. If marijuana could help these people to enjoy life just a little longer or admire one more sunrise, that would be totally worth it.

    The “promising” medical properties of marijuana do not seem a good argument in favour of its legalisation. Acupuncture was once promising as well, so were cocaine and bloodletting and calomel. Unless I am mistaken, responsible medical doctors no longer prescribe these once-promising products. “promising” does not equate to “beneficial”.

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