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Health Research
Agnus Alexander | agnusalexander122

Is Marijuana Destined For America’s Medicine Cabinets?

Dec 23rd 2013 at 4:00 AM

Or is our average stash too big to fit in there?

At last count, there were 18 states wherein the medicinal use of marijuana was now legal, at least 13 states in which its possession had been downsized from a crime to an infraction, and six states wherein it was both medically permitted and a hand slap offense. And oh yeah, two states, Colorado and Washington, where it was for all practical purposes perfectly okay. Indeed, some pol watchers are now laying down early bets on what will become legal in a majority of states first: pot or gay marriage?

Although the dominoes seem to be falling marijuana’s way, there are a lot of reasons to put your money on same-sex weddings. Not the least of these is the fact that the use of marijuana remains a federal crime, and will continue to be one until and unless reversed by a vote of Congress, and the last time that the U.S. Congress actually voted to do something to make life simpler for the American public was…ummm…hm. Let me get back to you on that.

Beyond that, there are several anti-legalization arguments in the opposition’s quiver. Some of them are moral, but a very recent Pew Research Center survey found that the percentage of U.S. adults who believe pot smoking to be somehow immoral has sunk from around 50 percent in 2006 to around 30 percent today. The fact that it has been reduced to a minor offense in both Nebraska and Mississippi, two absolutely beet-red states, gives you a good idea of how much juice the immorality argument has these days.

The one anti-legalization position that does enjoy plausibility, and thus must be taken seriously, is the health aspect. Is smoking pot bad for you, and will it ultimately increase the number of unhealthy Americans and thus our health-care costs? It is certainly unhealthy in the sense that inhaling hot smoke into your lungs and holding it there is not what your DNA designed them for, but there is no persuasive evidence that it is carcinogenic (at least one study found lower cancer rates among pot smokers) or, when used in moderation, a source of widespread health problems. As for any increased health care costs, they will have to be considerable to exceed what we now spend on federal anti-pot programs — which, incidentally, 72 percent of us believe “cost more than they are worth.”

The long-term effect of pot smoking on the brain’s emotional and cognitive health is still up in the air, although it seems most disruptive and problematic among young people, whose brains are still developing. Along with tobacco and alcohol, it’s wise to keep it illegal for persons under 21 or so, and good luck with that.

Some pot opponents have invoked our national obesity epidemic as a major health problem that will only be fueled and worsened if pot becomes acceptable. The problem with that is that researchers who’ve looked into the subject have found quite the opposite. As noted in my lovely e-book, “115 Reasons Why It’s Not Your Fault If You’re Fat,” at least two studies of American pot smokers have found that the obesity rate among regular tokers is a fairly consistent 8 percent less than among the nonsmoking population.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. My personal knowledge of typical pot smokers — which, since I have lived in Berkeley, is extensive — tells me that they tend to be, if anything, more health-conscious, outdoorsy, and vegan or vegetarian than average. Evidently, the combination of hiking and tofu offsets the munchie effect.

One case that might be made against medicinal pot, however, is that it is superfluous; that it can be replaced by chemicals that duplicate its medicinal, but not its recreational or disorienting, properties. The latest of these is a form of synthetic pot called dronabinol, which contains the pain-reducing element of cannabinol and has been found to relieve pain for almost twice as long as smoked marijuana, 4.5 hours versus 2.5 hours on average, and without the high or lung hazards. But it takes an hour to work, 45 minutes longer than smoking, and the study involved a small sample of people who regularly smoked pot and did not suffer chronic pain.

And pot has certain medicinal applications that no pill or capsule can duplicate, specifically its ability to soothe or eliminate nausea. Medication that tends to get vomited right up tends to be ineffective.

What is most frustrating about attempting to assess the overall health impact of legal pot is that despite the fact it is now more common than regular church attendance — nearly one-third of adult Americans have tried it, and some 5 million smoke it daily — we have conducted precious little research to discover the clinical truth. In large measure, that is because the laws against it have militated against openly studying its effect on people. Volunteers, wary of the possibility of a string operation, may be hard to come by. Scholars may find grant money for organized lawbreaking even more elusive.

So there’s your irony for the day: The more that marijuana becomes legal, the more research can and will be done to determine whether letting it become legal was a good idea. Well played, American legal system.

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