The Ultimate Cannabis Debate: Healing Herb or Illicit Drug?

Marijuana is by far the most widely used ‘illicit’ drug in the world. In the United States and many other nations, it is a controlled substance. The American Controlled Substance Act states that cannabis is a drug with a high risk of addiction, and no proven medical value.

Its proponents point to the countless studies which suggest otherwise. The debate on whether marijuana is a dangerous drug or one with therapeutic capabilities rages on. This article looks at both sides of the story, starting with the perception that cannabis should remain prohibited.

Why Marijuana is a Dangerous Drug

One of the main strikes against marijuana is its effect on the human brain. A study by Riba et al., published in the March 2015 edition of Molecular Psychiatry, looked into this issue. The researchers found that heavy marijuana users are at greater risk of developing false memories than the general population. This is the case even if they abstain from cannabis for a month.

A study by Smith et al., published in the March 2015 edition of Hippocampus, found some troubling data. The researchers discovered that teenagers who smoked cannabis regularly were more likely to have memory problems in adulthood. Teenagers who used cannabis every day for three years had abnormally shaped hippocampal regions once they entered their twenties. Moreover, these individuals performed 18% worse than average in long-term memory tests.

A more concerning finding relates to the supposed damage marijuana can do to the heart. A 2005 study by Moore et al., published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, found that marijuana smoking is detrimental to respiratory health. The study concluded that it has “similarities to tobacco smoking” in that regard.

THC is the most abundant intoxicating compound in marijuana. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, THC can increase your heart rate by up to 50 beats a minute for up to three hours. The Journal of the American Heart Association says that regular marijuana use increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart rhythm disorders.

A review of studies published in CMAJ Open in 2018 looked at 68 reviews. It found evidence of harm in 62 of the reviews for brain changes, mental health disorders, and cognitive outcomes.

Mental Health Issues & Side Effects

Research by Washington State University in 2020 surveyed over 1,500 college students. The researchers asked the students about adverse reactions to using cannabis. The most frequent side effects included coughing fits, anxiety, and paranoia.

In a general sense, other apparent risks include potential psychosis, a heightened risk of addiction, and an enhanced risk of testicular cancer. There are also suggestions that people have died from an overdose of marijuana. There was even an erroneous claim that 37 people died from a cannabis overdose on the first day of legalization in Colorado.

Cases of marijuana overdose do occur, but the effects are NOT lethal. It can lead to symptoms such as heart palpitations, paranoia, and heightened anxiety. However, physicians know it is usually a case of allowing patients to calm down and wait for the effects to subside.

There are also instances where individuals consume too much THC and become excessively intoxicated. Ultimately, they perform a foolish and dangerous act that causes their death. As the National Cancer Institute explains, cannabinoid receptors in the brainstem areas control breathing. As a result, lethal overdoses from weed and cannabinoids don’t occur.

In 1988, Judge Francis L. Young reviewed cannabis. He concluded that a marijuana user would have to consume at least 20,000 joints for a lethal overdose to occur. In theory, lethal toxicity in humans would require the consumption of 1,500 pounds of marijuana in 15 minutes.

Dubious Science

As for the idea that marijuana damages the brain, the only evidence comes amongst individuals who use weed to excess. The famed Dunedin Study, which took place in New Zealand, is often cited as an example that cannabis lowers your IQ. The study involved following the lives of 1,037 people born in the city of Dunedin in 1972 and 1973.

The study concluded that early exposure to marijuana use resulted in a reduced IQ in adulthood. However, only the 38 ‘problematic’ users, addicts, in other words, showed a precipitous decline in their IQ. The study was a well-conducted one but still had many limitations. The most glaring was an inability to measure the impact of socioeconomic factors and personality traits.

In a follow-up study, the authors of the Dunedin study acknowledged that cannabis does NOT reduce IQ. They found that the only negative long-term effect of marijuana use was an increased risk of gum disease!

Why Marijuana is Potentially a Healing Herb

The marijuana plant grows naturally, and its cannabinoids act on the cannabinoid receptors in the human endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ancient Chinese used it medically thousands of years ago. Even in the early 20th century, you could purchase it from American pharmacies.

Everything changed once marijuana became associated with Mexican immigrants in the 1910s. By the 1930s, it was completely illegal, which made scientific research almost impossible for several decades. Now that so many states have legalized medicinal marijuana, it has become easier to find research to show its possible healing properties.

What Do the Studies Say?

Recent studies show marijuana’s positive effects on people with a wide range of conditions. These include:

  • Fibromyalgia
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Cancer
  • PTSD
  • Depression
  • Chronic pain
  • Epilepsy
  • ALS

Whiting et al. published a review of studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in June 2015. This research looked at marijuana’s effects on cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. It discovered that vomiting and nausea stopped completely in almost half of the patients who used cannabis. In comparison, the symptoms only stopped in 20% of patients who used a placebo.

A review by Koppel et al., published in the American Academy of Neurology in April 2014, looked at cannabis’ effects on pain in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS). It found that patients who used an oral cannabis extract reduced feelings of burning, tingling, and numbness. The extract was made either from CBD only or a combination of THC and CBD,

A study by Wilsey et al., published in the Journal of Pain in 2013, analyzed the effect of vaporized cannabis on patients with neuropathic pain. It is worth mentioning that the 39 patients could not find relief from any other source of medication. Overall, the research team discovered that cannabis successfully reduced the level of neuropathic pain.

There are several million people who use medical marijuana for a wide array of conditions. MMJ users also try cannabis to combat Spinal Cord Disease, Arthritis, HIV/AIDS, Insomnia, and Inflammatory Bowel Disease. It has also become increasingly popular in palliative care.

What About Addiction?

The false notion that cannabis is a ‘gateway drug’ continues to lead the conversation. There is NO evidence that individuals who use marijuana regularly are more likely to consume ‘harder’ drugs such as heroin.

Is it addictive? The answer is ‘yes,’ BUT at a rate far lower than widely available drugs. Most estimates suggest that approximately 9% of marijuana users will develop a serious addiction. In comparison, 32% of tobacco users, 23% of heroin users, and 17% of cocaine users become severely addicted. More pertinently, an estimated 15% of alcohol users develop a life-threatening addiction.

Gambling, high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, opioids, and caffeine are all easily accessible. They are all harmful to some degree and carry greater addiction rates than cannabis. Yes, cannabis is addictive to a certain level. However, research clearly states that many legal substances are significantly more addictive and harmful.

The Verdict: Dangerous Drug or Healing Herb?

Practically all of the evidence that suggests marijuana is bad for humans is based on studies involving chronic users. However, it is irresponsible for us to say that marijuana is 100% safe. The truth is, we still don’t have nearly enough evidence to form a solid hypothesis. There is research that outlines the dangers of chronic use.

It is very likely that using marijuana excessively as a teenager increases your risk of becoming severely addicted to the drug. Smoking cannabis in the same manner as tobacco cigarettes could prove harmful to your lungs because the combustion process emits carcinogenic substances.

If you decide to try marijuana recreationally or medicinally, please take precautions. Consider using a vaporizer or consuming an edible rather than smoking it. Also, you must begin with a lower dose to determine your tolerance level. Like any drug, long-term chronic use and dependence are physically, mentally, and emotionally harmful.

In answer to the question posed initially, marijuana potentially a healing herb when used responsibly. Once you develop dependence and become a chronic user, there is a danger of it becoming a dangerous drug.

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