Is Medical Marijuana a Safe Choice?

48740028_pThe recent death of musician and cultural icon Prince from an overdose of fentanyl has brought attention to what the US Centers for Control and Prevention (CDC) calls an epidemic of opioid overdose deaths, at least half of them from prescription drugs.  Like opioids, marijuana alleviates pain, but it has never been shown to cause a single death. Is legalizing medical marijuana a viable alternative to dangerous drugs?

Marijuana has been used medicinally worldwide for thousands of years. It was recognized as a medicine in the US until 1930. However in 1970, Congress classified it as an illegal “Schedule I” drug: a dangerous drug with high potential for abuse and without any medicinal value.

But times they are a-changin’. Twenty-six states have legalized medical marijuana. The Obama administration has refrained from enforcing federal marijuana laws in these states, and both presidential candidates have said they would do likewise. Four states— Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and Washington—have even legalized recreational marijuana.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been pressured to re-evaluate marijuana as a safer alternative to drugs used to treat pain, the nausea produced by chemotherapy, and a number of nervous system, emotional and other disorders. Any day now the DEA is expected to render its decision on reclassifying  marijuana as a Schedule II drug, thus legalizing it for medicinal purposes.

But, although safer than pharmaceuticals, medical marijuana is certainly not risk-free.

Short-term, marijuana affects mood, perception, psychomotor coordination, and increases heart rate and heart palpitations. It also suppresses immunity and increases susceptibility to cancer.  Chronic, long-term use has been associated with respiratory damage and cognitive impairments that worsen with increasing years of marijuana use. Chronic use increases risk for depression and schizophrenia, especially in teenagers.

Addiction and dependency are also real possibilities. Recreational drugs are neurotoxins, suppressing (poisoning) certain parts of the nervous system. At the same they over-stimulate production of the “reward” neurotransmitter dopamine. Over time this can lead to dopamine depletion and the inability to feel good without more and more stimulation. A recent study found that nearly 3 out of 10 marijuana users manifested a marijuana use disorder.

Teenagers are especially drawn to experimenting with marijuana, and a recent national survey found that less than half of the youths aged 12-17 they questioned saw “great risk” in smoking marijuana once or twice a week. Yet at this age, when the brain is still developing, the risk for future addiction and cognitive and mental health issues is very great indeed.

Although health risks associated with marijuana go down considerably by the age of thirty, we cannot endorse using marijuana at any age. In the end, it is one more drug that alleviates symptoms while dysregulating cell chemistry and doing nothing to address underlying problems.


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