The government and mainstream media like to push studies touting the purported dangers of marijuana, while ignoring scientific evidence that demonstrates the opposite, writes Paul Armentano.
While studies touting the purported dangers of cannabis are frequently pushed by the federal government and, therefore, all but assured mainstream media coverage, scientific conclusions rebutting pot propaganda or demonstrating potential positive aspects of the herb often tend to go unnoticed. Here are five recent examples of scientific findings about pot that the mainstream media (and the Feds) don’t want you to know about.
1. Cannabis use is associated with lower mortality risk in patients with psychotic disorders
In the years immediately prior to the passage of the federal Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, exploitation journalists routinely, yet unfoundedly, claimed that cannabis use triggered psychotic and violent behavior. For example, a news story from the July 6, 1927 edition of the New York Times pronounced, “A widow and her four children have been driven insane by eating the Marihuana plant, according to doctors, who say there is no hope of saving the children’s lives and that the mother will be insane for the rest of her life.” While virtually every American readily dismisses such absurd claims today, nonetheless, decades later many of these same sensationalistic contentions continue to make their way into the mainstream press. A case in point: within hours after the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado, ABC News Philadelphia reported that shooter James Holmes’ rampage was likely brought on by smoking marijuana. Similarly, weeks earlier, various media outlets speculated that cannabis may have motivated the unfathomable actions of Rudy Eugene, the so-called “Miami Cannibal,” after toxicology reports found trace levels of marijuana byproducts in his system.
Conversely, mainstream media outlets often turn a blind eye to scientific studies refuting the notion that pot causes psychosis or in any way exacerbates mental illness, such as a 2009 Keele University Medical School study which found that increased levels of cannabis use by the general public is not associated with proportionally rising incidences of schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders. This was the case, again, in May when an international team of investigators from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Inje University in South Korea determined that the use of cannabis is associated with lower mortality risk in patients with schizophrenia and related psychotic disorders.
Writing in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, investigators assessed the impact of a lifetime history of substance use on mortality in 762 subjects with schizophrenia or related disorders. Researchers “observed a lower mortality risk-adjusted variable in cannabis-users compared to cannabis non-users despite subjects having similar symptoms and antipsychotic treatments.” They speculated that this association between marijuana use and decreased mortality risk may be because “cannabis users may (be) higher functioning” and because “cannabis itself may have some health benefits.”
“To our knowledge, this is one of the first studies to examine the risk of mortality with cannabis and alcohol in people with PD (psychotic disorders),” the study’s authors concluded. “This interesting finding of decreased mortality risk … in cannabis users is a novel finding and one that will need replication in larger epidemiological studies.”
A ‘novel’ and ‘interesting’ finding indeed; too bad no one in the corporate media cared enough to report it.
2. The enactment of statewide medical marijuana laws is associated with fewer incidences of suicides
Can cannabis use quell thoughts of suicide? Not a chance, claim the mainstream media and the Drug Czar. But a little-noticed discussion paper published this past February by the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, Germany provides dramatic evidence to the contrary.
Researchers at Montana State University, the University of Colorado, and San Diego State University assessed rates of suicide in the years before and after the passage of statewide medical marijuana laws. Authors found, “The total suicide rate falls smoothly during the pre-legalization period in both MML (medical marijuana law) and non-MML states. However, beginning in year zero, the trends diverge: the suicide rate in MML states continues to fall, while the suicide rate in states that never legalized medical marijuana begins to climb gradually.”
They reported that this downward trend in suicides in states post med-pot legalization was especially pronounced in males. “Our results suggest that the passage of a medical marijuana law is associated with an almost 5 percent reduction in the total suicide rate, an 11 percent reduction in the suicide rate of 20- through 29-year-old males, and a 9 percent reduction in the suicide rate of 30- through 39-year-old males,” they determined.
Authors theorized that the limited legalization of cannabis may “lead to an improvement in the psychological well-being of young adult males, an improvement that is reflected in fewer suicides.” They further speculated, “The strong association between alcohol consumption and suicide-related outcomes found by previous researchers raises the possibility that medical marijuana laws reduce the risk of suicide by decreasing alcohol consumption.”
They concluded: “Policymakers weighing the pros and cons of legalization should consider the possibility that medical marijuana laws may lead to fewer suicides among young adult males.”
Predictably, no federal policymakers – many of whom recently voted in support of the Justice Department’s efforts to aggressively undermine existing state medicinal marijuana laws – have yet to comment on the study’s findings.
3. The effects of cannabis smoke on the lungs are far less problematic than those associated with tobacco
Inhaling any type of smoke is never particularly advisable. That said, when it comes to the purported effects of pot smoke on health, the corporate press can’t help but become hysterical. Such was the case not long when Reuters declared, ‘Cannabis is a bigger cancer risk than cigarettes.’ In a story carried internationally in hundreds of mainstream news outlets, the news wire pronounced, “Smoking a joint is equivalent to 20 cigarettes in terms of lung cancer risk,“ before concluding that “an ‘epidemic’ of lung cancers linked to cannabis” was on the horizon.
This past January, investigators writing in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that exposure to moderate levels of cannabis smoke, even over the long-term, is not associated with adverse effects on pulmonary function.
Investigators at the University of California, San Francisco analyzed the association between marijuana exposure and pulmonary function over a 20-year period in a cohort of 5,115 men and women in four US cities. The study’s researchers “confirmed the expected reductions in FEV1 (forced expiratory volume in the first second of expiration) and FVC (forced vital capacity)” in tobacco smokers. The effect of cannabis smoke on the lungs, however, was a very different story. Investigators found: “Marijuana use was associated with higher FEV1 and FVC at the low levels of exposure typical for most marijuana users. With up to 7 joint-years of lifetime exposure (e.g., 1 joint/d for 7 years or 1 joint/wk for 49 years), we found no evidence that increasing exposure to marijuana adversely affects pulmonary function.”
The UCSF researchers concluded, “Our findings suggest that occasional use of marijuana … may not be associated with adverse consequences on pulmonary function.”
The study’s results were consistent with previous, yet equally underreported scientific findings determining no demonstrable decrease in pulmonary function associated with moderate cannabis smoke exposure. Notably, a 2007 literature review by researchers at the Yale University School of Medicine and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, reported that pot smoking is not associated with airflow obstruction (emphysema), as measured by airway hyperreactivity, forced expiratory volume, or other measures.
And what about Reuters’ similarly specious claim of a coming cannabis-induced cancer epidemic? Bullshit, says the results of the largest case-controlled study ever to investigate the respiratory effects of marijuana smoking, which concluded that cannabis use was not associated with lung-related cancers, even among subjects who reported smoking more than 22,000 joints over their lifetime.
4. Cannabis use is associated with only marginal increases in traffic accident risk
“Cannabis drivers ‘twice as likely to cause car crash.’” So declared a BBC News headline in February, following the publication of a meta-analysis of nine studies assessing drug use in drivers involved in auto accidents. But a more thorough systematic review and meta-analysis of additional traffic injury studies published in July in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention reached a different conclusion.
An investigator from Aalborg University and the Institute of Transport Economics in Oslo assessed the risk of road accident associated with drivers’ use of licit and illicit drugs, including amphetamines, analgesics, anti-asthmatics, anti-depressives, anti-histamines, benzodiazepines, cannabis, cocaine, opiates, penicillin and zopiclone (a sleeping pill). His study reviewed data from 66 separate studies evaluating the use of illicit or prescribed drugs on accident risk.
After the author adjusted for publication bias (editors’ tendency not to publish studies that fail to show significant risks), the study found that cannabis was associated with minor, but not significantly increased odds of traffic injury (1.06) or fatal accident (1.25).
By comparison, opiates (1.44), benzodiazepine tranquillizers (2.30), anti-depressants (1.32), cocaine (2.96), amphetamines (4.46), and the sleeping aid zopiclone (2.60) were all associated with a greater risk of fatal accident than cannabis. Anti-histamines (1.12) and penicillin (1.12) were associated with comparable odds to cannabis.
The study concluded: “By and large, the increase in the risk of accident involvement associated with the use of drugs must be regarded as modest. … Compared to the huge increase in accident risk associated with alcohol, as well as the high accident rate among young drivers, the increases in risk associated with the use of drugs are surprisingly small.”
Although the previous review, which appeared in the British Medical Journal, garnered worldwide, screaming headlines, to date no mainstream media markets have reported on the more recent, contradictory findings published in AAP.
5. The schedule I classification of cannabis is a lie; the science says so
Congress’ present classification of cannabis and its organic constituents as Schedule I substances under federal law, which defines said substances as lacking any therapeutic value and possessing health risks on par with those of heroin, is no longer a subject of legitimate debate. It is scientifically inaccurate and untenable. Those were the conclusions drawn from a multi-million dollar series of FDA-approved, gold-standard clinical trials, conducted over a 12-year period at the University of California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research , which reported, “[S]moked and vaporized marijuana, as well as other botanical extracts indicate the likelihood that the cannabinoids can be useful in the management of neuropathic pain, spasticity due to multiple sclerosis, and possibly other indications.”
Summarizing this body of research in May in the Open Neurology Journal, the program’s director, Dr. Igor Grant of UC San Diego concluded: “Based on evidence currently available, the (federal) Schedule I classification (of cannabis) is not tenable; it is not accurate that cannabis has no medical value, or that information on safety is lacking.”
In particular, the CMCR’s findings rebuffed the Obama administration’s recent rejection of an administrative petition filed by NORML and others that sought federal hearings regarding the present classification of cannabis. In its rejection, the administration alleged, “The drug’s chemistry is not known and reproducible; there are no adequate safety studies; there are no adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy; the drug is not accepted by qualified experts; and the scientific evidence is not widely available.” None of the Obama administration’s justifications hold any merit in light of the CMCR’s scientific findings.
Nevertheless, the corporate media have by and large responded to the CMCR data, and its obvious implications on federal marijuana policy, with little more than a collective yawn. By now, why would we expect much else?
Paul Armentano is the deputy director of US NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), and is the co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink (2009, Chelsea Green). Originally posted on Alternet.