The problem with pot
There has been a lot of attention lately in the news regarding this medical marijuana. Some of the articles used words like “celebrate” and “reassured” when discussing the now-open marijuana clinics. Others use words “concern” or “caution.” We’ve all seen ads where the clinics offer house calls and home deliveries. There have been many who also express concerns about how easily a card is obtained or where suitable locations are of the distribution sites.
Well, first things first. This letter is about policy, not people. People who smoke grass are not bad people. However, they may be uninformed, as there are some bad health consequences to those who use. This is the focus of my concern. This is not a personal issue. It is a health and safety issue.
I think we all know that grass is not the substance that will drive you crazy as alluded to in “Reefer Madness” of years ago. So what is the big deal then?
Health and safety issues are the big deal. Let’s first look at the law. The Colorado laws for medical marijuana have four basic criteria for its “medical” use. Untreatable pain (associated with things like end-stage cancer), acute narrow angle glaucoma, HIV pain/complications, and severe muscle spasms – serious enough to be associated with medical conditions such as multiple sclerosis. Like it or not, this was legalized (only by states, it is still against federal law) to treat severe medical conditions and pain that had not responded to anything else.
As I checked with state public health officials, the average age for those getting medical marijuana for these serious conditions is … 62? … 50? No, the average age is less than 24. Hmmmm.
Health issues? These have been known for a long time. There are both physical and emotional concerns. A 1985 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry had experienced pilots do flight simulations. Then they each smoked one joint. They came back 24 hours later and redid the exact same flight simulation. In every case (literally) there were errors made in judging distance of center on landing, vertical and lateral deviation on approach to landing, number and size or aileron changes … in fact, trends in impairment on all variables. Yet, none of these pilots reported being aware of the subjective impairment of their performance.
A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration documents impaired reaction time and decreased ability to recognize and respond to changes in relative velocity of other vehicles when drivers have been using grass.
There are negative pulmonary effects of smoking marijuana, similar to those of smoking tobacco. Studies indicate that grass contains 50-70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than does tobacco smoke. Marijuana is inhaled deeply and thus contributes to asthma and other pulmonary pathology.
Mental health issues? Note the controlled twin studies linking smoking marijuana with increase rates of depression and increased intrusive suicidal thoughts, particularly in adolescents.
Marijuana use contributes to infertility. This includes decreased testosterone levels, lower sperm count and mortality.
In a study of more than 5,000 adolescents in California and Oregon, researchers found that those who used grass as adolescents were: a) less likely to do well in school; and b) were more likely to have a lower income by age 29 than did matched control subjects.
Despite all this, no individual can get a card for medial marijuana unless he/she were prescribed it by a physician. Who are the doctors prescribing it for these 23-year-old patients? Who is minding the store? Is the state medical board? Which matters most … cash or criteria? A recent article in the Denver Post indicates that 15 doctors are prescribing 75 percent of the marijuana cards given in Colorado.
It concerns me to think that we will have so many altered people on Highway 82 or on the ski slopes. It concerns me that so many of the young addicts that I work with started with grass and alcohol.
Health and safety are the big deal. Health risks to those who use, safety risks to all of us on the roads or slopes.
“Reassured?” “Celebrating?” Those aren’t the words that would describe my reaction to this issue. Health policy and law should not be based on what is PC but should be based on evidence revealed in well-designed and controlled medical research.
Alan Nelson, M.D.
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