Pubdate: Thu, 06 Apr 2000
Source: NOW Magazine (Canada)
Copyright: 2000 NOW Communications Inc.
Address: 189 Church Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5B 1Y7
Author: Colman Jones


Editors Won't Allow Facts To Get In Way Of Scary Tales About Pot

Advocates of medical marijuana got some more good news last month: two
studies published in respected scientific journals showed that not only can
pot aid in alleviating the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, but it may also
help shrink brain tumours.

But you would have to hunt hard to track down news about these positive
reports. The big headlines were about a short, unpublished abstract claiming
that smoking a joint can boost your risk of a heart attack.

The scary news received major play in the dailies and broadcast media in
North America, while news outlets in Europe assigned far greater weight to
the two studies of new medical uses for the drug.

This discrepancy isn't all that surprising, considering that Tony Blair's
government in the UK is legalizing the use of cannabis for medicinal

Uneven reporting on the effects, both good and bad, of pot is nothing new.
But a new deal forged between the Clinton administration and leading
American magazines lends weight to allegations of government control of
media coverage on this issue.

According to the online magazine Salon, at least six major U.S. magazines,
including U.S. News & World Report, Sporting News and Family Circle, have
shaped various articles on drugs in accordance with guidelines from the
Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The mags aim to benefit from thousands of bucks in credits under a
complicated government advertising-subsidy program that has already seen TV
networks receive nearly $25 million so far for their integration of
anti-drug messages into prime-time shows.


Perhaps it's no wonder that weed's therapeutic uses get scant play.

One of the plant's benefits may be alleviation of the chronic and often
severely debilitating pain and muscle spasms of multiple sclerosis (MS),
according to a study of mice with an MS-like disease that was published in
the March issue of the prestigious science journal Nature.

It found the benefits of cannabis to be pronounced early in the disease,
lending credence to accounts of people suffering from MS, many of whom
report that a joint or bowlful of pot goes a long way.

The brain cancer study, conducted by scientists at Complutense University in
Spain and published in the March issue of Nature's sister journal, Nature
Medicine, found that THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in pot, seemed to
eradicate brain tumours in one-third of the rats treated and prolong the
survival of another third -- although it wasn't clear whether it was the THC
or the liquid used to infuse it into the brain that caused the remissions.

Neither of these studies caused anywhere near the flurry of media attention,
though, that went to Murray Mittleman. The researcher at the Harvard school
of public health presented a short abstract of preliminary findings at an
American Heart Association conference in San Diego last month claiming that
the risk of a heart attack is five times higher than usual in the hour after
smoking a joint.

Mittleman and colleagues quizzed 3,882 heart-attack victims, male and
female, at 62 different centres across the U.S. about their habits, and
discovered that 124 (3.2 per cent) of them had smoked pot in the previous


Among these tokers, 37 had had their attacks within one day of smoking up,
while nine had gotten high within the previous hour. Using these statistics,
Mittleman computes the risk of heart attack as five times greater during the
hour after lighting up, although the risk falls to the usual level within a
matter of hours.

Of course, a given person's actual risk is largely contingent on other risk
factors such as high blood pressure or diabetes. At his presentation,
Mittleman offered no info about whether the heart attack victims also smoked
cigarettes, or even how often they toked -- both factors that could
significantly skew the data.

Mittleman admits to me on the phone that most of the pot smokers in his
study smoked cigarettes as well. He insists the correlation between heart
attacks and a recent toke remains valid, though he's unable to provide any
hard numbers.

It's revealing how such preliminary, unpublished data could produce such a
rash of media headlines trumpeting Mittleman's findings as evidence of yet
another of the demon weed's many hazards.


At the Associated Press in New York, spokesperson Jack Stokes says the wire
news service ran stories on both Mittleman's and the European studies, but
adds, "What our members or others to choose to pick up and how they choose
to play that coverage is pretty much up to them."

It's a scenario that's all too familiar to Lester Grinspoon, an associate
professor of psychiatry at Harvard medical school who's been studying
cannabis since 1967. He's the author of two books on the subject, including
the landmark 1971 text Marijuana Reconsidered, which was re-published a
couple of years ago.

Soon after Grinspoon's book was released, a study appeared in the Lancet
medical journal claiming that pot use leads to enlargement of the ventricles
(the lower chambers of the heart), a finding suggestive of brain damage.

"The study got front-page coverage in the New York Times," Grinspoon
recalls, "but when the first study that (unsuccessfully) attempted to
replicate it was published, the Times carried a tiny little paragraph on
something like page 36. And this, I observed, was a pattern.

"The toxicity of the drug has been studied more than any drug I know," says
Grinspoon, "and what have we come up with? A goose egg."

Allen St.-Pierre, executive director of the Washington-based National
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law, doesn't trust Mittleman's
latest finding, funded as it is by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, a
noted opponent of medical marijuana.

"The (U.S.) government has a near monopoly on the research and access to
academic and scientific information on marijuana," he notes, "yet is a
remarkably poor source of accurate information about marijuana on any

For example, a $2 million toxicology study of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)
conducted in the early 1990s by the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services' national toxicology program found that massive doses of THC not
only resulted in no significant toxicity, but actually retarded certain
types of stomach cancer in rats. The rats lived longer than their
non-exposed counterparts.

This study sat on the shelf until 1997, when a copy was leaked to AIDS
Treatment News and the Boston Globe, both of which promptly reported its
findings, forcing the study's eventual release.
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