Pubdate: Sun, 29 Dec 2013
Source: Chicago Sun-Times (IL)
Copyright: 2013 Sun-Times Media, LLC
Author: Paul Armentano
Note: Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML, the National
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.


Speaking recently with the Los Angeles Times, UCLA professor and
former Washington state "pot czar" Mark Kleiman implied that we as a
society are largely ignorant when it comes to the subject of weed. "I
keep saying we don't know nearly as much about cannabis," he said," as
Pillsbury knows about brownie mix."

Kleiman's allegation - that the marijuana plant and its effects on
society still remains largely a mystery - is a fairly common refrain.
But it is far from accurate.

Despite the federal government's nearly century-long prohibition of
the plant, cannabis is nonetheless one of the most investigated
therapeutically active substances in history. To date, there are over
20,000 published studies or reviews in the scientific literature
referencing the cannabis plant and its cannabinoids, nearly half of
which were published within the last five years, according to a
keyword search on PubMed Central, the government repository for
peer-reviewed scientific research. Over 1,450 peer-reviewed papers
were published in 2013 alone. (By contrast, a keyword search of
"hydrocodone," a commonly prescribed painkiller, yields just over 600
total references in the entire body of available scientific

What information do these thousands of studies about cannabis provide
us? For starters, they reveal that marijuana and its active
constituents, known as cannabinoids, are relatively safe and effective
therapeutic and/or recreational compounds. Unlike alcohol and most
prescription or over-the-counter medications, cannabinoids are
virtually nontoxic to health cells or organs, and they are incapable
of causing the user to experience a fatal overdose. Unlike opiates or
ethanol, cannabinoids are not classified as central nervous
depressants and cannot cause respiratory failure. In fact, a 2008
meta-analysis published in the Journal of the Canadian Medical
Association reported that cannabis-based drugs were associated with
virtually no elevated incidences of serious adverse side-effects in
over 30 years of investigative use.

Studies further reveal that the marijuana plant contains in excess of
60 active compounds that likely possess distinctive therapeutic
properties. One recent review identified some 30 separate therapeutic
properties -including anti-cancer properties, anti-diabetic
properties, neuroprotection, and anti-stroke properties - influenced
by cannabinoids other than THC. While not all of these effects have
been replicated in clinical trials, many have.

A recent review by researchers in Germany reported that between 2005
and 2009, there were 37 controlled studies assessing the safety and
efficacy of cannabinoids, involving a total of 2,563 subjects. Most
recently, a summary of FDA-approved, University of California trials
assessing the safety and efficacy of inhaled cannabis in several
hundred subjects concluded: "Based on evidence currently available the
Schedule I classification is not tenable; it is not accurate that
cannabis has no medical value, or that information on safety is lacking."

By contrast, many legally approved medications are brought to market
on the basis of far fewer trials involving far fewer total

Finally, we know that Western civilization has been consuming cannabis
as both a therapeutic agent and a relaxant for thousands of years with
relatively few adverse consequences, either to the individual user or
to society. No less than the World Health Organization commissioned a
team of experts to compare the health and societal consequences of
marijuana use compared to other controlled substances, including
alcohol, nicotine and opiates. After quantifying the harms associated
with each substance, researchers concluded: "Overall, most of these
risks (associated with marijuana) are small to moderate in size. In
aggregate, they are unlikely to produce public health problems
comparable in scale to those currently produced by alcohol and
tobacco. On existing patterns of use, cannabis poses a much less
serious public health problem than is currently posed by alcohol and
tobacco in Western societies."

Does this mean that consuming marijuana is altogether without risk or
that scientific investigations shouldn't continue into the plant's
pharmacology? Of course not. But it is clear that we now know as much,
if not more, about pot than we know about the actions of alcohol,
tobacco and many prescription pharmaceuticals. And most certainly we
know enough about cannabis, as well as the failures of cannabis
prohibition, to stop arresting adults who consume it

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML, the National
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.  
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