Pubdate: Fri, 30 Dec 2016
Source: Victoria Times-Colonist (CN BC)
Copyright: 2016 Times Colonist
Author: Lawrie McFarlane


The greatest public-health disaster our species ever brought upon itself
began in Europe 400 years ago - the introduction and use of tobacco.

In the 20th century alone, 100 million people died from cigarette smoking
worldwide. And while the incidence rate has fallen in western countries,
it remains high in Third World nations. Six million tobacco users still
die each year.

The cause of smoking deaths is not, primarily, the active ingredient in
tobacco - nicotine. Rather it is the chemicals that comprise tobacco smoke
- - among them various tars, ammonia, hydrogen cyanide and formaldehyde.

Collectively, these chemicals cause a host of fatal maladies, including
cancer, heart disease and emphysema. In short, a perfect horror show.

Now at this point, you're probably saying: Tell me something I didn't
know. Well, here it is.

Many of those same chemicals form marijuana smoke, and we are about to
legalize the consumption of this drug.

It's not clear yet which forms of use might be authorized. If smoking is
not among them, we might yet avoid another public-health calamity.

True, there are worrisome effects that come with consuming marijuana by
other means, among them elevated pulse rates and memory loss. But these
are minor matters, by comparison.

However, if smoking marijuana is blessed for general use, we might have an
entirely different situation on our hands. For here is what is currently
known with medical certainty about the health impacts of lighting up a
joint: Nothing.

Since marijuana is currently illegal in all but physician-approved
circumstances, there have been no properly constructed clinical trials of
smoking this drug.

For the same reason, there have been no robust after-market research
projects, in which users are tracked down years later, and their health
status compared with that of non-users. Yet this is an essential process
in revealing whether drugs that appear safe at first blush turn out to
have serious side-effects downstream.

There have been suggestions that marijuana might act as a gateway drug to
such potent narcotics as heroin and fentanyl. But whether these are
anecdotal or fact-based, no one really knows.

There is also the matter of what is called the dose effect. Cigarettes
have a high dose effect, meaning the risk of illness increases
exponentially the more you consume. Hence the toxicology maxim: "The dose
is the poison."

So what is the dose effect of smoking marijuana? Again, we simply do not
know. This is no small concern.

Generally speaking, it seems fair to assume that making an addictive
substance more readily available will increase consumption rates. So what
happens if people begin smoking 20 marijuana joints a day?

What happens if manufacturers find ways to strengthen the active
ingredient - THC - while making their product less harsh? That's what
cigarette companies did.

In short, we are on the brink of approving a form of drug use, the medical
consequences of which remain uncertain, but which might involve inhaling

You would think the history of tobacco might have taught us something
about fooling with addictive substances before we know the facts. In
particular, you might think we would have learned how difficult, if not
impossible, it is to close a Pandora's box like this after it has been

Once a government-sanctioned infrastructure of production, marketing and
distribution is erected around marijuana, and millions of additional users
are recruited, there will be no going back, regardless of whatever medical
verdict is finally rendered. That's principally why we continue to license
tobacco production, despite its many ills.

I recognize we already turn a blind eye to occasional or "recreational"
use of marijuana. But between turning a blind eye and conferring on this
drug an official stamp of approval lies a world of unknown harm.
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