Pubdate: Sat, Dec 26 1998
Source: Toronto Star (Canada)
Copyright: 1998, The Toronto Star
Page: B2
Section: Editorials and Opinion
Author: Don Sellar


Discreetly placed on Page A34, it was the kind of news story that
could inspire animated discussions at the office water cooler.

The headline alone - Marijuana can affect fertility, damaging sperm,
U.S. study says - might have prompted a few readers to reconsider
certain recreational activities, if it already wasn't too late for the
human race.

But the 200-word Reuters article, as printed Dec. 17, delivered less
biting and, indeed, more indigestible news than the headline had so
starkly promised.

To the science-challenged occupant of this chair, the story proved
incomprehensible, if not mildly confusing.

It all began nicely enough, with a breathless revelation that Dr.
Herbert Schuel and some colleagues from the University at Buffalo have
shown how ``active ingredients in marijuana can affect fertility by
damaging sperm function.''

But in the second paragraph, scientific jargon reared its ugly

The wire service reported that ``natural body compounds'' known as
anandamides, which are ``similar to compounds found in marijuana, may
be important for helping sperm get to and fertilize an egg. And
cannabinoids in marijuana are similar enough to anandamides to confuse
the body.''

Anandamides are especially elusive critters. The word anandamide isn't
in the new Canadian Oxford Dictionary, or in six medical dictionaries
that The Star's library keeps in stock for just such

So much for the doctrine of plain language in journalism.

Regardless, determined readers could soldier on to the next revelation
in this story: ``Human sperm contain receptors, a kind of chemical
doorway, that the active ingredients in cannabis can use.''

With this image deeply planted in readers' heads of cannabis
ingredients passing dangerously through a chemical doorway in human
sperm, Dr. Schuel himself made an appearance in the story.

He was quoted as saying that scientists have known for 30 years ``that
very heavy marijuana smoking has a drastic effect on sperm production
within the testis, which can lead to higher rates of

``Our new findings suggest that anandamides and THC in marijuana smoke
may also affect sperm functions required for fertilization in the
female reproductive tract.''

Then, before a frightened reader could say, ``What great stuff - tell
me more!'' the story came to a screeching halt, after some more
tortured prose about the complex interactions of cannabinoids,
anandamides, sperms and receptors.

So what was Schuel studying? The ombud asked several Star staffers in
an informal, non-scientific survey.

All four said they thought Schuel was studying humans.


He was studying the effects of marijuana-like substances on the sperm
of sea urchins.

Sea urchins.

As Dave Haans, a graduate student at U of T with an interest in drugs
and drugs policy, pointed out in an e-mail, the story in The Star had
several omissions.

``It does not say whether this was an animal or human study. It does
not say what the sample size was. It does not say whether these
results are even applicable to humans.''

Good points all three.

Nor did the story explain that the study had been funded by the U.S.
National Institute on Drug Abuse and published last Aug. 2 - more than
four months ago - in Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Haans said the ``bold'' scientific claims in the story are unfounded
and misleading - particularly the researcher's statement that science
has known for 30 years that heavy marijuana use has a drastic effect
on sperm production that can lead to higher rates of

``In fact there have been no epidemiological studies which have shown
increased infertility in marijuana-using humans, and studies of
overall reproductive rates have found no reduction in reproductive
rates in countries where a higher rate of marijuana use is found.''

To Haans, the skimpy news story ``doesn't give even a minimum of
information needed to determine whether what the article says is true,
or another case of U.S. drug war propaganda.''

The ombud is in no position to judge Schuel's intensive work with sea
urchins, and won't try. But readers of medical science news deserved
better than the shallow, jargon-encrusted story that was dished up on
this occasion.

Don Sellar, 
The Star's Ombud
- ---
Checked-by: derek rea