Guest Column: Just how dangerous is marijuana?
March 4, 2014
EDITOR'S NOTE: Incline Village resident Andy Whyman, MD, is a former opinion columnist for the Sun's sister paper, the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza. Over the next several months, he will author columns pertaining to drugs, mental health and substance abuse in an effort to raise better awareness. The columns will be featured in both the Bonanza and Sierra Sun.
So, what's going on here? Two states, Colorado and Washington, have passed laws legalizing and regulating marijuana production and sales.
But the federal government has insisted for more than 50 years that marijuana is a dangerous drug, indeed as dangerous as heroin or LSD, and has no legal use whatsoever.
Light up in Washington state, Colorado, Uruguay, Portugal, or Amsterdam. No problem. Do the same in California, Nevada or the rest of these United States, and enter the criminal justice system of your local jurisdiction. Ouch! This can get a little confusing.
Is the War on Drugs succeeding? Are alcohol and tobacco dangerously addictive though legal drugs, or recreational enjoyment, or both? And why did we end Prohibition back in the l930's anyway?
Just how did the prescription of certain addicting opiates i.e. oxycontin, demerol, percodan etc. become legal and why do these drugs now account for more deaths than automobiles by some accounts?
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"Drug Warriors" at the Drug Enforcement Administration and the drug czar in the presidents office tell us illegal drugs are illegal because they are bad for you and for society.
Drug legalization advocates tell you that it's none of the government's business what I ingest or smoke just so long as I don't hurt anyone else in the process.
It's all enough to give you a migraine headache or at least the desire for the calming effect of a good scotch.
In this, and future columns, I hope to shed a bit of factual light on these and other controversial mental health and substance abuse issues. I will not, to the extent that I can manage it, let my personal opinions intrude on my professional understanding as a physician and psychiatrist.
Let's start with marijuana because the topic is all over the news these days. In California, marijuana legalizers just decided not to put a marijuana legalization initiative on the ballot this year.
In Nevada, 14 years after legalization of a medical marijuana initiative, the state is finally introducing guidelines for local jurisdictions that elect to provide these "services." Meanwhile, In Washoe County, Nev., one local politician hopes to return to the legislature and again make medical marijuana illegal.
So, what do we know about this "weed"? We know that it is indeed a weed, easily grown virtually all over the world, indoors and out. We also know that there are numerous strains of the stuff, some 80 types of cannabinoids, and that only one of them, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC gets you high.
The federal government makes an excellent point in arguing that good, solid scientific research about marijuana is scarce, but fails to mention that they have made such research virtually impossible to conduct. On the other hand humans have been lighting up the stuff without evidence of clearly harmful effect, if any, forever.
So what do you tell yourself and the kids? For one, under federal law, marijuana is listed as a schedule one illicit drug, one having no medical value, a "high potential for abuse," and a" lack of accepted safety" under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
Smoke marijuana in California or Nevada without a medical prescription and you are committing a criminal act! Period. No exceptions. It's really not so good to have that on your curriculum vitae when applying for a job.
But while some may think otherwise, most adults and kids are not stupid. They know that tens of millions adults smoke marijuana and that some 80 percent of adolescents have at least tried it by the time they leave high school. And unlike alcohol no one seems to die suddenly of "toxic encephalopathy" i.e. brain poisoning or cirrhosis of the liver. And if you're a kid and pops and/or mom lights up why shouldn't I?
Which brings me to a salient point if you are a parent. Don't be hypocritical! Don't tell your child, "Do as I say and not as I do." Don't think that don't know where you hide your stash. They do. Don't think they won't know when you're a little high. They will.
So, as the parent of an adolescent even if you believe, likely incorrectly, that it's just a harmless recreational drug, your adolescent and his or her still developing brain may well suffer by following your example. More about this subject and others next time.
Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.