Marijuana. Pot. Weed. Grass. Dope. Most of us can think of a few names for it, and most of us probably have an opinion on it too. Across the world, the cannabis plant is both loved and hated, lauded and denigrated. Advocates of the herb claim it’s harmless and can cure all manner of ailments. And critics say it’s a gateway drug with a plethora of dangerous and irreversible side effects, both psychologically and physically.
It hasn’t always been this way. Humans have been using the humble Cannabis sativa plant for millennia, both medicinally and recreationally — burnt cannabis seeds have been found in burial trenches dating back to 3,000 BC. The “War on Drugs” and Reefer Madness changed all that, though. The public was told marijuana is a dangerous drug that can destroy a user’s mental and physical wellbeing, encourage reckless behavior, and breed contempt for traditional American values.
In 1970, the federal government classified marijuana as a schedule I controlled substance, defining it as serving no medical purpose with an extremely high potential for abuse, and placing it in the same category as heroin. Encouraged by conservative parenting groups in the 1970s, one effect of the war on drugs meant enforcing much stricter sentences for drug offenses. When the penalty for selling marijuana was made equivalent to that of selling firearms, it sent out a clear message: marijuana is as dangerous as guns.
But recently, there has been a shift in people’s opinions. As of 2015, 23 states have medical marijuana laws and four states — Alaska, Colorado, Washington and Oregon — as well as the District of Columbia have passed bills legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
The science behind the marijuana plant is experiencing somewhat of a reawakening as well. Hidden inside this once-taboo plant seems to be a wealth of remedies. And each year, more people are looking to the plant to treat various conditions. A whole world of medicinal benefits lies within the divisive leaves of the marijuana plant, which has unquestionably suffered from a smear campaign.
While the misuse of prescription drugs and alcohol kills thousands of Americans each year, there hasn’t been a single overdose death from using marijuana. Ever. But big pharmaceutical companies have no reason to fund research into the benefits of marijuana and the federal government has been far more intent on determining the damaging effects of marijuana than discovering any of its advantages.
Classifying marijuana as a schedule I controlled substance has meant that in order to do clinical research scientists must have a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) license and be participating in a study that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These measures have significantly hindered scientists being able to examine the potential medical benefits of marijuana, as well as obtaining the necessary funding for it.
But there’s promise. Lester Grinspoon, an associate professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, believes marijuana will one day be acknowledged as a “miracle drug.” There is strong evidence showing marijuana has a range of medicinal benefits, from relieving nausea in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy to averting glaucoma-induced blindness. There’s evidence it can also relieve chronic pain; reduce muscle spasticity from multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and paraplegia; reduce frequency of epileptic seizures; and prevent migraines and asthma attacks.
All these discoveries sound highly beneficial, so what’s the problem? One complication, of course, is that not everyone agrees with Grinspoon. Raphael Mechoulam, considered to be the founding father of marijuana science, agrees with Grinspoon about the positive effects of marijuana, calling it a “medicinal treasure trove” waiting to be discovered. But he also admits it’s not a harmless substance. Some evidence suggests that a joint contains four times as much carcinogenic tar as a traditional cigarette, and studies have shown that smoking marijuana may lead to bronchitis and respiratory infections.
The drawbacks aren’t just physical either, as “traditional” weed has been replaced with stronger strains, such as skunk. While traditional marijuana may contain two to four percent of the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which causes the feeling of being high, skunk and other high-potency strains often contain between 10 and 14 percent THC.
Studies suggest that prolonged use of such potent strains can have a detrimental effect on the developing teen brain. For some people, it may even provoke paranoia and devastating anxiety attacks, especially if consumed through a marijuana-infused snack, such as a brownie. Early exposure to high levels of THC may even trigger the onset of schizophrenia.
“Most young adults enter treatment for addiction under the misconception that marijuana is a harmless, non-addictive substance,” said Robert Pfeifer, founder of Sober College rehab center in Los Angeles. “This couldn’t be further from the truth. With even more potent strains than ever before, we need to all be careful when considering the issue of legalization and the effect it could have on our youth.”
With these concerns, it’s easy to see why people might be against the drug being legalized. While legalization has not been shown to increase teen smoking rates in any way — in fact, in Colorado, teen smoking rates have dropped since legalization — fully legalizing marijuana may send a message to young people that it is entirely harmless. With more potent strains being popular today, it’s easy to see how teen health could be at the forefront of people’s minds.
This risk, however, isn’t much different than what a person would face when taking other prescription drugs — at least from what it seems. Antidepressants, for example, sometimes have the opposite effect, increasing risk of suicidality. Meanwhile, prescription opioids are given out like candy across the U.S., despite high rates of abuse.
The medicinal benefits can no longer be denied or even downplayed; the positive effects of legalizing medical marijuana far outweigh the negatives. In fact, its prohibition has caused its own damages; felony charges over possession of paltry amounts of marijuana have affected people’s ability to attain student loans and even secure jobs — one reason many states that haven’t moved to legalize medical weed have at least decriminalized it. If the government can fully get behind the research and regulate medical marijuana prescriptions effectively, the benefits would certainly offset any side effects.
It is time for a shift in outlook. More scientific research into the cannabis plant can only be a good thing, because it’s only through systematic study that we will fully realize the positive effects of the drug — and get a better idea of the negative effects we need to work on. But first, opponents and proponents must come to an agreement that scientific research needs to move forward, and for that to happen, the reefer-madness mindset needs to be done away with.
Ella Jameson is a writer, blogger, and contributor to many different websites, blogs and magazines. After graduating from university with a degree in English Literature, Ella worked as an editor and copywriter for several years before becoming a journalist, specializing in travel, health, and the environment.