Smoked Marijuana is Not Medicine

by Larry L. Page – Arkansas Faith and Ethics Director

February 2012

Why even make an issue of this? It is because there is an effort underway to get a proposed state constitutional amendment to legalize so-called “medical marijuana” before Arkansas voters. The proponents of the amendment are working hard to qualify the amendment for November’s general election ballot. There is hardly an issue today that is more clouded by misinformation, propaganda, and subterfuge than that of medical marijuana.

Take the term “medical marijuana.” Does the modifier “medical” make smoked marijuana medicine? How about “medical cocaine” or “medical LSD”? Does merely using the words “medical” and “methamphetamine” in tandem transform that harmful drug into a substance that has helpful, medical application? Of course not. And neither does coupling the word “marijuana” with the word “medical” make smoked marijuana a medicine.

But words are often powerful – especially when taken at face value – and not examined closely for the full import of what the words really mean as opposed to the meaning they are intended to convey. We can know clearly what the words “medical marijuana” are meant to convey when used by the proponents of that movement.

Ostensibly, the impetus to legalize the cultivation, marketing, and smoking of marijuana, cleverly called “medical marijuana” by the proponents of that movement, is to alleviate pain and suffering for patients with a variety of ailments and debilitating conditions. Are there true believers? Yes, there are, and many of them are sincere and well-meaning. Why, one might ask. Well, in a sense, it works for some people. For instance, can chronic pain be masked or blocked by smoking marijuana cigarettes? Probably. However, the pain can also blocked and masked by intravenous shots of heroin, by drinking to the point of intoxication, or by injecting, snorting, or ingesting any number of other drugs. The fact that pain can be managed by a substance does not for that reason alone cause that drug to morph into a legitimate medicine.

Now, if there are some valid medical applications for THC and cannibidiol, components of marijuana that seemingly provide some medical benefit and pain relief for things such as nausea that often accompanies chemotherapy, chronic pain, and problems associated with glaucoma, there are more efficacious and safer ways (other than smoking marijuana cigarettes) to medically deliver them.

However, many of the “experts” pushing medical marijuana insist that those other methods are of no value. Smoking marijuana, according to them, is the only effective delivery system for THC to patients suffering chronic pain and physical ailments. Now, this fits nicely with the obvious motivation for many, though not all, of the supporters of legalized medical marijuana. Adoption by states of medical marijuana laws, the legalization of the growing, marketing, and smoking of marijuana for medical purposes, serves as the first step – an incremental approach to reaching the ultimate goal of many – the full legalization of recreational marijuana.

Now, let’s cut to the chase. What’s really behind the push for “medical marijuana”? Can we know for sure the motivation that drives so many of the proponents to win voters’ approval for this dangerous drug? Yes, we can and do know.

In 1979, Keith Stroup, the director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told an audience at Emory University that NORML would be using medical marijuana as a “red herring to give marijuana a good name.” Stroup explained the strategy when he said, “We are trying to get marijuana reclassified medically.” Kevin Zeese of the Drug Policy Foundation was quoted on several occasions as saying, “Medical marijuana is the first step to decriminalization.” Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Foundation has said, “Medical use of marijuana is an integral part of the strategy to legalize.”

The leaders quoted above and others in the forefront of the push for medical marijuana, whose motives are far from being pure, play on the emotions of sick people and voters. The fraud they perpetuate is based on the exploitation of the compassion good people feel for those suffering from various physical ailments. It is particularly unconscionable to use the sick as props in a clandestine campaign aimed ultimately at not alleviating physical suffering, but at fully legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.

Hey, wait a minute. As the question is often asked, “If it (smoking marijuana) helps some people handle pain and other symptoms of ailments and does no harm, what’s the big deal?” The premise of that question is clearly wrong. The premise is that smoked marijuana is harmless – however – it is far from harmless.

From a societal standpoint, medical marijuana poses significant problems with drug law enforcement. In those states where medical marijuana is legalized, the cultivation, harvesting, marketing, and smoking of marijuana are by necessity allowed within certain parameters. However, keeping those activities within those set parameters is a bit like trying to nail jello to a wall. Enforcement of laws prohibiting the illicit growing, acquisition, dealing, and consumption of marijuana is frustrated by the fog of obfuscation that the medical marijuana laws create.

Countless examples could be provided, but take just this one case from Colorado. According to the January 8, 2011, Denver Post newspaper, medical marijuana laws were used as a cover for a huge marijuana-trafficking organization. “The organization . . . was capable of producing and distributing hundreds of pounds of marijuana, with much of that going out of state . . . . Meanwhile, the people involved in the ring kept copies of medical-marijuana patient records to provide a veneer of legality . . . .” [Emphasis added]

The article continued by quoting officials as saying, “The ring is the biggest operation to date . . . of exploiting medical-marijuana laws to shield black-market activities.” Colorado Attorney-General John Strothers suggested that the indictment was a mark against Colorado’s medical-marijuana law. He said, “This case, while disturbing, should come as no surprise to Coloradans who have been concerned that there is a nexus between Colorado’s booming medical-marijuana industry and illegal distribution of the drug.” [Emphasis added]

What about from a health perspective? Are there are any deleterious physical impacts from smoking marijuana? Yes, especially the long-term use of smoked marijuana.

Following are just some of the findings of a 2004 study conducted by four researchers holding PhDs at Yale University’s Department of Psychiatry.

Marijuana smoke contains similar levels of tar as tobacco smoke and up to 50% more carcinogens.
Marijuana users smoke unfiltered material, inhale the smoke more deeply, and hold the smoke longer than tobacco smokers, resulting in substantially greater tar deposits in the lungs than tobacco smokers.
Marijuana users have greater utilization of outpatient medical services for respiratory and other illnesses.
Marijuana use was associated with increased risk of many respiratory symptoms that are associated with disorders common to tobacco use, such as chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and cancer.
Marijuana smoking may increase risk of respiratory exposure to infectious organisms, such as fungi and molds, as cannabis plants are contaminated with a range of fungal spores.
Marijuana smokers use more medical services for respiratory problems, and such demands are sure to increase as heavy marijuana smokers grow older.

In states where medical marijuana is approved, marijuana use among teens rises significantly. The stigma on smoking of marijuana is removed by legalization of its use and, consequently, inhibitions are broken down (especially for the young). Also, the quantity of marijuana increases as the demand for it becomes greater, access to it is easier as the number of dealers grows rapidly and substantially, and frustrated law enforcement poses less of a threat to illicit users. That is the “perfect storm” for dramatically increasing the numbers of young marijuana smokers.

Does marijuana, in fact, pose any risks for young people? The answer is not only does marijuana present potential problems for the young who smoke it – those problems are significant. Numerous studies and research projects have documented these problems; some of them are listed as follows:

Marijuana has been found unequivocally to be addictive.
Dr. Daryl Inaba of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco said that marijuana is a highly addictive drug, containing more than 360 chemicals that affect the brain.
Dr. Eric Voth, MD, has stated that, “Marijuana is clearly addictive and is responsible for behavioral, intellectual, and cognitive deficits and is responsible for severe side effects to the pulmonary, reproductive, and immune systems.
Using marijuana at a young age can result in structural and functional deficits of the brain. This could cause weakened verbal and communication skills, lowered learning capabilities, and a shortened attention span.
Marijuana can be hazardous to developing lungs. Marijuana smoke contains 50% to 70% more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco smoke.
Marijuana smoke contains significantly higher levels of several toxic compounds, including ammonia (at levels 20 times higher in marijuana smoke than in tobacco smoke) and hydrogen cyanide (at levels 3 to 5 times higher in marijuana smoke than in tobacco smoke).
Scientists in New Zealand found that smoking a marijuana cigarette is equivalent to 20 tobacco cigarettes in terms of lung cancer risk. In a group of 79 lung cancer patients that were studied, lung cancer risk rose by 5.7 times for patients who smoked more than a joint a day for 10 years or two joints a day for 5 years.
Cannabis smokers end up with five times more carbon monoxide in their bloodstream than tobacco smokers.
Marijuana is a “gateway drug” to harder drug use. Some will adamantly deny this, but there is a clear link. Research shows that the earlier one starts using marijuana, the more likely that person becomes dependent on it or other types of drugs later in life.
More teens are in treatment with a primary diagnosis of marijuana dependence than for all other illicit drugs combined.
Young people who use marijuana weekly have a greater risk of depression later in life.
The odds that a heavy marijuana user will be diagnosed with schizophrenia later in life are higher than the odds for non-users.
The odds that a teenager will drop out of school are more than the odds of non-users.
Marijuana is the illegal drug most often identified in impaired drivers, fatally injured drivers, and motor vehicle crash victims.

As alluded to earlier, there are more efficacious methods than smoking marijuana to deliver THC, the component of marijuana that supposedly can provide medical benefits. Some of the most ardent supporters of medical marijuana, especially those for whom the medical marijuana issue is used as a ruse as they pursue their real objective – the full legalization of recreational marijuana – will be emphatic in denying that there are alternatives to smoking marijuana that are more effective, safer, and sensible methods to deliver the THC to patients.

Rick Simpson, medical marijuana expert, said, “Smoking is the least effective method of using hemp as a medicine…. When a person smokes a joint, over 90% of the medicinal aspect of the plant material goes up in smoke. It’s ironic to see people who have taken chemotherapy smoke hemp to reduce their nausea.” His point was that if patients would administer the marijuana components effectively instead of sending them up in smoke, they would receive much more benefit.

Some of those other and better THC delivery systems are the ingestion of the raw plant, the application transdermally in the form of a balm, lotion, ointment, or in a rubbing alcohol solution, or in a suppository form. A synthetic form of THC, marinol, can be taken in pill form. It has proven to be effective in relieving the nausea associated with chemotherapy for cancer patients and to assist with loss of appetite with AIDS patients. The use of these alternative methods not only avoids the potential respiratory ailments that smoking marijuana presents, but they also avoid the “high” and the impairment that accompanies the smoking of the weed.

It is important to note that the FDA has approved no medications that are smoked. There are a number of reasons for this. Smoking is a generally poor way to deliver medicine, since it is impossible to safely deliver precise dosages of any medicine. Also, the harmful chemicals and carcinogens that are byproducts of smoking create a whole other set of health problems.

Take morphine for example. It has proven to be valuable as an effective medical drug. However, the FDA has not approved the smoking of opium or heroin. By using the scientific method, active ingredients have been extracted from opium and developed into effective medicines such as morphine, codeine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone.

Medical science always finds a better way; it did so with morphine. When it comes to marijuana and its THC, modern medicine has and will continue to conduct the research and perfect the safer methods of delivering any medicinal properties that marijuana possesses.

Now, just recently we got word of another very promising method of delivering THC. This development will further diminish the case that medical marijuana proponents make in their insistence that the marijuana must be smoked to be medically effective. A British drug company is in the process of obtaining FDA approval for a medical marijuana mouth spray called Sativex. The drug has already been approved for use in several countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Spain, Germany, and New Zealand.

Sativex is sprayed directly into the mouth in the same way that a breath spray is used. Sativex delivers through the spray pure amounts of the marijuana’s THC and cannibidiol. One big advantage of Sativex is the same as the alternative methods of delivering THC discussed above. Whatever relief that the THC can provide can be achieved without the accompanying “high” and the mental impairment that inevitably follows the smoking of marijuana. Additionally, the respiratory ailments and other serious health risks that are associated with long-term smoking of marijuana can be completely and safely avoided.

It would seem that the FDA is certain to follow the several countries that have already cleared this new drug for use by their citizens. The approval of Sativex in the U.S. should help bring an end to the unwise and shortsighted policy of legalizing the growing, marketing, and smoking of marijuana. Those policies where implemented have proven to create many more problems, unintended as they may be, than those that they have resolved.

To the extent that some of the components of marijuana may in fact have medical application and benefit, Sativex promises to be a very important development in the sane and safe treatment of some medical conditions. It, along with the other alternatives to delivering THC that have been approved and are in use, should serve to be effective impediments to those with improper motives who would “use” the medical marijuana angle with a feigned sense of compassion to accomplish their ultimate goal – not the relief of pain and the effective treatment of patients – but the full legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

The safe, sane, and sensible route to providing any medically-effective components of marijuana for people suffering from various debilitating conditions is to discover ways to extract those compounds from the marijuana plant, to develop safe deliver methods that avoid the “high” and the impairment to the senses, and make those available and affordable. What we shouldn’t do is continue with the increasingly unwise, unhealthy, and counterproductive trend of states approving the smoking of marijuana and calling it “medicine.” This has never been primarily about effective and smart medical advancements – many of those who have and are driving this issue have revealed what it is really about – the full and unrestricted use of recreational marijuana.