By Michelle L. Dunbar, Executive Director of St. Jude Retreats
Is marijuana a dangerous drug that can lead to brain damage and addiction, or is it a miracle drug that can alleviate pain and fight disease? Earlier this year Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a physician and CNN medical analyst released a documentary that asked these questions. While he initially was a skeptic who thought the push to legalize marijuana was simply so people could get high legally, he admits that his extensive research has changed his mind. As I watched his documentary called “Weed” I was struck by the vast number of medicinal uses for marijuana. Most people know that marijuana use increases appetite and decreases nausea, but research, which is primarily being done outside this country, is showing benefits for a myriad of diseases such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s, dementia, depression, PTSD and even cancer.
While I was encouraged that Dr. Gupta really did the research and looked at the results of medicinal marijuana use, I was troubled by the addiction and dependence warnings throughout the documentary. It shows his reluctance to jump on board fully with the idea that marijuana is actually as safe as caffeine and certainly safer than alcohol. He admitted that just 1 in 11 marijuana users become “addicted” or “dependent”, which in and of itself means it should not be classified as Schedule 1 substance by the US. But it’s important for people to understand what is meant by addiction and dependence. It simply means that use for 9% of the people became habituated, much like other habits people can develop such as smoking cigarettes, drinking caffeinated beverages, exercising or biting your nails. The term dependence implies that there is a lack of control, and that even if they wanted to people cannot stop their use without help, but there is no research that supports this. As a matter of fact all research as well as common sense supports that all people always maintain the ability to stop substance use at any point in time, just like any other behavior. Instead dependence means there is the existence of withdrawal symptoms if the individual stops use abruptly. For marijuana use those symptoms are mild and may include insomnia, irritability or mild nausea that last a few days. These are much the same symptoms as for quitting smoking.
What was even more troubling was how so many doctors easily and seemingly without a thought dismissed the use of medicinal marijuana in favor of using much stronger and more dangerous drugs, such as opiates and benzodiazepines. In the case of a 5-year old with a severe form of epilepsy, the family had to go to multiple doctors to find one that would prescribe marijuana when there was clear evidence it could help her. Her epilepsy had become so debilitating that her parents knew she would not survive much longer. They were willing to try anything to save her life and had found that marijuana had been helpful for others with similar conditions. As they saw more and more doctors; none would prescribe marijuana to such a young girl, but shockingly these same doctors were more than happy to prescribe much more heavy duty, dangerous drugs that are responsible for millions of accidental overdose deaths each year: benzos, tranquilizers and narcotics. In his research for the documentary Dr. Gupta stated he couldn’t find any deaths attributed to marijuana overdose; not one. Thankfully the family found a doctor who was willing to help; prescribed marijuana and that little girl went from having 300 seizures per week to just 2-3 per month. Furthermore her cognitive functioning has improved dramatically.
So what is really going on with marijuana? How is it that a drug with what appears to be so many potential benefits and so few side effects remains illegal in most states in the U.S.? Could it be the strong pharmaceutical lobbies? Or perhaps it is due to the myriad of government agencies and millions of taxpayer dollars devoted to the “war on drugs” and addiction treatment? Either way it is clear that marijuana is not the scary, dangerous substance it was touted to be 50 years ago.
Marijuana is now legal for medicinal use in a handful of states in the U.S., and is now legal for recreational use, although heavily regulated, in Colorado and Washington. While it is clear that marijuana is a cheaper, safer, more effective drug with the potential to help tens of millions of people suffering from chronic and even terminal conditions, change in attitude and policy is slow. And credible research is lacking in this country due to the anti-drug policies and agenda of our government.
Most people pay little attention to policies until they directly affect them. It’s difficult to fathom the vast numbers of people that are taking dangerous and harmful drugs for chronic conditions who could receive incredible benefits from medicinal marijuana.