Spreading Like A Weed
Marijuana is trending nationwide like never before. 37 states have legalized cannabis for medical use. Additionally, there are now 18 states that have legalized recreational use of the substance, as well as Washington, D.C. and Guam. And there seems to be some movement toward legalization on the national stage: The House voted to approve the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (or MORE Act) on April 4th of this year; if it passes the Senate (which it previously failed to do in December of 2020) it will end federal cannabis prohibition. Are these legislative changes happening because marijuana is truly a medical godsend? Are they happening because marijuana consumption is effectively harmless, and addiction is not a possibility for even chronic users? The truth is a lot more complicated. There is very little data to support the efficacy of medical marijuana, and even less to support the supposedly harmless nature of marijuana usage. Let’s look closer at the current push for legalization and the real reasons it is taking place.
The CBD Strategy
One strategy that has paid off for advocates of legalized cannabis has been the promotion of CBD, or cannabidiol, as a safe alternative to full-strength marijuana. CBD is the second most prevalent active ingredient in cannabis. CBD is legal in some form in all 50 states following the passage of a bill in 2018 that legalized hemp, the plant from which CBD is derived. Advocates of CBD usage echo the claims made by medical marijuana boosters, typically asserting that CBD can treat anxiety, insomnia, and chronic pain. And in many senses, CBD can be a foot in the door to legalizing medical or recreational marijuana. In 2020, two years after its effective legalization, sales had already hit $4.6 billion. This massive influx of cash has given businesses in the CBD field the clout to lobby for policies that benefit their industry-and the closely related marijuana industry. By 2019, hemp lobbyists were already firmly entrenched in Washington, presenting lawmakers with carefully chosen statistics to support their side. They have sponsored advertising campaigns to “remove the stigma” from marijuana usage and lobbied for bills like the SAFE Banking act, which would prohibit the government from cracking down on banks that do business with cannabis manufacturers. The long-term goal is to normalize marijuana usage, starting with CBD and moving to the real deal, and if the current trends are any indicator, their efforts are working.
Is Medical Use Really Safe and Effective?
But should marijuana use really be normalized? Is this drug, one of the most commonly abused in the country, as harmless as its high-powered advocates would have you believe? And does it really have valid medical applications? Just ask the Federal Drug Administration, which is in charge of regulating medicines in the United States. Their page on the subject emphatically states: “To date, the FDA has not approved a marketing application for cannabis for the treatment of any disease or condition.” They go on to note that they have not reviewed any data from rigorous clinical trials to support the use of unapproved cannabis products, and to state that “the use of unapproved cannabis and cannabis-derived products can have unpredictable and unintended consequences, including serious safety risks.” Clinical trials are a necessity for evaluating the effectiveness of any drug or medicine, especially because they are a crucial tool for learning about side effects. While people on the payroll of the marijuana industry are quick to assert that it has no side effects, the Mayo Clinic lists a number of side effects of medical marijuana, including increased heart rate, dizziness, impaired concentration and memory, slower reaction times, increased risk of heart attack and stroke, and even hallucinations or mental illness. One of the most frequently uttered falsehoods among advocates of legalization is that marijuana is not addictive. The National Institute on Drug Abuse begs to differ, noting that 4 million Americans met the diagnostic criteria for marijuana use disorder- in 2015, years before the current wave of normalizing rhetoric.
The Uncharted Costs of Cannabis Consumption
The impacts of cannabis on public health are poorly understood, but there is evidence to suggest that legalization may make them worse. One study noted that the legitimate medical use of the substance is limited to very few indications and raised issues of public health that may be negatively impacted by legalization. One important consideration is the effect of marijuana intoxication on drivers. The delayed reaction time and impaired concentration described above can become deadly when the user is operating a vehicle or heavy machinery. A recent study found a 6.6% increase in injury crash rates and a 4% jump in fatal crash rates in states where marijuana use was legalized vs states where it was illegal. Another public health issue raised by the study was the potential for children to accidentally ingest marijuana products. There were 187 reported instances of children eating marijuana edibles in 2016; this skyrocketed to over 3,000 by 2020. The long-term effects of consuming such a substance at such a young age are yet to be revealed. A third issue raised by the study was the relationship between marijuana and opioid use. While many legalization advocates claim that marijuana can be useful for people abstaining from “harder drugs,” data from another study contradicts their claims: Cannabis users had 3.5 times greater odds of any opioid use and 2.6 times greater odds of new-onset opioid use 3 years later. When considering these issues, this supposedly “harmless” substance starts to look a lot less innocent. With mounting pressure from big business, it remains to be seen whether legislators can see past the potential boom in tax revenue and evaluate the true costs of legalization.
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