Pot harmless? No, and pro-con arguments over marijuana are ablaze, again

berenson-223x300Moderation matters with health issues, so skepticism about marijuana and its widening use may be welcome. But let’s see how much of recent wariness about this intoxicant is just a puff of smoke — or does it catch fire and become something more?

Author Alex Berenson has become the latest advocate for tamping down the national exuberance for pot. It has in recent days become legal for recreational use in 10 states and the District of Columbia and has been broadly legalized for medical purposes in 19 other states. Cannabis products have become trendy, and stocks in pot-selling enterprises have become a hot investment topic.

But Berenson — in Opinion pieces in both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, as well as in a new, well-selling book — paints a more ominous picture of weed. He’s not harkening back to risible scare campaigns, ala the  movie classic Reefer Madness. Berenson says his concern about dope started in a casual mention by his wife, a psychiatrist, that the criminal patients she specializes in treating shared a commonality: They all smoked grass.

The onetime New York Times reporter-turned-crime fiction novelist took that insight and researched further, arguing now that it’s a myth that marijuana’s a harmless drug more akin to familiar booze than illicit street narcotics.

He concedes the research isn’t rock solid — more about that in a second — but contends there’s evidence to suggest that grass use, more specifically its abuse, contributes to mental and psychological disorders as well as violent criminality. The drug’s risks and perils also have only increased in recent days, he argues, because the potency of available legal supplies has risen exponentially, especially when compared to sloppy and poor-quality dope that once was popular but illegal.

Indeed, a major detriment of marijuana legalization has been the frequency and regularity of its use (including among seniors), he says, writing in the New York Times:

[T]hough legalization hasn’t led to a big increase in Americans trying the drug, it has meant that those people who already use it do so far more frequently. In 2005, about three million Americans used cannabis every day. Today, the figure is eight million. Put another way, about one cannabis user in five uses it daily. By contrast, only one in every 15 drinkers, about 12 million Americans, consumes alcohol every day.

Berenson’s arguments aren’t convincing health and substance abuse experts, including those at the independent and nonpartisan RAND Corp., author Malcolm Gladwell notes in the New Yorker. He says others have looked at the same studies as has Berenson — they may even have considered more research — and haven’t developed as dire an outlook as he has about marijuana.

Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, took to Twitter to note this work, visible by clicking here:

A few years ago, @ONDCP published a @RANDCorporation review of literature published from 2000-2011 that examined the causal relationship between drug use & crime (@PaculaRosalie & @LundbergRussell did the heavy lifting). Based on the evidence, we concluded: ‘Marijuana use does not induce violent crime, and the links between marijuana use and property crime are thin. Adolescent marijuana use is correlated with adult criminality, but this is likely mediated through other factors (e.g., decreased family bonds and deviant peers).’

Aaron E. Carrol,  a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine and health research and policy expert, posted on social media that he, too, had considered with care the issues with grass. He offered his recent New York Times “Upshot” column for a different view (click here to read it in full), concluding:

Many of the harms we’ve discussed are statistically significant, and yet they are of questionable significance. Almost all the increased risks are relative risks. The absolute, or overall, risks are often quite low. We haven’t focused on the potential medical benefits here.  But many people use pot — even rationally — for benefits they perceive to be greater than the harms we’ve listed. We unquestionably need more research, and more evidence of harms may emerge. But it’s important to note that the harms we know about now are practically nil compared with that of many other drugs, and that marijuana’s effects are clearly less harmful than those associated with tobacco or alcohol abuse. People who choose to use marijuana — now that it’s easier to do legally — will need to weigh the pros and cons for themselves.

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them by dangerous drugs, especially when intoxicants get abused by drivers who cause carnage for them and their loved ones in car, truck, and motorcycle wrecks.

It’s great to keep reminding the public that marijuana is but one of many ways — including distraction by texting and devices, sleepiness, alcohol abuse, and mixing of booze and prescription medications — that are abetting too many drivers as they fuel an unacceptable increase in the nation’s road deaths and injuries. After years of making progress on vehicle and road safety, the fatalities and injuries have spiked and stayed high. Part of the blame must fall on increased marijuana use, which persists as a challenge for authorities to police, determining what’s acceptable and what’s not with “weed use behind the wheel.”

But lawmakers, regulators, and law enforcement officials also could open the way, finally, to a critical element of intelligent, effective discussion, and oversight of pot: allowing rigorous, scientific study of the drug, not simply keeping it in the same legal categories as clearly riskier substances and effectively barring needed research. It would be smarter for all our sakes if we slowed the never-ending speculation about dope’s risks and benefits and made it so that medical scientists, including here in the nation’s capital, could more readily lay hands on marijuana for research than they can at a corner dispensary for home recreation.

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