By Paul W. Lovinger
Before deciding to put neatly-packaged marijuana cigarettes on store shelves or counters, ask yourself these questions:
1. Are you willing to ride in a bus, plane, or train operated by a stoned driver, pilot, or engineer?
2. Would you entrust your life to someone, like a surgeon, who’s under the influence of an intoxicant?
3. Despite the public concern for health care, are you ready to throw another hazardous drug onto the market?
If you answered yes to all three, feel free to add marijuana to the list of drugs that are dangerous to health or safety but sold legally. Once it goes on sale in stores, expect to introduce a myriad of newcomers to the pot habit.
It is 25 years since the publication of The Marijuana Question, which I wrote with the late Helen C. Jones, foreword by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. Nearly 10,000 studies of the drug had been made, most showing some detriment to body, mind, or society. We described some 300 of them and interviewed many users, ex-users, and researchers.
Since then, the main developments have not been scientific but political: the advance of the so-called medical marijuana movement and a state-by-state drive for legalization. The old claim of harmlessness is not heard so much in the light of the many news stories and studies to the contrary. But the belief persists that marijuana, or cannabis, is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and never caused a death. We learned otherwise long ago.
We detailed two fatal plane crashes in Hawaii and fatal train wrecks in Royersford, PA, and Chicago, all officially tied to marijuana intoxication. Federal records during four years turned up 29 aviation fatalities involving marijuana. Simulated flying showed marijuana impairing memory, sense of time, and concentration, causing major errors. Pilots described their panic when they suffered marijuana flashbacks in flight.
Unlike alcohol, which soon washes from the body, marijuana’s fat-soluble THC can linger for months, accumulating throughout the body, causing symptoms long after smoking. A regular smoker may never be free of it.
We also reported six surveys linking recent marijuana use to 22 percent of drivers in 1,816 fatal motor vehicle accidents. Some had used only marijuana; others added alcohol. The combination diminishes driving ability more than either substance alone.
In experiments in both simulated and real driving, marijuana diminished judgment, care, perception, concentration, and the ability to estimate time and distance. And we found that in 1976 when California decriminalized marijuana possession from a felony to a misdemeanor handled by a citation, the number of arrests for driving under the influence of drugs jumped by one-half, remaining elevated for years.
The drug has brought more transportation tragedies: Two Central Airlines pilots who had been smoking marijuana were killed when their plane crashed in a landing attempt at Newark’s airport in 1983. A train collision killed 16 when a Conrail operator smoked marijuana in Maryland in 1987. Five people, including a girl of 9 and workers were killed by a milk tanker driven by a marijuana smoker on a highway at San Leandro, California, in 1994. Last August, a tour bus whose driver had been smoking marijuana for days left a highway in Utah and overturned, killing three passengers and injuring 11.
Those are tips of icebergs. It is often difficult identifying marijuana smokers, and roadside tests are lacking.
The California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has added marijuana smoke to the State’s list of cancer-causing substances. In June, the Carcinogen Identification Committee of the Office’s Science Advisory Board found that “marijuana smoke was clearly shown, through scientifically valid testing according to generally accepted principles, to cause cancer.”
It agrees with our findings: Chemical analysis at different laboratories turned up considerably more of the known carcinogens in marijuana smoke than in tobacco smoke. At UCLA, sampling of airway tissues of heavy pot smokers revealed cell changes associated with the development of cancer, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. Rodents developed cancers, including lung cancer, when injected with marijuana extracts or ingredients in laboratories in Florida and Pennsylvania. Malignant cells developed in hamster lung samples exposed to marijuana smoke in Switzerland.
Medical research had established that habitual marijuana smoking endangered the lungs. Those also smoking tobacco appeared more at risk. Heavy, prolonged use produced respiratory distress, signs of possible deficiencies in the lung’s defenses, and those ominous cell changes.
More pot deaths: We learned of several homicides by soldiers undergoing psychotic episodes upon smoking marijuana or hashish (cannabis resin). It could be worse: Among many servicemen caught with marijuana were those in the nuclear weapons program.
Fire officers said the combination of burning and intoxication represented by marijuana smoking posed a serious fire hazard. In 1981 a busboy’s joint set fire to the Las Vegas Hilton, causing eight deaths.
We showed that nonsmokers could become intoxicated by breathing smoke of nearby marijuana smokers. And nursing women transferred the drug to offspring through the milk.
Marijuana or THC, its chief mind-affecting compound, killed fetuses and caused other reproductive troubles when given to female animals from mice to monkeys in hundreds of experiments. Several U.S. and Canadian studies of newborn human babies and their mothers associated marijuana smoking during pregnancy with birth difficulties, limited weight, fetal alcohol syndrome, and possible nervous system abnormalities.
Marijuana or THC inhibited the male sex gland, the testis, in numerous animal studies. An aphrodisiac in men at first, the drug can have a reverse effect after heavy and prolonged smoking: causing potency problems and a reduction in male sex hormone and the quantity and possibly quality of sperm.
Marijuana smoking, like tobacco smoking, hastened angina pectoris attacks in cardiac patients. Marijuana sped the pulse far more and for a much longer time than tobacco. Some scientists found marijuana damaging chromosomes and the immune system. Subsequent research has found that HIV-positive marijuana smokers progress to full AIDS much faster than nonusers and are more likely to contract bacterial pneumonia.
The immediate mental effects of marijuana, or cannabis, have been chronicled for ages: impairment of short-term memory, perception, sense of time and distance, logical reasoning, coordination, emotions, and judgment. Even in small amounts, marijuana can trigger mental illness in susceptible individuals. That its early use heightens the risk of psychosis in adulthood was reported by Australian and UK medical journals from 2006 to 2010. Possible harm to children’s developing nervous system and mind has worried even some marijuana partisans.
Experiments, interviews, and statistical research attest that as addicts experience less satisfying “highs,” they often increase doses and try other drugs. Marijuana use usually precedes use of heroin and cocaine. The longer the marijuana use, the more likely one turns to them. Yet marijuana itself is now a “hard drug,” dozens of times stronger than it was in the 1960s, when the national drug craze began.
Isn’t marijuana “medicine?” The medical profession finds no use for marijuana, the dried plant material. No legitimate physician tells a patient to start smoking. Inhalation of any smoke harms the lungs. Synthetic THC, in capsule form, is available for the few patients needing antiemetics who don’t respond to standard remedies.
“Medical marijuana” is not scientific reality but a political achievement by pro-pot activists. In 1979, R. Keith Stroup, the head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told the Emory University newspaper in Atlanta that “we are trying to get marijuana reclassified medically…. We’ll be using the issue as a red herring to give marijuana a good name.”
Some say marijuana should be legal because tobacco and alcohol are, which is like saying three wrongs make a right. It’s just as logical to reduce booze and butts to the status of pot. That is politically unlikely despite the tragedies all three substances cause. But we can prevent a new blow to the people’s health and safety.
Paul W. Lovinger is a San Francisco writer and journalist. He was a reporter and columnist for newspapers for over 20 years. With Helen C. Jones, widow of a Berkeley medical professor, he wrote The Marijuana Question and Science’s Search for an Answer (1985), a widely acclaimed study of the drug as viewed by scientists and users.
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