We live in a time that merits its own version of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles McKay’s classic 1841 study of human follies and frenzies, such as witch hunts, alchemy and bursting financial bubbles. Our current repertoire of fallacies is rich in conspiracy theories, apocalyptic prophecies and alien abductions.
One such delusion is now in full bloom. The movement to legalize medical marijuana is proceeding apace without significant care or consideration on the part of the government, the medical and scientific community, or the public.
With California leading, fourteen states have now legalized medical marijuana, with legalization under consideration in 11 other states. This rampaging weed of a public policy seems eerily immune to the kind of scientific testing and review routinely accorded to the regulation of food, medicine and over-the-counter drugs. You would think that marijuana — classified as a schedule I drug, one with a high potential for abuse and “no currently accepted medical use” by federal law — would get special scrutiny before it’s approved as medicine: you would be wrong.
With medical marijuana, the public and policy-makers alike have thrown caution to the smoke-filled winds. California’s medical marijuana laws are a hodge-podge, changing from county to county, like something dreamed up by Cheech and Chong. Today there are 1000 marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles alone — a greater number than all the city’s Starbucks, 7-11s and MacDonald’s combined. Far from being clinical, some shops feature carnivalesque hucksters out front to lure new clients. Pretty much anyone claiming a headache can get a prescription. State lawmakers seem to have learned nothing from California’s experiment.
I do not propose denying medical marijuana to those in chronic pain from cancer, AIDS or other ailments. But as a horticulturist, I worry that these patients are using a garden-grown substance that offers dangers more significant than the relief it affords. They are subjects in a loopy social policy experiment.
Marijuana’s value as pain relief, as well as its overall safety, deserve investigation. Right now the scientific findings are far from conclusive. The AMA has sensibly urged the federal government to loosen restrictions that impede serious research.
Yet, the very public that wants its food grown organically and sustainably and flees from corn syrup, sugar, butter and salt as from a plague, blithely overlooks pot’s uncertain provenance. They seem indifferent to where their pot comes from, who sows the seed and grows the plants and where, and what manner of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and growth stimulants are used to enhance it.
Today’s pot is far stronger than the weed that gave boomers a halcyon buzz in their youth. Seeking relief for pain from a few puffs of medical marijuana can result in a doubling of your heart rate, anxiety, panic, hallucinations and psychotic episodes. Some help!
While there is scant evidence to support marijuana’s medical benefits, there is plenty confirming its dangers, findings substantiated by significant increases in marijuana-induced emergency room visits in the last 15 years. And pot messes with your head: significantly impairing short-term memory, verbal skill, judgment and perception. Anyone who’s talked to a pothead will testify to these effects.
Statistics on pot are bummers. Pot-using teenagers have poorer grades and poorer attendance. Of those arrested, 41% of adult men test positive for pot, 27% of adult women. Six to 11% of fatal accident victims test positive for THC. A painkiller, indeed.
Since pot’s potency can vary dramatically, patients have no guidelines for dosage, so it’s hit or miss, you might say. This problem, and many of medical marijuana’s other perils, can be effectively addressed by marinol, an approved prescription medicine that offers calibrated doses of pot’s key THC isomer.
The medical marijuana debacle deserves serious attention from the Administration, the Courts, Congress and the FDA and AMA. What are they waiting for? Unchecked, this latest extraordinary popular delusion will have serious social and medical consequences.