Cannabis: Wonder Drug or Public Menace?

Cannabis has historically been blamed for any number of social ills, from returning missionaries run amok to teen dropouts. The fact is that research is not at all definitive in this regard. In a paper entitled “The Residual Cognitive Effects of Heavy Marijuana Use in College Students,” published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Harrison G. Pope, Jr. states that heavy marijuana users do experience a slight decline in cognitive function after giving up the drug for a day. However, the doctor goes on to point out that scientists are unable to pinpoint whether this effect is due to a toxic effect of the drug or is a simple withdrawal symptom.

Several substances that the world’s cultures consider acceptable have similar or worse symptoms. Alcohol, for instance, is far more disabling than marijuana if consumed to the point of insobriety, and it has a far greater impact on health if consumed on a regular basis. The staggeringly negative health effects of tobacco—legal in all 50 states—are now universally accepted. Ongoing research has suggested that around 9% of heavy marijuana users will become addicted. This figure is nevertheless significantly lower than many other addictive substances.

According to the paper “Nicotine and Caffeine: Influence on Prenatal Hemodynamics and Behavior in Early Twin Pregnancy” by Dr. Monique Huisman, over 68 million Americans drink more than three cups of coffee per day. The study also reveals that caffeine consumption increases overall stress levels, causes mood swings, lessens circulation to the brain and increases muscle tension. Caffeine—which is actually considered a drug—although briefly on the government’s hit list in the early 20th century, remains largely unregulated.

Around 100 years ago, heroin was used in many medicines until doctors realized that it mimics endorphins and is extremely addictive. With continual use, the drug causes liver necrosis, heart disease and poor circulation. Over 50 million people use heroin recreationally worldwide. Yet according to the FBI, police made one marijuana-related arrest every 42 seconds in the U.S. during 2012.

Medical Efficacy

In that same year, the DEA released a ruling stating that marijuana has “no accepted medical use.” This is essentially the same ruling that the U.S. government made in the 1970s, when cannabis was listed as a Schedule 1 drug. According to some, the DEA made the redundant ruling in response to a growing number of states creating medical marijuana programs. Others believe that the DEA ruling was in response to a 2002 petition that demanded that the government reconsider the drug’s scheduling.

As far back as 1999, the Institute of Medicine, an organization that Congress turns to regarding medical matters, released a report stating that marijuana has “potential therapeutic value” and that it could be indicated as a treatment for nausea, appetite stimulation and pain relief. What’s more, pharmaceutical giant Bayer has been marketing Sativex, a cannabis-derived medication for multiple sclerosis since 2003.

Other Observed Health Benefits

There is strong evidence for the efficacy of marijuana in the following illnesses: epilepsy, nausea associated with cancer, HIV/AIDS and anorexia, neuropathic pain and multiple sclerosis. While it’s somewhat difficult to conduct research on the plant’s medicinal potential because of its scheduling status, preliminary research indicates that cannabis could be effective in Tourette’s syndrome, dystonia and tardive dyskinesia. Marijuana’s positive impact on glaucoma has been known since the early 1970s. The plant was found to decrease intraocular pressure by around 25%, which can halt the progression of the disease.

Early Effects of Legalization

Critics of marijuana legalization predicted everything from increased crime rates to widespread pandemonium, but so far, none of this has come to pass. In fact, as of July 2014, crime rates in Denver remain lower than they were in 2013, when the drug was still illegal. Specifically, robberies and violent crimes have declined significantly, and murder rates have fallen by 50%. Naturally, the extent to which social scientists will attribute this shift to marijuana legalization remains to be seen. However, such a large decline in crime in such a short period of time is, in and of itself, extremely significant and not likely due to chance.

Some social scientists point out that marijuana legalization has had a huge impact on the local economy of Denver, and that with increased prosperity comes a lower propensity for violent crime. The state itself has earned millions in marijuana tax dollars, and presumably, a portion of this will, too, ultimately trickle down to the people of Colorado. It remains to be seen whether other states besides Colorado and Washington will completely legalize pot. In Florida, where citizens and law enforcement have been fighting drug trafficking for decades, most citizens are pro-medical marijuana. Yet over 60% of residents are against outright legalization of the drug, according to recent polls.