28 January 2019

Increasingly Marijuana is Legal – But is Cannabis Safe?

Recreational marijuana is now legal in 10 states in America. Medicinal marijuana is legal in 33 states. In 2018, Canada legalised the use of recreational marijuana nationwide. Since November 2018 in Britain, specialist doctors can prescribe medicinal cannabis to their patients. In countries including Uruguay, Spain, the Netherlands, Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica and Luxembourg, recreational use of marijuana is either legal or decriminalised.

But how much is scientifically proven about the effects and risks of marijuana – including when it is used for medicinal purposes? In an article published by the New Yorker in January 2019, Malcolm Gladwell asks: “Is Marijuana as Safe as We Think?”

Is Marijuana Safe? – The Scientific Answers

Malcolm Gladwell argues that very little is scientifically proven about the effects and risks of marijuana use. Referring to a 468-page report compiled by the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) in America, published in January 2017, Gladwell highlights the report’s conclusion – that many more studies are needed, to determine the scientific facts about marijuana.

Regarding the safety and efficacy of medicinal marijuana, Gladwell writes: “Smoking pot is widely supposed to diminish nausea associated with chemotherapy. But, the panel pointed out, “there are no good-quality randomized trials investigating this option.” We have evidence for marijuana as a treatment for pain, but “very little is known about the efficacy, dose, routes of administration, or side effects of commonly used and commercially available cannabis products in the United States.” The caveats continue. Is it good for epilepsy? “Insufficient evidence.” Tourette’s syndrome? Limited evidence. A.L.S., Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s? Insufficient evidence. Irritable-bowel syndrome? Insufficient evidence. Dementia and glaucoma? Probably not. Anxiety? Maybe. Depression? Probably not.”

When it comes to the broader risks of marijuana use, Gladwell writes about further uncertainty highlighted by the NAM report. “Does the use of cannabis increase the likelihood of fatal car accidents? Yes. By how much? Unclear. Does it affect motivation and cognition? Hard to say, but probably. Does it affect employment prospects? Probably. Will it impair academic achievement? Limited evidence.”

Unequivocally, however, cannabis increases the risk of serious mental illnesses including schizophrenia and other psychoses. “The higher the use, the greater the risk,” the NAM report states.

The National Academy of Medicine’s report concludes with a call for proper studies on “the health effects of cannabis on children and teenagers and pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers and older populations and heavy cannabis users” – in other words, most people who are exposed to marijuana.

In the meantime, Gladwell argues for restraint. “Permitting pot is one thing; promoting its use is another,” he writes.

Is Marijuana Safe? – Changes to Supply and Demand

According to the World Health Organisation, “cannabis is by far the most widely cultivated, trafficked and abused the illicit drug. Half of all drug seizures worldwide are cannabis seizures. About 147 million people, 2.5% of the world population, consume cannabis (annual prevalence) compared with 0.2% consuming cocaine and 0.2% consuming opiates.”

In Britain, recreational cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug. According to the Home Office Crime Survey 2017-18, 7.2% of 16 to 59-year-olds used marijuana in the previous year (approximately 2.4 million people).

Additionally, the way recreational marijuana is produced and sold to consumers around the world has changed significantly over the past generation. Plant breeding and growing techniques have become increasingly industrialised with significant modifications to the levels of THC in many strains of recreational cannabis. Gladwell writes in the New Yorker that “the typical concentration of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, has gone from the low single digits to more than twenty per cent—from a swig of near-beer to a tequila shot.”

Regarding medicinal marijuana, there have been high profile campaigns in the US, Canada and the UK, concerning the treatment of sick children with cannabis oil. This has led to a softening of public attitudes, as well as increased demand for cannabis on prescription.

The marketing of marijuana has become more competitive in recent years too. Street dealers through to corporations seek to capitalise on the global demand for recreational and medicinal cannabis. With the trend for the legalisation of marijuana, even more, competition is likely to emerge – between illegal and legal producers and suppliers.

But does legalisation necessarily imply safety? In the future, could even higher strength marijuana be produced illegally, to compete with legal products? Or will legalisation gradually put black market dealers out of business?

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Is Marijuana Safe? – Addiction and Recovery

As with all drugs, exposure to marijuana does not necessarily result in addiction. However, the more you use marijuana, the greater chance there is of developing a dependence on the drug. Tolerance to THC can build over time, meaning you will need greater amounts to achieve the same high. Your withdrawal symptoms will become more severe with heavy and frequent use, especially if you stop very suddenly without medical help.

Most cases of marijuana addiction do not require a medically managed detoxification. In the most severe cases, however, medication can be prescribed temporarily as part of a managed detoxification protocol. This will ease the withdrawal symptoms associated with sudden cessation. When other drugs and/or alcohol are used alongside marijuana, it becomes even more important to seek professional help with detoxification. It may be fashionable to go ‘cold turkey’ – but it certainly isn’t safe, as drug and alcohol withdrawal can be extremely unpredictable.

Addiction to marijuana is sometimes presented as not as serious or life-threatening as an addiction to alcohol or drugs like heroin or cocaine. However, rehabilitation for marijuana addiction is as necessary for a heavy cannabis user as it is for an alcoholic or heroin addict. All dependencies are symptomatic of unresolved personal difficulties, serious trauma or significant unmet needs, which usually addicts are partially or wholly unaware of before entering addiction treatment.

At UKAT, we offer residential and non-residential programmes to treat marijuana addiction. Our specialist teams nationwide help people overcome their addiction and build long-lasting and meaningful recovery.

To read more about cannabis, including the signs and treatment for marijuana addiction, visit the UKAT cannabis webpage.

Please contact our Admissions team to discuss treatment for marijuana addiction.

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