With all the hoopla over Proposition 19, the ballot initiative that would legalize recreational marijuana, Monday’s Forum over at KQED tackled what is perhaps the most important question surrounding marijuana use: what are its health effects?
The hour (audio above), featured a physician face-off between Dr. Timmen Cermak, president of the California Society of Addiction Medicine (who says marijuana has addictive potential) and Dr. Larry Bedard, former president of the American College of Emergency Physicians (who says there’s no evidence of marijuana addiction). Here’s a play-by-play:
- Will kids start smoking more? There are some studies that show diminished educational achievement and cognitive deficits among kids who smoke once a week or so. Cermak’s concern is that if legalized, adolescents might get the impression that there’s no danger in smoking pot (as the impression seems to be with alcohol). And adolescents (as with alcohol) have more of a likelihood to become addicted, or experience neurological side-effects. Bedard argues that a legal source would at least ensure that the market for marijuana (even if still black market for minors) would be different from sources of cocaine, ecstacy, and heroin. Furthermore, he contests that a correlation between pot use and achievement actually means that marijuana causes this negative effect.
- Does smoking marijuana cause cancer or emphysema? Both doctors agree that there is no evidence that smoking marijuana (unlike smoking cigarettes) causes either. Cermak pointed out that it can take time to see the effects of drug use, and would not conclusively say it couldn’t cause cancer. Bedard said he could ask a room full of physicians this question: if you could give a magic pill to your patients who are alcoholics and convert them to having a dependency on marijuana, would you do it? Bedard said every physician would.
- Does marijuana cause or enhance psychological issues? A caller to the program suggested a correlation between pot smoking and schizophrenia. Another asked if there’s an issue with motivation and marijuana. Cermak pointed to a Swedish study that found a slightly higher incidence of schizophrenia in marijuana users (I have never heard of this correlation before, personally. Is it a widespread question?) The bigger debate between physicians was really over the motivation question. Cermak pointed out that when smoking marijuana, anandamide is produced in the brain, which makes everything seem novel–even walking down the hall to the bathroom. After the effects wear off, comparatively, nothing seems novel. Bedard countered that some of the most motivated kids he knows–captain of the football team at Redwood high, honor students, etc.–carry medical marijuana cards. Because their parents don’t want their success derailed by a police encounter.
Interestingly, Dr. Cermak did not actually say he opposes Proposition 19. He actually, instead, pushed a different agenda: that funds collected through a tax on marijuana (if legalization comes into being) should be used for research and treatment for drug users. Bedard is for Prop 19. What do you think: marijuana health problems–real questions or scare tactics?