Controversy has been revolving around cannabis for decades, but the plant itself has been in existence for centuries. The plant as a whole has many different uses from medicinal, to recreational, to industrial. Cannabis’ uses stretch from treating glaucoma patients all the way to making durable clothing. Marijuana, as it is also known, has been in use as far back as ancient times for it’s psychoactive effects as well as for it’s great healing properties, and continues to be used to the present day. Many myths and unknowns still exist around this plant despite many years of extensive testing, especially regarding the health and mental aspects of the plants usage. According to research, smoking cannabis is healthier than smoking tobacco, and the mental affects are relatively harmless and temporary.
On the health side of the spectrum, marijuana has constantly been compared against tobacco. Approximately twenty years ago the United States Government did extensive research on the two plants in comparison to one another. However, those studies blatantly favored tobacco in the way that they were conducted in order to dampen the consumption of cannabis. “Due to the efforts of various federal agencies to discourage the use of marijuana in the 1970’s the government, in a fit of “reefer madness”, conducted several biased studies designed to return results that would equate marijuana smoking with tobacco smoking, or worse” (Dudley 1999).
For example, the Berkeley carcinogenic tar studies of the late 1970’s concluded that “marijuana is one-and-a-half times as carcinogenic as tobacco” (Dudley 1999). This finding was based solely on the tar content of the leaves of cannabis plants compared to that of tobacco plants, and also didn’t take into consideration the fact that tobacco is grown with carcinogenic radioactive fertilizers to hasten its harvest. In addition, it was not considered that: marijuana smokers smoke the bud, not the leaf of the plant, which only contains 33% as much tar as tobacco; marijuana smokers do not smoke anywhere near as much as tobacco smokers; not one case of lung cancer has ever been linked to marijuana use; and cannabis, unlike tobacco does not cause any narrowing of the small air passageways in the lungs. In fact, it has been proven that marijuana actually dilates the air passages in the lungs, not constricts them. This is the reason many asthma sufferers turn to cannabis, to give them relief from attacks. “Doctors have postulated that marijuana may, in this respect, be more effective than all of the prescription drugs on the market” (Mendelson 1992). “Studies even show that due to marijuana’s ability to clear the lungs of smog, pollutants, and cigarette smoke, it may actually reduce your risk of emphysema, bronchitis, and lung cancer” (Mendelson 1992). Smokers of cannabis have been shown in some cases to actually outlive nonsmokers by up to two years. Medium to heavy cigarette smokers can live seven to ten years longer simply by smoking cannabis.
Cannabis is also ‘better’ than tobacco by the fact that it is not addictive. The active ingredient in marijuana is delta-9 THC (tetra-hydra-cannabinol). Nicotine is nowhere to be found in cannabis so therefore it is not addictive. It used to be believed that THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, was the cause of some brain and genetic damage. Those studies were done biasedly, however, and all have been disproved. In fact, the DEA’s own Administrative Law Judge Francis Young has declared that “marijuana in its natural form is far safer than many foods we commonly consume” (Mendelson 1992).
Along with the potential effects on the human body, the government and people in general are also concerned with the effects cannabis has on the human brain. It is an obvious fact that marijuana affects the brain in some way, if it didn’t, there would be no purpose for it’s recreational usage. The question is, is damage done to the brain? If so how extreme is it and is it permanent?
Previous to the 1980’s marijuana was believed to be in the same family as some opiates. Already included in the opiate family were drugs such as heroine and morphine. This obviously created an immediate association with such hard drugs, and marijuana was placed on Schedule 1 of the DEA’s controlled-substance list (Gettman 1995). Because of marijuana’s so-called relationship to such highly addictive compounds, it was immediately banned from recreational use as well as medicinal use. However, these beliefs happen to be false. “Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, researchers made tremendous strides in understanding how the brain works, by using receptor sites as switches which respond to various chemicals by regulating brain and body functions” (Gettnan 1995). These findings, and the discovery of a THC receptor site, are what helped to inspire more research geared away from marijuana being dope. Heroine, cocaine, and other such “hard” drugs effect the brain’s production of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is directly related to the brain’s “pleasure center” and causes very intense affects on the body and on brain functions. Lab rats have been known to willingly go without food or undergo electric shock just to press a button, which activated dopamine production in the brain (Myers 2000). Drugs that are known to be highly addictive, such as heroine and cocaine, seriously alter the brains use of this powerful neurotransmitter, which is what causes the body to be highly dependant and to constantly crave those drugs. Research has found that cannabis does not alter the brains functioning in this way and therefore should not be classified with such narcotics that do (Gettman 1995).
Previous research during the 1970s concluded that the smoking of marijuana killed brain cells; however, recently other scientists and new studies have proven otherwise. It is a known fact however that marijuana use alters perception, concentration, and also hinders reaction times (Mendelson 1992). In addition to these statements, it is believed that marijuana usage can impair a person’s short-term memory. This occurs because cannabis can inhibit acetylcholine from being released. ACH, as it is otherwise known, helps to relay signals from brain cell to brain cell (Mendelson 1992). However the longevity, or even potential permanence of these side affects is unknown. They aren’t believed to be long lasting, but solid proof as yet to be shown otherwise.
Marijuana has also been linked to amotivational syndrome. This is when a user loses concern about future events, lacks ambition, diminished physical activity, and neglects his or herself. Research findings on this side effect of the drug are contradictory however. “Although there were studies performed through the late 1960’s that attributed amotivational syndrome to marijuana use, these are considered flawed because they did not take into account each subject’s personality characteristics before he or she initially used the drug. That flaw makes it unclear which came first, amotivational tendencies or marijuana use” (Mendelson 1992)
There are many different ideas and discrepancies regarding the debate on marijuana. In some cases it has been shown to cause birth defects and to harm the human brain and body (National 1998). While in other cases marijuana has been shown to be a beneficial medical tool in aiding cancer patients, AIDS sufferers, and people with glaucoma (Dudley 1999). In order to obtain a proper perspective and opinion on the situation one must weed out the propaganda from both sides of the spectrum and think for his or herself. The debate on the mental and physical effects of cannabis has been, and will continue to be a long and hard fought battle for years to come.
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Dudley, William. Marijuana. (1999). Greenhaven Press, Inc. San Diego, California.
Gettman, John. (March, 1995). Marijuana and the Brain. High Times. Retrieved 11/27/2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.marijuana-hemp.com/cin/facts/brain.shtml.
Mendelson, Jack, M.D. and Nancy Mello, Ph.D. Marijuana: Its Effects on the Mind and Body. (1992). Chelsea House Publishers. New York.
Meyers, David G. Psychology (2000). Worth Publishers. Michigan.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (November, 1998) Marijuana: Facts for Teens. Retrieved 11/27/2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.nida.nih.gov/MarijBroch/teenpg13-14.html.