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Psycho Active Politics: Marijuana, Science and the Politics of Change

When coming from under the influence of (marijuana), the victims present the most horrible condition imaginable. They are dispossessed of their natural and normal willpower, and their mentality is that of idiots. If this drug is indulged to any great extent, it ends in the untimely death of its addict.”

–Canadian Judge Emily Murphy, excerpt from her book, The Black Candle, published in 1922

On the issue of Marijuana, why are the positions of pundits and politicians these days changing like dirty diapers? Roughly 70% of Canadians polled by Forum Research Inc. in August, 2013, support the immediate decriminalization of marijuana, with half of those polled calling for complete legalization. Numbers in the U.S. are the same, with the states of Colorado and Washington (and the country of Uruguay) recently leading the charge by legalizing the recreational use of cannabis outright. According to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the shifting tides are because the politicians in particular, like Gupta himself, have been un-blinded by new science! Guilty of having claimed weed was either harmful or ineffective for more than a century, now mainstream media and leading researchers and science journals are publishing study after study reporting that the biomedical effects of marijuana appear to be overwhelmingly good – or at least much more good than bad. That is, a growing army of support from across political and socio-economic lines are coming to the conclusion that cannabis is a legitimate, non-toxic medicine useful in alleviating a wide range of conditions. Citizens and Police Chiefs as well as budget-savvy economists and poll-dancing politicians, have joined the chorus of voices suggesting that we free the weed from its dank prison of criminality. They don’t all agree on where to position weed legally, but a growing cadre of scientists and other stakeholders are pushing for change. Looking ahead in 2014, according to Gupta and others, it’s the humbling impact of irrefutable science, and the shifting tide of enlightened public opinion that are yielding an array of new insight around cannabis as medicine and recreational tonic.

It’s my goal to identify the key issues in the marijuana debate, demystify the science, and untangle the web of sticky politics that perplexes politicians and swindles patients out of safe accessible medicine. Because of the currency and complexity of the issues, I will do my best to cover the gamut in two separate parts, in series. It’s clear that the importance which marijuana is assuming in the media and public discourse leading up to the October 2015 federal election, deserves a thorough treatment.  In fact, it’s often the oversimplification of complex issues itself, that leads to misunderstanding and ignorance. What cannabis stands for to the people of Canada – and elsewhere – is important enough as a matter of medical, health and human rights, that it deserves more than a passing comment. Over the next two weekly issues, I will examine the changing climate of politics and science surrounding marijuana, shine a bold light on new medical discoveries and debunk myths and other half-truths that have muddied the waters of science and public opinion in the debate on cannabis.

This week, in Part 1, I examine the history and political context of the criminalization of marijuana, the biochemical basis of the plant as medicine, and the socio-economic forces that have shaped the debate and oversimplified the complexities of cannabis until now. Next week in Part 2, I will look at two other aspects of our affair with Mary Jane. First, I will explore the health benefits, biomedical risks and potential social and ethical burdens of cannabis use to certain individuals and groups. I will also map out the range of political parties and their current positions heading into an important election campaign. Many social and political ‘tribes’ are currently struggling to re-define themselves in the globalized information age. That’s no simple task, given that we are clearly in a period of stormy social and ideological change –with an increasingly wired and networked village struggling for new freedoms and opportunities, regardless of what nation or tribe you call home. I see plant medicine as a human right,  and I hope to conclude with a set of parameters that will help us address the issues more sensibly. And support a more prudent but permissive medical and recreational legal regime, based for the first time on good science. It’s also my hope that the series will reduce the emotionalism that has characterized the debate on both sides and replace it with a more agile and accurate language to share our thoughts and feelings, and more importantly to debate and re-shape our understandings of medicinal plants, our body and its healing systems. I have faith that encouraging an open and balanced consideration of the issues and dispassionate research will foster a more enlightened and intense debate on cannabis and its place in our lives going forward.

History, Healing and the Criminalizing of Hemp

While the science and political re-positioning of marijuana is predictably buzz-generating, it’s certainly not new. Cannabis was widely used, written about, completely legal, and touted as a broad-based effective medicine for a host of ailments prior to the 1920s in Canada and 1930 in the U.S.  Then it seems the lights suddenly went out on marijuana as a medicine. Speculation about why, tends to point to widespread public misinformation, sensationalized media, and a growing concern over the list of truly addictive drugs in circulation such as opium, as primary culprits.

In Canada the dawning of the 20th century brought widespread panic in politics with the growing problem of opium addiction.  In the decade following the Opium Act of 1908, Canadian Judge and police Magistrate, Emily Murphy penned her reactionary and scandalous opus on drug addiction entitled, The Black Candle.  Published in 1922 as a type of ‘scared straight’ warning to drug users and racial non-purists generally, and women in particular, The Black Candle laid the groundwork for anti-marijuana public sentiment that lead to the criminalization of cannabis in Canada in 1923. The scurrilous manifesto also edified anti-marijuana and racial bigotry throughout the book by drawing alarmed attention to the impending doom of the white race caused by smoking weed and the simultaneous desire of white women to socialize with Blacks while stoned on hash. She claimed that smoking the Indian Hemp (the name she used for marijuana), caused the rapid and inevitable disappearance of any trace of basic goodness or morality leading first to strange Black consorts and bedfellows, then to psychosis, and ultimately, as the opening excerpt shamefully warns, to death.

Also central in the codification of anti-marijuana sentiment following World War II, was a heavy and influential commercial force:  namely, the emergent pharmaceutical industry and its insinuation into family medical practices throughout North America and Europe. The fact that cannabis, as a natural plant, cannot be patented, owned or exclusively profited from, has made it a ghost in the medical-industrial machine. Synthetic pharmaceuticals are patentable profit-factories for drug companies with big marketing budgets, and therefore have commanded the lions share of interest, research and media coverage. It’s also true that all things ‘manufactured’ became our consumer obsession throughout the industrial revolution and well into the 20th century. There was a general feeling that if it can be pressed into a pill, it must be better than chewing on leaves. Basically, the man versus nature battle was dominating the public discourse throughout the 20th century, with radio and TV product advertisement conscripting the airwaves for its own ends, while peddling a hamster wheel of pseudo-science as support. Why buy vegetables, soup stock and spices, when Campbell’s “Mmm Mmm Good!” Soup Company has done it all for you, and all you have to do is open a can and warm it up? Why prepare full dinners and defile racks of spotless pots, pans or dishes, when you can pop a TV dinner or microwavable meal in the heat chamber for a few relaxed minutes? And why go to the forest for a plant to heal your wounds when you can reach for a pill in a bottle easier than you can brush your teeth? So you could say that factory-made drugs, convenience and advertising, together with your family doctor’s endorsement of the little blue pill, quickly made the traditional plant-based medicine, practically obsolete and almost completely discredited in the media by the 1950s. With the science of profitability supporting commercial airtime and emerging drug giants like Bayer, Johnson and Johnson and Pfizer providing their own ‘modern medical science’, the public was bamboozled into a pro-pharmaceutical coma… and the issue of weed and its pharmacological benefits all but eliminated, until recently.

But in the world of politics and the voting public, shifting back to a plant-based medicine or model and away from dosing on our beloved miracle pills, means admitting we were wrong. And still doesn’t address the profitability question for a product that you can’t control exclusively. In this context, it would seem that keeping your word, and evolving your beliefs sometimes don’t go hand in hand in the ruthless scrum of market-tested politics, modern medical practice and the profit-hungry business of pharmacology.

Leading the charge to change hearts and minds in America and across the world is Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Dr. Gupta wants you to know he has changed his mind on the subject. Actually, he has drastically changed his mind on the subject. To all of the fear-pedlars out there who think he’s flipped his wig and must be gettin’ high on his own supply, the change is not because he smoked some chronic and went all Reefer Madness on us. It is true that the good doctor admits that he has sampled the sacred weed and, although not personally fond of marijuana for his own consumption, Dr. Gupta is advising that there is hard science underlying his new passion to free the healing herb from its stoner ghetto. Gupta has gone deep into the field of ganga science, law, and patient-politics on a vision quest, and has emerged to report that there’s more than good times in a bad-ass bag of BC Bud ! His documentary series “Weed”, Parts 1 and 2 demonstrates incontrovertibly, that, from a strictly scientific perspective, marijuana is highly medicinal, relatively inexpensive, easily produced and consistently assistive with a broad range of illnesses and disease.  Dr. Gupta is now on a mission to teach the world to sing his version of the Peter Tosh classic, Legalize It, using a choir of doctors, researchers, and patients to croon a heartfelt chorus about the curative power of cannabis. In no uncertain terms, Dr. Gupta is passionately praising the myriad ways in which medical marijuana yields more repeatable healing results for patients, across a broader range of illnesses, than arguably any other substance known throughout medical history.

What’s a Cannabinoid to Do ?

Foolish is the doctor who despises knowledge acquired by the ancients.” –  Hippocrates

Chemically speaking, cannabis has more than 400 known natural compounds including more than 80 cannabinoids. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), Cannabidiol (CBD), Cannabinol (CBN) are the most studied and well understood bio-active medicinal compounds in the plant and differ in concentrations and psychotropic activity, depending on which species of the plant you examine, and on how it is cultivated, cured and consumed.

The two most common species of medicinal cannabis are cannabis indica, and cannabis sativa. Very generally speaking, indicas are shorter, bushier plants that tend to have more of a sedative and sleepy effect and are good at reducing anxiety, and promoting sleep.  Sativas  are taller more thinly leafed plants that tend to have a more energizing, sociable psychotropic effect. After hundreds (actually, probably thousands) of years of human use and application, both sativas and indicas now yield an almost limitless number of cultivated and heirloom strains. This is thanks to the high science of cultivating and or preserving certain medicinal and psychoactive traits. Both species grow annually and require no replanting once they have flowered.

THC tends to be effective at pain relief, as an antidepressant and promotes relaxation and sleep. High THC strains should be avoided if you have a predisposition to schizophrenia or anxiety disorders. The research on CBD reveals a variety of repeated successes in reducing or eliminating tumours and cancer cell growth. Additionally CBD consistently demonstrates  measurable relief from various anxiety disorders, chronic pain and as an antispasmodic agent, providing relief of symptoms for MS, fibromyalgia, Tourette’s and epilepsy, to name a few. CBN (Cannabinol) is a by-product of the breakdown of THC and shows strong sedative effects causing relaxation and sleepiness. CBN has proven effective with sleep disorders and as an antibacterial agent in certain staph-based infections. Older weed tends to have higher concentrations of CBN which has also shown some tendency to produce less pleasant sensations such as grogginess, disorientation and social withdrawal.

Additional Healing and Medicinal Aspects of Cannabis are Identified as Follows:

  1. CBD has shown powerful anti-proliferative properties. That is, CBD is effective at stopping, reversing and even eliminating the growth of tumours and cancer in some patients. Rick Simpson’s hemp oil is an impressive example and is documented in the film on his life, “Run From The Cure”. Also according to one of the world’s most esteemed researchers, Raphael Mechoulam, Ph.D., Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the body’s own system, the endocannabinoid system seems to operate alongside the immune system to provide additional, general, and complementary protective effects. Mechoulam makes the point that there are more cannabinoid receptors in the brain and throughout the body than any other type of receptor. He suggests a real possibility therefore, that cannabinoids may be of significant benefit to almost every system in the body, with especially promising success recently in his research on central nervous systems impacting conditions such as Parkinson’s, ALS, and Alzheimer’s, among others.
  2. Cannabis has been shown to alleviate AIDS wasting syndrome and research suggests strong benefits within and alongside the body’s systems of immunity and revitalization;
  3. Recent German research led by Markus Leweke of the University of Cologne found compelling antipsychotic properties acting via CBD;
  4. Robust anti-inflammatory properties have also been found reliably in CBD. Interestingly CBD is more abundant in marijuana that THC. On its own, CBD has little or no psychotropic effects (i.e. it does not get you stoned);
  5. Relaxation and sleep promotion – sleep is among the most important factors in healing. The body needs sleep to break down and eliminate toxins and rebuild body systems, structures and the bio-chemical stasis required to heal itself.  Many conditions and prescription medications interfere with restful sleep and the general peacefulness in the body necessary to heal;
  6. Improves appetite – after sleep, nutrients are the most important building blocks of healing, and wellness. Similarly, because pain, medication, depression and other consequences of illness often cause a dangerous decrease in appetite, which can lead rapidly to wasting syndrome and death, the well documented appetite stimulating properties of marijuana are a strong catalyst to healing;
  7.  Well established anti-convulsive effects provide relief and suppression of epileptic seizures;
  8.  General and effective pain relief across a broad range of illnesses.
  9.  Cannabis promotes a sense of wellbeing, even if pain exists or remains, the unbearable suffering associated with the pain is reduced or eliminated as reported extensively by patients interviewed or studied by Dr. Gupta in connection with his investigative series.
  10. Enhanced sexual arousal and function, cannabis provides a home remedy delivering at once, the good medicine of human touch, bio-immune and endorphin stimulation that accompanies sexual activity and the obvious social and psychological dividends that physical bonding creates;
  11. Early results and possible relief and / or treatment of hard drug and alcohol addiction and schizophrenia. I want to be clear on the issue of schizophrenia that there is very extensive research on both sides, some suggesting marijuana helps cognitive functioning for people with schizophrenia, while other studies have warned of marijuana’s role in triggering schizophrenia in certain populations. Still more recent research out of Harvard Medical School, reported in December 2013, concludes that there is little merit to the reports and position that marijuana causes or increases the likelihood of onset of schizophrenia in people that begin smoking cannabis as adolescents. What all of this means is, at this stage, it is simply scientifically wrong to say that marijuana causes or worsens schizophrenia. It is also scientifically wrong  to claim that it does not, or that marijuana is good for schizophrenics, as some studies are also now concluding. The only  rational position for now seems to be: we currently need to do more extensive, long-term research on the relationship between cannabis and schizophrenia, both as a potential cause or culprit and also as a potential medicine and cognitive remedy for people suffering with the illness.
  12. Neuroprotective effects against Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. The extensive twenty-plus year research results of Dr. Mechoulam at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, shows a promising positive correlation between cannabis use and relief of a whole range of symptoms and conditions related to diseases of the brain and central nervous system.


How Do Scientists Know Weed is Non-Toxic to the Body?

The first rule of medicine is: primum nil nocere, or “first, do no harm.” A growing body of notable university based research is revealing that cannabis is non-toxic to the body. This does not necessarily mean that smoking it is non-harmful to the lungs, but I will return to that point in a future article. In the field of toxicology, the median lethal dose (the “MLD” or “LD50”) is the amount of the lethal dose in 50% of any population tested. The LD50 measures the amount of a toxin, radiation, or pathogen, by dose, required to kill half the members of a tested population after a specified test duration.

The LD50, for marijuana is between 1-to-20,000 and 1-to-40,000. That means, in layman’s terms, you would need to smoke between 20,000 and 40,000 joints in about 15 minutes to kill yourself … not a great way to commit suicide if you’re trying!  Stated simply, it is practically impossible to ingest a lethal dose of marijuana! There is no other known substance like this on Earth. Even coffee and water have lethal doses that consumers need to be conscious of: for water, recorded cases of individuals dying from water intoxication – which causes brain swelling and a potentially deadly reduction in electrolyte density in the blood – have occurred with as little as 6 litres consumed in 3 hours! The average lethal dose of coffee is about 100 cups of coffee in a period of between 5 and 10 hours, depending on body weight… that amounts to about 10 to 20 cups an hour for at least 5 hours. Not easy to do, but very possible if that was your intent or unfortunate addiction.

Not so for marijuana. In fact in nearly 5000 years of reliably documented human history, there are no confirmed human deaths caused by ingesting marijuana. For all you fact-checkers, let’s be clear … I’m not saying that there are no cases of driving fatalities caused by drivers intoxicated on Marijuana. There may well be and I would personally bet that there are, although such reports are scant at best. Driving while intoxicated on anything, including too much caffeine or prescription meds can lead to driving fatalities. But we’re talking here about death from toxicity itself, which tells us how safe or dangerous a drug or compound is on its own. And for marijuana, there are no deaths. NONE. That, contrasted with this chilling fact: someone dies of a prescription drug overdose every 19 minutes in the U.S. alone!

The following is a brief list to provide some perspective on the non-scientific and often irrational basis for maintaining the outlaw status of marijuana in many jurisdictions like Canada. While we are fast and furious in distributing pharmaceuticals, potentially lethal over the counter medicines, cigarettes and alcohol, the fear created last century around the ‘madness’ of marijuana still echoes in political power chambers and current public opinion. The following chart summarizes the number of people that die each year from this common list of legal substances in the U.S. alone. It was surprising to learn that Health Canada does not keep current or comprehensive statistics for deaths from these legal drugs, however, the social work and non-governmental organizational information available strongly suggest that the Canadian numbers are between 10 -15% of the U.S. numbers:

  • Tobacco – 430,700
  • Alcohol – 110,640
  • Prescription drugs – 32,000
  • Aspirin – 7,600
  • Marijuana  – 0

Judicial Confirmation of Non-Toxicity :

While not to be taken as binding law in Canada, a very instructive U.S. Federal Court precedent has been an engine driving public policy towards a more open medicinal approach to cannabis. In a precedent-setting U.S. legal ruling on September 6th, 1988 Judge Francis L. Young’s, report on cannabis stated, based on extensive scientific research:

“…the following facts to be uncontroverted: A smoker would theoretically have to consume nearly 1,500 pounds of marijuana within about fifteen minutes to induce a lethal response.”

Judge Young’s report also concluded the following:

“a. Nearly all medicines have toxic, potentially lethal effects. But marijuana is not such a substance. This is a remarkable statement;

b. By contrast aspirin, a commonly used, over-the-counter medicine, causes hundreds of deaths each year (**actually, it causes thousands).

c. In strict medical terms marijuana is far safer than many foods we commonly consume. For example, eating ten raw potatoes can result in a toxic response. By comparison, it is physically impossible to eat enough marijuana to induce death.

d. Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care.”


End of Part 1

I hope I have laid some groundwork for a more current, factual debate on the merits or misanthropy of marijuana as a medicine. Next week in Part 2, I’ll contrast the health benefits and risks of cannabis use and, based on their public positions, arrange the political parties into groupings of friends, enemies and/or medicinal advocates of marijuana heading into the 2015 election run. The goal is to help spread the science and eliminate the politics of fear in the debate, and to outline a thoughtful framework for policy debate on the role of medical and recreational marijuana in Canada – one that is finally centred in good science, not the bad medicine of fear and monopoly-driven pharmacology.

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