Last week, bored and looking for something to distract us from the tedium of dissertation research, my housemate and I watched a movie. It’s a black and white movie that was made in 1936, famously called: Reefer Madness (formerly known as Tell Your Children). The film has gained notoriety in recent years for its hyperbolic, ridiculous presentation of the dangerous effects of smoking weed, something that is apparent from the Star Wars-esque title crawl at the beginning of the film that informs us of: “Marihuana: that violent narcotic, – an unspeakable scourge, the real public enemy number one!”
From this first piece of clunky narration it’s easy to predict what you’re going to be in for. Over the course of the next hour, we were in fits of giggles as Mae and Jack (the titular drug dealing protagonists/ demonic commie couple) maniacally smoke doobies with their eyes dilated insanely like crackheads, play the piano cartoonishly fast in a furious, dank-induced haze and finally end up murdering two people, for no apparent reason.
The film is somewhat of a cult classic among stoner circles. It’s a homage to the ridiculous way weed was feared by the public and the government when it first became popular in America and a reminder of how far our drug education has moved forward in 80 years. And, whilst time has proved that, no, smoking one joint will not kill you, or provoke you to kill all your friends, unwarranted stigma for the drug still exists even in the present day. Despite the US making big strides forward in decriminalising and legalising cannabis very recently, legalisation is still a topic that our politicians don’t want to talk about. Last year, a petition was signed by 220,000 people to urge the government to hold a debate concerning the legalisation of marijuana. Although this debate did take place, the turnout was appalling – only 16 out of 640 possible MPs were in attendance.
weed is actually far less harmful for us than both cigarettes and alcohol
And this is the main issue. Pressure from the public and legalisation activists alike is still met with a reaction of total apathy from politicians or the simplistic, patronising message that the Conservatives have adopted over the issue, which can be neatly summed up as: ‘weed is bad for you kids, mkay’. It’s an argument that lacks nuance and refuses to acknowledge the growing scientific evidence that weed is actually far less harmful for us than both cigarettes and alcohol.
So what’s the cold, dank truth about weed? Historically, opponents of legalisation have pointed to the physical and mental side effects of smoking MJ. Contrary to what Cheech and Chong might tell you, common sense would dictate that smoking anything into your lungs is probably worse for your body than not doing it at all. However, the majority of scientific research into the effect of smoking weed on your body actually suggests that the risks are relatively slim.
A pamphlet written by the Royal College of Psychologists in June 2014 conceded that though weed does contain some cancerogenic mutagens that could negatively affect your lungs, it’s actually the tobacco that is often mixed with weed in joints that causes the real damage. Weed doesn’t produce harmful chemicals like carbon monoxide and it doesn’t contain tar, two chemicals that are found in tobacco that have been proved to cause lung and mouth cancer, as well as a variety of other nasty diseases. Medically speaking, hitting a bong with just weed in will be better for you in the long term than rolling up a spliff. So, put down your rizla king size and get yourself down to your local head shop if you care that much about your health.
Which brings me to the trickier question of how much smoking weed could be messing with your head. When it comes to how much weed could negatively be affecting the brain, there is still a lot more to find out and new findings are being made very often. Just last week in fact, a study undertaken by scientists at the University of Colorado (one of the four states that have legalised recreational marijuana use) looked into whether smoking weed was a catalyst for subjects developing depression and anxiety earlier than people who didn’t smoke at all. The study looked into the prevalence of marijuana use among 34,000 participants, and then assessed their mental health problems after three years, eventually concluding that there was no link between people who smoke weed and a development of depression.
But, anxiety and depression are not the only mental illnesses that weed has often been linked to. For years, earlier onset schizophrenia has also been mentioned as a potential side effect of smoking too much of the magic herb. About a year ago, researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London found that one in four cases of psychotic conditions like schizophrenia could be the direct result of smoking too much weed.
However, the study found that this was only the case with people who regularly used an extra potent variety of weed called skunk. Skunk is typically made up of about 15 per cent of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC for short), the compound that causes a user to feel high when smoking. This is compared to only about 4 per cent found in more common strains of weed commonly referred to as hash. Other studies have also discovered that often subjects with a genetic predisposition to psychotic disorders were more at risk of developing schizophrenia from regular weed use than those who didn’t have a history of schizophrenia in their family.
Contrary to the opinion that weed actually causes various health problems, there is also growing support for the benefits of medicinal cannabis usage. Whilst UK law still does not recognise weed as having any clinical benefits, many states in the US have been alert to weed’s medicinal properties for years. The golden state, California celebrated its 20th anniversary for the legalisation of medicinal marijuana this year, and prescription cannabis has been legal in Oregon since 1973.
At the moment, 23 states allow weed to be prescribed and sold to assist with treating a number of conditions. Surprisingly, it’s actually elderly people who are particularly benefiting from smoking kush – which is often prescribed as a pain killer and sedative for people with arthritis and other painful bone and joint (no pun intended) problems. It’s also been recognised as healthier in the long term for sufferers than more common pain relief like Butalbital and Valium. Usually, these pain killers are prescribed along with a mix of other drugs like paracetamol and aspirin, and the combination has been known to cause nausea, stomach upsets and restlessness, three symptoms that marijuana can lessen or replace entirely.
Another medical use for marijuana that’s becoming increasingly popular in the states is its application for cancer sufferers. Again, smoking weed has been proved to significantly help alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy by relieving pain and nausea, increasing a patient’s appetite (particularly for Doritos and cheese puffs) and allowing them to sleep better as well. There are some people in the US who have even gone as far as to suggest that weed has cancer killing properties that makes it more effective at fighting cancerous cells than radiotherapy – and without all the negative repercussions.
anxiety and depression are not the only illnesses that weed has been linked to
Some studies have suggested that THC can attach itself to cannabinoid receptors in the body and help reduce the size of tumours. Some are so convinced by this theory that there are small but passionate groups of parents in states like Colorado who are legally feeding their sick children doses of weed resin (taken in capsules) as a treatment for cancer. It should be noted however, that there is currently no significant scientific evidence to support the argument that weed can actually kill cancer cells. On top of this, many medical professionals have warned about the dangers of weed for children and young people. Many believe that the drug could be dangerous if used too early in a child’s development, and could have negative effects on learning and development, as well as increase the risk of suffering from mental illnesses later on in life.
Though there’s still a lot more to be learnt about the effects of smoking weed recreationally or medically, the mounting scientific evidence is clear, weed is not the danger a lot of people still believe it to be. A paper in Scientific Reports even went as far as to say that weed is 114 times less dangerous than alcohol is. By that logic, if you don’t have an issue with drinking, then you probably shouldn’t have an issue with people smoking either. I’m sure me writing this will probably be met with the same ‘you’re a stoner’ accusations that I’m used to from my friends. But, the fact of the matter is this, the view some people have that weed is a dangerous substance is antiquated, archaic and factually incorrect. It’s about time we look at the real facts and rethink the way smoking weed is viewed in both the eyes of the law, and the eyes of the general public.