President Obama has admitted he thinks cannabis is no more harmful than alcohol. Most Americans would agree he’s on the conservative side of that subject, as polls regularly show majorities who think cannabis is a safer substance to use than alcohol and tobacco. One survey even found that the majority of Americans think regular sugar use is more harmful than regular cannabis use.
But is there evidence to back up those beliefs? Yes. Absolutely.
While the federal government still classifies cannabis as a Schedule I substance with “no known medical value,” there is so much scientific and anecdotal evidence out there showing its medical benefits that even the U.S. Surgeon General recently said it’s useful for some medical conditions.
Scientists in other parts of the world have completed clinical trials showing cannabis’ ability to take down swelling and even reduce cancerous tumors, but in the U.S. research is severely restricted. Most U.S.-based researchers learn quickly that they’ll only get funding and access to study marijuana if they are looking for its harms. However, some research has trickled out — even in the U.S. — to show significant positives when it comes to marijuana use.
Here are three of the most recent discoveries science has brought us on cannabis consumption and health:
1. Men who use cannabis are less likely to get bladder cancer… among many cancers.
The February edition of the journal Urology reports on a review of California health data that found tobacco smokers had a 52 percent increased risk of bladder cancer, but those who smoked both cannabis and tobacco had just a 28 percent increased risk. The shocker was that among those men who were cannabis-only smokers, they had a 45 percent reduced risk of bladder cancer. Not compared to tobacco smokers, but compared to men who don’t smoke anything.
This is just the latest study to show a reduced correlation of cancer among regular marijuana consumers, the most famous of which was Dr. Donald Tashkin’s 2006 research showing a reduced risk of head, neck, and lung cancers among marijuana smokers, again, compared to people who don’t smoke anything.
2. Marijuana’s not shrinking your brain… but alcohol may be.
Have you heard that smoking pot shrinks gray matter in the brain? The January edition of the Journal of Neuroscience published research debunking that nonsense once and for all. The shrinking brain myth was propagated from research that claimed to find reduced gray matter in the brains of long term marijuana consumers. But these researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder and University of Louisville carefully controlled for factors others had ignored, like alcohol consumption, gender, and age, and they found no difference in brain scans between marijuana users and non-users.
But what about those alleged lost IQ points the drug warriors talk about? That Duke study from 2012 was questioned in the same journal that had published the original study for not controlling for other confounding factors. Then, in October 2014, the University College of London published findings that showed no effect on IQ whatsoever from marijuana use, even heavy use, but a strong correlation between lower IQ and alcohol consumption.
Many a public service ad has been made about frying one’s brain cells. But there are over a hundred studies now showing that cannabinoids help induce neurogenesis — the creation of brain cells. One of the latest studies, reported in the August 2014 edition of Psychopharmacology, showed how cannabinoids “may have therapeutic potential for specific cognitive impairments associated with Alzheimer’s disease.” Rather than the stock pot joke about losing one’s memory, marijuana may help bring back memory.
But can it prevent Alzheimer’s? Dr. Gary Wenk, a neuroscience, immunology and medical genetics specialist at Ohio State University, thinks so. Not so much that marijuana is a vaccine for Alzheimer’s, but that it delays its onset so long you’d die of old age first.
Then there is the ability of cannabinoids to protect and repair brain cells in the event of concussion. Harvard professor Dr. Lester Grinspoon wrote an open letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell last fall asking the league to invest heavily in the development of cannabinoid therapies to protect the players from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or the shearing of brain matter that leads to depression, violent outburst, and early death.
Now that four states have legalized cannabis and twenty-three (plus Washington, D.C.) allow medical use, the flood of new research revealing marijuana’s positive health benefits will likely be overwhelming. I’d bet that the next generation will be shocked that we had ever banned this beneficial herb.