health & science

Cannabis: Where is the data?

New Zealand is gearing up for a contentious cannabis conversation. Looking to temper the current NZ opinion, which – according to recent polls – is 67 percent in favour of cannabis reform, Family First’s Bob McCoskrie recently submitted a comment to the NZ Herald that condemned the marijuana movement in Colorado, comparing it to a Big Tobacco industry that doesn’t care about the health and safety of consumers.

Using statistics from a highly criticised report that Forbes Magazine has called “dishonest”, McCoskrie claimed that adolescent use has increased in Colorado, that cannabis is responsible for significant societal harm, and that “Big Marijuana” is trying to get kids addicted. Of course, none of this is true, based on the data available from credible scientific studies.

Instead, since legalisation, Colorado has seen its lowest rates of adolescent use in a decade, a reduction in deaths from opioid use, an increase in closing unsolved crimes, and – to date – nearly $1 billion in government revenue.

The case for Cannabis

While Colorado’s results should be considered preliminary, they are consistent with others that have changed their stance on the substance. In addition to a decrease in drug-related homicides, the implementation of progressive marijuana laws in the State of Washington has coincided with a reduction in sexual assault and property crimes as well as a decrease in the abuse of other substances, such as alcohol.

This news has fuelled cannabis activists, who claim that legalisation will allow police to shift focus onto violent offences, ease the burden on the prison systems, reduce organised crime, lead to better drug education, and provide less societal dependence on dangerous opioid painkillers.

Supporters of the substance also turn to its medical applications, including its use to alleviate symptoms of chemotherapy, reduce seizures in epilepsy patients, and its potential as a safer, less addictive pain reliever. In fact, the World Health Organisation has called for a component of cannabis, cannabidiol (CBD), to be removed from internationally controlled substance lists, due to its lack of harm and potential therapeutic benefits.

Pass on Grass?

However, cannabis – like any drug – does have side effects that warrant consideration. In the case of Colorado, the State has observed increases in use amongst adults, illegal plants seized on public land, motorists that have tested positive for cannabis, and marijuana-related emergency room visits. With regard to overconsumption, it is important to note that it is effectively impossible to overdose on cannabis, thus, emergency care is centred around patient comfort until symptoms subside.

Critics of legalisation point to increases in paediatric exposure, which can occur through unsuspecting ingestion of edible cannabis products. While there isn’t any evidence of long-term effects from a single use, prolonged cannabis abuse in adolescents is associated with impaired cognitive function and a higher risk for psychosis.

Thus, limiting adolescent exposure should be a primary goal for any drug-related legislation. To date, US States have maintained this objective, as neither marijuana use in teenagers nor high school dropout rates have increased since cannabis reform laws have been introduced, contradicting the claims of McCoskrie.

When the Smoke Clears

Despite potential drawbacks, many believe that cannabis reform can reduce societal harm. One of the most active voices in NZ regarding this viewpoint is Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick. Swarbrick envisions a system where the government can regulate who is consuming the drug and where it is coming from, similar to the current controls on alcohol and tobacco.

This method would emulate systems in Portugal and Switzerland, where drug use is treated as a health issue rather than a criminal offence. With governments opting to rehabilitate abusers rather than incarcerate them, these systems have produced favourable results in terms of limiting drug-related disease and overdose deaths while simultaneously enhancing patient societal outcomes at a net cost savings.

As such, the current body of scientific evidence lends support to Swarbrick’s vision, however, there is still more data needed regarding the effects of cannabis on both the individual and society. Unfortunately for scientists, current laws have hindered research on marijuana’s potential uses, negatively impacting our knowledge on the subject.

One entity that has been using its resources to suppress cannabis research and support has been the pharmaceutical industry. Increasingly using the term “Big Marijuana” to influence voters, anti-marijuana groups have used funding from Big Pharma to campaign against cannabis-friendly legislation. This relationship was highlighted by the fentanyl-manufacturing company Insys that, five months after spending $500,000 to block marijuana legalisation in Arizona, won approval for a cannabis-derived medical drug.

Such an example provides a stark reminder on the importance of data sources, none of which are more credible than independent, peer-reviewed scientific studies. Thus, if the goal is to attain the clearest possible information on the impacts of cannabis, we should be promoting the best scientific data available rather than living in a haze of conjecture.

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