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Is medical marijuana making us sick? (A psychiatrist’s view)

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on July 26, 2012 at 11:25 am with 7 Comments »
July 26, 2012 11:25 am


By David Sack

The Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to ban medical marijuana dispensaries in the city, the culmination of years of controversy over the sale of pot here. Meanwhile, in Oakland, a federal crackdown closed the nation’s largest dispensary amid protests and demonstrations. But authorities rarely seem to address the real issue about marijuana in California: Is it good medicine?

Some proponents of medical marijuana argue that pot is “natural” and therefore better, or at least no worse, than legally prescribed drugs, which may be addictive and may carry dangerous side effects. But natural is not the standard for whether a drug is safe and effective.

Marijuana advocates also say that physicians who warn against marijuana merely want to push prescriptions. But just because some doctors practice bad medicine with legal drugs doesn’t make marijuana good medicine. In most cases, it isn’t.

Anyone who wants to get a medical marijuana card knows there are unscrupulous doctors who will give you a recommendation with few questions asked. Without doubt, medical marijuana hands a get-out-of-jail-free card to people who just want to get high. Those who get a card and indulge in the infrequent use of marijuana will probably experience few problems. But the situation is different with chronic marijuana use.

Marijuana acts on cannabinoid receptors in the brain. These receptors, which are the most prevalent in the nervous system, influence just about every bodily function, including memory, attention, disposition, arousal, motivation, perception, appetite and sleep.

Many chronic marijuana users insist that marijuana is not addictive the way alcohol and other drugs are. However, neuroscience, animal studies, clinical reports of withdrawal in humans and epidemiology all show that marijuana is potentially addictive.

As to its benefits, controlled clinical studies show they exist, but they are limited. Marijuana can effectively treat neuropathic pain, and it has been shown to improve appetite and reduce nausea in cancer and AIDS patients.

But other generally accepted ideas about marijuana’s effectiveness don’t hold up.

The Glaucoma Research Foundation disputes the idea that medical marijuana is good medicine for the disease. “The high dose of marijuana necessary to produce a clinically relevant effect,” the foundation’s website explains, makes it a poor choice for the treatment of glaucoma, especially given its “significant side effects” and the availability of safer effective drugs.

In addition, those who use marijuana to treat mental health symptoms might be surprised to learn that studies show it not only may not help such symptoms, it may cause them.

Increased funding for research may lead to a better understanding of the impact cannabis has on our bodies, but for now the claims that the drug is effective in the treatment of multiple disorders as distinct as lupus and anxiety seem far-fetched at best. It seems more likely that for some people, getting high just makes them feel better, the way a drink or two might. You would be shocked, however, if in response to a diagnosis of lupus, your doctor suggested you “take two drinks and call me in the morning.”

And pot’s general ineffectiveness is only part of picture. It is not a neutral substance. Chronic marijuana use is associated with a number of well-documented health problems, including a variety of cancers in adults as well as in children who were exposed to the drug in utero.

As to its mental health effects, marijuana is linked to long-term psychiatric problems such as depression, anxiety and psychosis. “Marijuana often is regarded as a ‘soft drug’ with few harmful effects,” says Dr. Joseph M. Pierre, co-chief of the Schizophrenia Treatment Unit at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ West Los Angeles Healthcare Center. “However, this benign view is now being revised, along with mounting research demonstrating a clear association between cannabis and psychosis.”

If the lack of health benefits and manifest risks aren’t enough to raise doubts about medical marijuana, consider basic questions of quality and dose. Although medical marijuana sometimes comes from “cleaner” sources than say a drug cartel, independent labs have found mold, synthetic insecticides and other toxins in pot. Molds such as Aspergillus can be highly dangerous to immune-compromised patients. And there is no way to accurately judge what a proper dose of dispensary marijuana would be.

Habitual marijuana use is helpful for very few medical conditions. It can cause insidious changes in personality and attitude that are clear to everyone but the users themselves. There are nearly 400,000 emergency room visits per year due to marijuana use. Before we advocate for medical marijuana, and before another person doses himself with it, we have to ask: Is medical marijuana making us sick?

Dr. David Sack is a psychiatrist and addiction specialist. He is chief executive of Promises Treatment Centers and Elements Behavioral Health in Southern California.

Leave a comment Comments → 7
  1. markt1147 says:

    Dr. David Sack is a millionaire whose livelihood depends on keeping marijuana prohibited. Of course we can expect the same prohibitionist propaganda from him. Time to legalize.

  2. HOUSEMUSIC3 says:

    REFER MADNESS. this completely dishonest piece is full of holes and misinformation. Nobody believes this crap any more and you DR Sack are personally responsible, through your rhetoric, for one of the greatest human rights violations of our time. Prohibition ruins lives not pot.

  3. DreamPCs says:

    I don’t know if this psychiatrist really believes the mess in his article or if he’s just doing what he can to keep prohibition alive but the simple fact is marijuana does have PLENTY of medicinal value and drawbacks are damn-near nil in itself. In this article I keep seeing “safer alternatives.” What safer alternatives? Someone please tell me a safer drug than cannibus.

  4. Hardly an impartial opinion. A psychiatrist that runs an addiction center. Have another Xanax. Who is the real dangerous drug pusher?

  5. I couldn’t agree more with comments on this obviously biased article. Quite simply put, Dr. Sack has a vested interest in cannabis remaining illegal so that he can tell people what Big Pharma remedies they should be purchasing. Conflict of interest? I would say yes, objective, no way.

    As a regular marijuana smoker for the past 20 years, I can say I graduated at the top of my class in engineering, and then an MBA at one of the best schools in the country all while very regularly enjoying cannabis. I also regularly take 1 month (or longer) breaks, so the concept of addiction to marijuana is ridiculous. I will say that marijuana can be habituating (meaning, I look for it when I get home, like looking for a drink after work), but my withdrawal symptoms amount to “bummer, no weed”.

    Dr. Sack get your facts straight and get your head out of the Reefer Madness. Grow up and trust the science.

  6. Tonydfixer says:

    this guy needs to study up on the modern science of cannabis.nothing he writes is accurate….tonydfixer…..seattle

  7. CannabisCancerProject says:

    Almost four years ago Michigan legalized medical marijuana and for the past 2 and 1/2 Years the Michigan Cannabis Cancer Project has been freely providing Cannabis oil to state licensed medical marijuana patients that have been diagnosed with cancer and have chosen to use cannabis oil instead of chemo radiation. As a result of providing cannabis oil made as instructed by Rick Simpson and following his recommended dosage of a gram a day until the cancer is in remission. I have been witnessed to over 15 cases of various cancers being eliminated with only using cannabis oil. I have had the honor of talking to Rick Simpson on several occasions and I believe the world owes Mr Simpson a debt of Gratitude for freely sharing and instructing the world on how to make this oil. At least a couple of Parents I know personaly are deeply grateful to Rick Simpson for sharing this knowlegd one such case is the parents of a 16 yr old diagnosed a year ago in July with terminal brain cancer the spider web type the parents were told that she that she would have about 18 months to live and that chemo radiation could buy her a few more months. After some research and careful consideration amongst the family members they decided to use cannabis oil as instructed by Rick Simpson and only cannabis oil not chemo radiation. Well its been a year now and she has been consuming a gram or more a day for year. The last test results in February showed that we stopped the growth and she has been living life as normal teenager with out loosing her hair and getting sick oh she also passed her drivers training with flying colors along with her DMV road test while consuming a daily dose of cannabis oil. We are anticipating her test results this August. This is just one of the cases the we provided for and have test results that prove that cannabis oil cures cancer eliminates cancer or kills cancer.
    The Cannabis Cancer Project is committed in discovering and sharing the truth about this oil that is why we go to great lengths to providing this oil free to cancer patients that have chosen and are committed to this form of treatment.
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