The Hard Truth About Marijuana and Health

by Sheila Polk, Yavapai County Attorney

Arizona’s marijuana purveyors continue to tell us they’re just providing medicine to provide for the health and well-being of our state’s residents. That was the pitch when one of the largest companies tried to open a dispensary in downtown Scottsdale. 

“It’s literally about helping patients that need to get their medicine and this isn’t about anything other than that,” the company’s founder told a Phoenix TV station. 

This is one of the most galling lies Big Marijuana tells. Every other prescription medicine you take went through rigorous scientific trials before hitting the market. Marijuana? Its only test was at the ballot box. (And as to that Scottsdale ploy, the pot legalization initiative, if it passes in 2020, will give first dibs on recreational retail licenses to locations already housing medical dispensaries. It was all about gaining a foothold in a tourist-rich area.) 

So, in this medical, health and wellness issue, let’s look at what peer-reviewed research says about marijuana. A plethora of recent studies highlight the drug’s hazards. 

  • Early last year, the medical journal The Lancet published a major study that found people who use high-potency marijuana daily are five times more likely to develop psychosis than those who never partake. The researchers defined high potency as over 10% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in pot. Arizona medical marijuana dispensaries sell leafy marijuana with potencies in the 20% range and concentrates that approach 90% THC. 
  • “No amount of marijuana use during pregnancy or adolescence is known to be safe,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams recently warned. He cited a wide range of studies connecting rising THC levels to rising risks for addiction, anxiety, agitation, paranoia and psychosis. Chronic users often develop cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, which is marked by severe cycles of nausea and vomiting. 
  • Most of the patients in the current outbreak of lung illnesses linked to vaping were ingesting THC. Vaping, you’ll recall, was introduced as yet another way to improve your health. It turns out it can be deadly.
  • Researchers at the University of Vermont found that teens’ brains shrank after just one or two joints. Other research has shown that THC impairs short-term memory and the ability to form new memories. Regular use leads to a permanent decrease in learning capabilities, a shortened attention span and an impaired ability to effectively communicate. 
  • Marijuana dispensaries often recommend pot to ease morning sickness. That’s more bad advice. The CDC warns that use during pregnancy can cause low birth weight, developmental problems and attention deficits. 
  • A study by University of Nevada-Las Vegas researchers found a connection between daily marijuana use and impaired fetal growth, which can lead to a weakened immune system and stillbirth. “Just because marijuana is legal doesn’t mean it’s safe,” Dr. Nora Doyle, one of the study’s co-authors, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. 

Just because marijuana is legal doesn’t mean it’s safe. Those are words to remember. 

It wasn’t that long ago that oxycodone legally came on the market with promises of being a godsend for those who suffer from severe pain. For many, these opioids have been beneficial. But they also have been overprescribed and abused, and almost 4,000 Arizonans have died of suspected opioid overdoses since June 2017. Belatedly, government and the medical profession have acted to roll back easy access to opioids and enact needed safeguards. 

Researchers have barely scratched the surface, yet they’re already raising red flags about the deleterious effects of marijuana. But meanwhile, not content with the millions it has made through the charade of medical marijuana, the industry is brashly pressing for legal recreational use of this dangerous substance. 

The opioid crisis provided us a lesson. Medical research says we should learn from it. Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s safe — or healthy. Marijuana is neither.

Sheila Polk is the Yavapai County Attorney and serves as Chair of MATFORCE, the Yavapai County Substance Abuse Coalition.