How To Advocate For Cannabis Safety Without Harming The Movement

People are coming around to cannabis, but with every new crest of the wave, opposition remains. This is majorly influenced by stigma and a lack of direct, unbiased, and widely available research to debunk the worst of it.

Cannabis is much demonized, but when compared to other intoxicants the differences are stunning. Dropping all of that comparison, cannabis on its own is looking to be relatively harmless by most measures of research. Cannabis benefits outweigh its risks even strictly viewed as a recreational intoxicant—medical uses notwithstanding.

But there are risks, and with any consumption substance, we should know every corner of the potential. The hard part is how polarizing the argument has become, not unlike many other topics. Those aware of the threats to health either minimize them for profit or to further legalization, others use research on risks to drive the movement against cannabis, continuing the War on Drugs.

We need to make a level headed plea to both cannabis advocates and opponents to support scientific research, no matter the outcome. Cannabis needs understanding, for an astounding number of reasons, but the wider we see CBD separate from the whole cannabinoid picture, and the longer we see criminalization and enforcement harm Black communities disproportionately—the more the future of the industry appears imperiled to repeat the abuses of old.


No Need To Panic

The biggest issue when handling the undefined hazards of cannabis use is that people tend to hide or exaggerate any findings that clash with their personal beliefs. It can be a gamble, especially when smoking or vaping cannabis, but issues can’t be swept under the rug or made into bogeymen without serious science to flesh out what we don’t know.

Telling the cannabis opposition not to panic is a matter of life and death, not for the people smoking cannabis for decades, but for the people for whom an interaction with law enforcement could be catastrophic. Any concerns that cannabis does pose to health are decidedly less deadly.

Those who don’t want legalization should not be a driver of research into its shadows. Continuing the failed War on Drugs is worse for our nation than even the most problematic consumption methods.

People like Alex Berenson, a guy who wrote a whole book trying to tie weed to the ills of society like the Anti Saloon League pundits he must be related to, have been working hard to demonize cannabis based on preliminary findings of a possible mental health danger.

What this broad brush approach creates is more stigma. They stomp on the caveat of most medical and scientific studies, that correlation is not causation. It also bears mentioning that many people use cannabis to treat their mental illness, so linking crisis episodes with weed use is also ableist and ignores the complexities of mental health altogether. Until we know how to treat illness with cannabinoids in repeatable detail, we don’t know what works for who and why, a core issue with most sub pharmaceutical self medicating. In the meantime, denying this treatment to people is cruel.


Potential psychosis risk of potent cannabis

Conversely, people who love cannabis need to be willing to listen to research that could perhaps turn some people off the plant, and it’s important to recognize the differences in each person’s body. Cannabis may not mesh with an individual’s composition, and that it’s not only OK, it’s the same autonomy that says you should consume if you need or want to.

In Psychology Today, a Lancet study was discussed where cannabis potency was looked at in the context of psychosis. It said, “Compared to controls who never used cannabis, those who used it daily had an adjusted odds ratio of 3.2 of having a psychotic episode. And combined daily use with high-potency THC increased the odds ratio to 4.8. Furthermore, the researchers concluded that if high-potency THC were not available, the number of first episode psychosis would have been 12% less across the 11 sites, 30% less in London and 50% less in Amsterdam.”

Though it’s alarming at a glance, the study does not claim cannabis as the cause, it’s yet to be seen what concurrent or unrelated factors create this problem, or contribute to cannabis being the cause if that is the result.

Designing better outcomes with cannabis rests on untangling the mysteries of potency, bioavailability, and how cannabinoids interact with the neurological system. A slight buzz wouldn’t cause concern in most, but dabbing super potent cannabis concentrates could simply be too much for some brains, and psychosis and hallucinations are not a side effect that’s desirable.


Is Cannabis Stronger Today?

In 2015, The Atlantic wrote, “It’s difficult if not impossible to classify average potency in a way that can be tracked meaningfully over time. So while there’s almost certainly more super-strong pot available today—if only by the fact that it’s now legal to buy in multiple states—it doesn’t mean that all marijuana is ultra-potent today, which is how the narrative about potency is often framed.”

Research in the cannabis sector has always revolved around medicinal benefit and economic benefit. Its high time that the studies encompass everything we need to know about the plant, so data gaps like the one that cites increased cannabis potency doesn’t get spread as gospel, especially on the heels of a potential connection with psychosis.

Studies will often contradict or disprove each other, this is the nature of scientific research, but a consensus often appears—and hopefully one can develop in the cannabis business soon.

We’re currently at the mercy of the few conglomerates who are able to fund studies, but this doesn’t always end up with better product for the consumer. Exploring cannabis through and through would be the goal of a more egalitarian system, but developing proprietary and patentable medicines is more along the lines of what’s happening.

Though we do want excellent and precise medications developed using cannabinoids, do we want them to be drummed up based on partially confirmed hypotheses? Until we can completely define the nature of the entourage effect, the endocannabinoid system’s finer actions, and any other need-to-know between the body and cannabis, anything we do is just a test in of itself—something that we hope works, based on current understanding.


Balanced perspective

There aren’t all yea or nay style opinions out there, some researchers are aware of the biases and acting to create studies that encompass the spectrum of knowledge vs a limited view.

If you look at the rise in synthetic cannabinoid use as a recreational intoxicant or a medical drug, there’s definite risks that are not present in whole cannabis flower or extracts. This should be concerning to everyone—society doesn’t need new and dangerous intoxicants, it needs the full weight of cannabis’ potential to be mapped out.

This study said, “SCs [synthetic cannabinoids] have different pharmacological properties than cannabis. These molecules are particularly lipophilic15 and are full agonists of CBD receptor 1 (CB1) and CBD receptor 2 (CB2).17 Their potential binding affinity for these receptors is also much stronger than that of THC, thus causing much more pronounced psychoactive effects.”

Synthetic cannabinoids are dangerous when administered incorrectly, and considering we don’t know precisely what that means yet, their abuse is becoming more common, resulting in mass overdoses deemed ‘synthetic marijuana’.

Anyone who is a fan of cannabis should understand the seriousness of ignoring what a substance can do the the body—just look at tobacco’s dramatic unmasking— the most plain example but on a mass scale. If the risks become hidden by people with any sort of agenda, capitalist or otherwise, we could suffer needlessly.

This also means the dangers should not be blown out of proportion, especially not if they’re sought after to stem the tide of justice that is due for it’s rise. Level headedness doesn’t always mean upholding the status quo, that’s just something we’ve been socialized to believe to stop from rocking the boat.

Emerald contributor since May 2017


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