We Need a Campaign of Information

Should cannabis be decriminalised or not? Should it be classifed as a class B or C drug? Debates are irrelevant while they are entrenched in misinformation and disinformation
This article by Deirdre Boyd appeared in Addiction Today, November 2000 – before the ACMD advised then Home Secretary David Blunkett to reclassify it downwards to a class C drug. On the urging of prime minister Gordon Brown, the ACMD is again hearing evidence this February. The facts here have not dated – in fact, more recent research validates them further.
The most noticeable factor in ongoing debates about cannabis is the vast foundation of ignorance on which people are basing the most emotive, entrenched arguments. The fewer facts people have, the more heated they seem to be. This country needs a strategy of health information about cannabis which is as available and comprehensive as that eventually offered by anti-tobacco campaigners.
Cigarette smoking started to reduce because people were – after a battle spanning decades – given the facts about its risks. Cannabis smokers also deserve the truth so that they can make informed decisions about their own health and that of their families.
For example, are the people – including government ministers – who argue that they took pot in the 1960s and 1970s without any harm aware that the pot/marijuana/cannabis of today is not the same substance they took back then? Like every other profitable product, cannabis has been refined over the decades so that it is now four to 12 times more potent than it was 20 years ago.
So, for the moment, let’s put to one side the legal and criminal ramifications and look at what studies show about the effects of cannabis on health.
When asked by a teacher suspicious of wide swings in academic performance in some of his students what symptoms could help to identify a pupil using cannabis, Dr James West of the Betty Ford Center gave the following answer.
“Cannabis affects the cerebral, cardiovascular, pulmonary and neuroregulatory systems. Acute or chronic use leads to: euphoria, decreased mental functioning, faster pulse, decreased pulmonary function, exacerbation of asthma, conjunctival injection (red eyes), pharyngitis (sore throat), bronchitis, stuff nose, dry mouth, sinusitis, perceptual delusions, paranoia, mood shifts, sleepiness, sexual arousal, anxiety/panic, lethargy and lack of ambition, plus angina in a pre-existing heart disease.
“The symptoms of overdose are very rapid pulse, very high blood pressure, delusions, hallucinations, seizures in epileptics and acute mental changes including psychosis. There are also withdrawal signs for regular users who quit abruptly: irritability, restlessness, insomnia, mild tremors/ bouts of chills and sometimes a low-grade fever.”
A report by the British Medical Association found that smoking a cannabis cigarette leads to three times more tar inhalation than from a tobacco cigarette – and long-term use can lead to lung cancer. Dr West states that cannabis contaiins four to five times the lung-cancer-producing hydrocarbons as does tobacco.
Such disorders linked with smoking can also be caused by long-term use. It is unclear if there is more risk of these disorders than with tobacco. But cannabis users tend to inhale more deeply and the drug does contain more tar. “Cannabis irritates the respiratory system and obstructs smaller airways with a form of bronchitis-emphysema,” explains Dr West.
The heart responds to cannabis with an increased heart rate proportional to the dose of the drug. Usually, after smoking pot, the heart rate increased by 20-40 beats per minute, and rapid rates of 140 beats per minute are not unusual. Chronic use can lead to angina in people with pre-existing heart problems.
Although infamous for recommending the decriminalisation of cannabis, the Runciman Report states that “the number of people seeking help from drug agencies for problems with cannabis use has doubled from 1,400 in 1993 to 3,300 in 1998 (10% of the total seeking help). This is only the people who identified cannabis as their “main drug”.
Cannabis is addictive, concludes a survey by the US National Institute of Drug Abuse. It found that 75% of people who gave up cannabis had cravings for it, and 70% switched to tobacco in an attempt to stay off. Almost 50% said they became irritable and many were bored after giving up the drug.
And in more recent experiments with monkeys, a NIDA team warned that cannabis might be as addictive as heroin and cocaine.
A 1994 report from the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that 60% of children who smoked pot before the age of 15 years moved on to cocaine, and 20% of those who first smoked pot after age 16 then used cocaine.
Cannabis is best known as a relaxant. This can lead to lower blood pressure, increased appetite, feelings of relaxation, mild intoxication and increased sociability. Smokers usually feel its effects in minutes and they can last up to three hours. The effect is delayed when eating or drinking, so that it lasts longer and can be harder to control. And the relaxing effect can go too far. Research shows that cannabis affects almost ever bodily system, slowing down reaction times, causing drowsiness and confusion.
Because cannabis is absorbed into the brain cell wall, it is considered more destructive to brain tissue than opioids. Heavy use impairs general intellectual functioning such as memory and comprehension. Even in small doses, dope smoking is known to cause short-term memory loss.
Even “casual use” of cannabis impairs psychomotor skills like those needed to drive a car. It increases the chance of a traffic accident or accidents while operating machinery.
Studies sow that regular heavy use can cause nerve damage and affect learning.
These can result from even small doses. Anxiety and panic are common.
This, too, is affected by cannabis.
High doses can cause coma. But we are not aware of any records of fatal overdose.
“It can have adverse psychic effects ranging from temporary distress, through transient psychosis, to the exacerbation of pre-existing mental illness,” the Runciman Report states about cannabis.
Dr Andrew Silski, consultant psychiatrist and medical director at Pembury Hospital in Tunbridge Wells, backs this. “I estimate taht 75% of the young people I see suffering psychotic illness have a history of cannabis abuse,” he revealed.
The drug contains hundreds of active ingredients, most importantly cannabinoids, which interfere with the chemical functioning of the brain. Its most serious effect seems to be depleting neurotransmitters – such as dopamine, which is linked with pleasure – and hindering electrical currents vital for brain function.
People with personality disorders can succumb to amotivational syndrome. They lose motivation, drive and willpower, leading to depression. This can damage education, work prospects and relationships.
“There is also an unknown number of people with a mental or chemical predisposition for psychotic illness,” states Wilski. “In them, cannabis can trigger altered moods, confusion, delusions or hallucinations. Cannabis also has a profoundly worrying effect on people with unspecific brain impairment or weakness, such as dyslexia. And it is no coincidence that some ethnic communities, in which cannabis use is endemic, suffer hugely increased levels of psychosis: six to 20 times greater than the norm.”
Abnormalities can occur in the reproductive systems of men and women. Cannabis can cause irregularities in the menstrual cycle. And studies of males have shown reduced sperm count and mobility as well as sperm of abnormal appearance. Sterility and infertility have occurred in users.
Smoking pot in pregnancy has been found to be linked to a form of leukaemia in infants.
The facts are here. The choice is yours.
Source: Addiction Today, November 2000

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