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Marijuana's Benefits: Just Smoke and Mirrors?

6/13/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

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A Legal Defeat Comes Amid Growing Evidence of Health Problems

WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 13, 2005 (Zenit) - The controversial practice of using marijuana for medical purposes suffered a legal defeat Monday. In a 6-3 decision the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the federal government's power to ban the drug's possession in the states that allow its use.

The case arose out of a ruling on California's Compassionate Use Act, approved by a referendum in 1996, known as Proposition 215, the Washington Post noted Tuesday. Another 10 states currently allow medical use of marijuana.

While the case was still pending, the New York Times last March 29 reported that marijuana's benefits are far from being accepted by the medical profession. Although some individuals report having benefited from its use, Dr. Joseph Sirven, an epilepsy specialist and associate professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Scottsdale, Arizona, said: "There's a whole Internet literature suggesting what a wonderful thing it is. But the reality is, we don't know."

And the article quoted Dr. Donald Gross, director of the University of Alberta's adult epilepsy program in Canada, as saying, "There's not been a randomized, controlled trial demonstrating that marijuana or any cannabinoid is any more effective in controlled seizures than a placebo."

Another expert, Dr. Kenneth Mackie, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Washington, has devoted 15 years to studying the brain's response to cannabinoids. He argued that there are no clinical studies proving marijuana's positive effects in alleviating pain.

There are also substantial concerns over how the medical marijuana programs are operating, as the San Francisco Chronicle revealed in an in-depth study of the issue on April 24. The city now has 43 medical marijuana dispensaries. But few controls are in place to govern their operation.

According to the Chronicle, police in San Francisco say the quantity of marijuana in circulation has risen sharply. Police speculate that gang members and drug dealers buy marijuana at the dispensaries and sell it on the street.

Threat to mental health

Monday's court ruling comes after the federal government launched a publicity campaign against marijuana use in May. The Chicago Tribune reported last Sunday that the government is taking out ads in newspapers and magazines across the nation, warning of the drug's ill effects on mental health.

The ads cite studies that point to a link between regular use of marijuana and problems such as depression, suicidal impulses and schizophrenia. One of the reports, by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, interviewed almost 90,000 adults on their use of the drug.

Researchers found that adults who had used marijuana before age 12 were twice as likely to have experienced a serious mental illness in the past year as those who began smoking it after 18.

"The evidence is now pretty significant that central nervous system development is not complete in adolescents, and the use of this drug may have effects on the maturation of their central nervous systems," said Dr. Richard Suchinsky, a psychiatrist who oversees the Department of Veterans Affairs' addiction programs.

In England, a conference organized by the Institute of Psychiatry of King's College in London late last year heard evidence that marijuana use roughly doubles the risk of psychiatric illness. According to a Dec. 2 article in London's Telegraph newspaper, Jim van Os, a psychiatrist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, said that a number of studies show that the drug roughly doubles the risk of psychiatric illness such as schizophrenia among young people.

A study carried out by the Dutch psychiatrist revealed even higher risks for those who are already genetically vulnerable to psychiatric problems. For those who had shown evidence of being predisposed to these conditions, marijuana use increased fourfold the risk of developing problems.

On Jan. 1 the Telegraph reported on comments made by Dr. Clare Gerada, head of the drugs misuse unit of the Royal College of General Practitioners. She said that relaxed attitudes toward marijuana use, combined with the greater availability of stronger varieties of the drug, were leading to rising rates of depression and psychosis among vulnerable young people.

The British press has published a number of reports on problems associated with marijuana use in the aftermath of the government's decision, effective at the start of 2003, to downgrade the drug from Class B to Class C. The change means that those caught by the police using marijuana are let off with a warning. The drug is confiscated.

Altering the brain

Heavy use of marijuana has ...

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