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5 of the Latest Marijuana Studies That Upend Decades of Myths and Fearmongering

Reefer Madness-style propaganda is so last century.

Scientific discoveries are published almost daily rebuking the federal government’s contention that cannabis is a highly dangerous substance lacking therapeutic efficacy. But most of these findings appear primarily in obscure, peer-reviewed journals and often go unnoticed by the major media and the general public. Here are five new cannabis-centric studies that warrant mainstream attention. 

Early Onset Pot Use Isn’t Associated With Adverse Outcomes in Adulthood

Kids who experiment with weed are far less likely than non-users to be healthy and successful adults. So says the conventional wisdom. But new science says otherwise. Investigators from the Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Rutgers University prospectively examined whether male subjects who consumed cannabis between the ages of 15 and 26 differed in terms of socioeconomic, social, and life satisfaction outcomes by their mid-30s as compared to those who were either abstinent or only consumed it sparingly. After controlling for potential confounders, such as the use of alcohol and other illicit substances, researchers reported that pot consuming subjects– including those who used the substance habitually – were generally “not at a heightened risk for maladjustment in adulthood.”

A separate evaluation of this same cohort published in August in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors reported that younger pot smokers were no more likely than their non-smoking peers to experience physical or mental health issues later in life. The finding defied researchers’ presumptions, as they acknowledged that their motivation for conducting the study was to "provide empirical evidence regarding the potential adverse consequences of marijuana legalization."

Providing Medical Cannabis Access Reduces Opioid Abuses

Is legalized pot a gateway to fewer opioid-related deaths? The data says ‘yes.’ According to findings published in July by the National Bureau of Economic Research – a non-partisan think-tank -- states that permit qualified patients to access medical marijuana via dispensaries possess lower rates of opioid addiction and overdose deaths as compared to those that do not.

Researchers from the RAND Corporation and the University of California, Irvine assessed the impact of medicinal cannabis laws on problematic opioid use, as measured by treatment admissions for opioid pain reliever addiction and by state-level opioid overdose deaths. They concluded, "[S]tates permitting medical marijuana dispensaries experience a relative decrease in both opioid addictions and opioid overdose deaths compared to states that do not.”

The findings were not the first time that researchers have reported a relationship between increased medi-pot access and decreased opioid deaths. Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2014 also concluded, "States with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8 percent lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without medical cannabis laws." 

Pot Is a Frequent Substitute For Alcohol, Other Drugs

Legalized pot isn’t just associated with the less frequent use of opiates. Data published this month in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review also reports that most people who consume weed also report reducing their use of alcohol, as well as their consumption of other licit and illicit drugs. “Substituting cannabis for one or more of alcohol, illicit drugs or prescription drugs was reported by 87 percent of respondents” in the cohort, Canadian researchers reported,  “with 80.3 percent reporting substitution for prescription drugs, 51.7 percent for alcohol, and 32.6 percent for illicit substances.” Rates of substitution were highest among respondents between the ages of 18 and 40.

Authors concluded, “The finding that cannabis was substituted for alcohol and illicit substances suggests that the medical use of cannabis may play a harm reduction role in the context of use of these substances, and could have implications for substance use treatment approaches requiring abstinence from cannabis in the process of reducing the use of other substances.”

Forget ‘The Munchies’ – Pot Consumers Are Less Likely to Be Obese

Smoking pot may stimulate appetite, but it isn’t likely to make you fat. That’s the conclusion of a recent study published in journal Obesity.

Investigators from the Conference of Quebec University Health Centers assessed cannabis use patterns and body mass index (BMI) in a cohort of 786 Inuit (Arctic aboriginal) adults ages 18 to 74. Researchers reported that cannabis users possessed an average BMI of 26.8 compared to an index of 28.6 for non-users, after controlling for age, gender and other factors. Investigators further discovered that pot users possessed fewer diabetic markers than non-users. They concluded: “In this large cross-sectional adult survey with high prevalence of both substance use and obesity, cannabis use in the past year was associated with lower BMI, lower percentage fat mass, lower fasting insulin, and HOMA-IR (insulin resistance). ... [C]annabinoids from cannabis may be viewed as an interesting avenue for research on obesity and associated conditions."

While these latest findings run counter to stoner stereotypes, they are hardly novel. Observational trial data published in 2012 in the British Medical Journal reported that marijuana users possessed a lower prevalence of type 2 diabetes and possessed a lower risk of contracting the disease than did those with no history of cannabis consumption, even after researchers adjusted for social variables such as subjects' ethnicity, family history, and levels of physical activity. Additionally, cross-sectional data published in 2011 in the American Journal of Epidemiology similarly reported that the prevalence of obesity in the general population is sharply lower among those who consume the herb compared to those who do not.

Despite Legalization, Teens Aren’t Using More Pot (But They Are Consuming Far Less Alcohol and Tobacco)

Proponents of pot prohibition repeatedly claim that liberalizing marijuana laws will increase young people’s use of the substance. And when the data refutes their claims – and it has time after time – they simply lie about it.

Nonetheless, the evidence is clear. According to the federal government’s own 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health report, current use of marijuana by those between the ages of 12 to 17 has remained largely unchanged over the past decade, while young people's self-reported consumption of alcohol and cigarettes has fallen to record lows.

Specifically, the percentage of respondents ages 12 to 17 who reported past-month use of marijuana remained steady from 7.6 percent in 2004 to 7.4 percent in 2014. By contrast, teens' use of tobacco, cigarettes, and alcohol fell dramatically during this same period. Over the past ten years, adolescents' use of tobacco fell from 14.4 percent to 7 percent, their use of cigarettes fell from 11.9 percent to 4.9 percent, and their use of alcohol fell from 17.6 percent to 11.5 percent. Binge drinking by young people fell from 11.1 percent in 2004 to 6.1 percent in 2014.

Separate data published by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin further reports that a greater proportion of younger adolescents are now acknowledging “strong disapproval” of marijuana use.

In short, more teens are not turning to pot. But they are turning away from more dangerous substances like alcohol and tobacco like never before.

 

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and serves as a senior policy advisor for Freedom Leaf, Inc. He is the co-author of the book, Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (Chelsea Green, 2013).

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