Canada has joined those countries, state and regional governments who have not only de-criminalized cannabis and legalized it for medical use but which now also allow its use as a recreational drug. This is seen by many today as a bold and long overdue step forward into a tolerant new world in which the benefits of cannabis can be enjoyed without the lows of paranoia over fines and even incarceration.
Careful what you wish for. Because the science behind cannabis and its active ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, shows that weed is not a harmless recreational drug that is safer than alcohol and less prone to produce violent behaviour. Nor is it an effective medicinal remedy for chronic pain sufferers.
The truth is out there, but no one wants to hear it right now because society has made a fundamental shift and decided that weed is welcome. However, as you raise a family in Canada and your kids grow up and become teenagers and then young adults, it may be worth your while to dig into the rich data we’ve harvested and see for yourself what the true costs of cannabis can be for Canadian kids. Your child’s life, in the most severe of cases, might depend on it.
Can Cannabis Conclusively Combat Pain?
Yes, there are a growing number of people around the country and around the world who insist that cannabis eases their pain like nothing else. They swear that it brings them both physical and emotional release. But are they being objective about their condition or are they merely blowing smoke in our faces?
A four-year clinical study in Australia that followed people with chronic pain conditions found that using weed may actually increase pain. Here’s a brief extract from their findings as published recently in The Lancet, the prestigious medical journal:
At 4-year follow-up, compared with people with no cannabis use, we found that participants who used cannabis had a greater pain severity score (risk ratio 1•14, 95% CI 1•01–1•29, for less frequent cannabis use; and 1•17, 1•03–1•32, for daily or near-daily cannabis use), greater pain interference score (1•21, 1•09–1•35; and 1•14, 1•03–1•26), lower pain self-efficacy scores (0•97, 0•96–1•00; and 0•98, 0•96–1•00), and greater generalised anxiety disorder severity scores (1•07, 1•03–1•12; and 1•10, 1•06–1•15).
Note the key finding: those that used cannabis, whether moderately or daily, had a greater pain severity score. And not only that, they had higher levels of anxiety, or in other words, they suffered the paranoia that often attacks heavy weed smokers. As the study concludes:
We found no evidence of a temporal relationship between cannabis use and pain severity or pain interference, and no evidence that cannabis use reduced prescribed opioid use or increased rates of opioid discontinuation.
Say again? Cannabis does not help chronic pain sufferers and does not reduce addiction to opioids, another supposed benefit that will come about from legalization. In fact, some studies have shown that cannabis use leads to greater risk of opioid abuse. As a study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry states:
In logistic regression models, cannabis use at wave 1 was associated with increased incident nonmedical prescription opioid use (odds ratio=5.78, 95% CI=4.23–7.90) and opioid use disorder (odds ratio=7.76, 95% CI=4.95–12.16) at wave 2. These associations remained significant after adjustment for background characteristics (nonmedical opioid use).
As one can see, greater levels of cannabis use were associated with nonmedical prescription opioid use and opioid use disorder. In plain English, that means that cannabis use can lead to abuse of opioids. In other words, if you smoke weed, you’re more likely to use opioids recreationally. That’s precisely the opposite of what people are claiming regarding cannabis use.
Can Cannabis Convert Canadian Kids into Killers?
Alex Berenson is a journalist who has written a disturbing book on this matter and in a talk he gave at Hillsdale College, he stated:
But a mountain of peer-reviewed research in top medical journals shows that marijuana can cause or worsen severe mental illness, especially psychosis, the medical term for a break from reality. Teenagers who smoke marijuana regularly are about three times as likely to develop schizophrenia, the most devastating psychotic disorder.
After an exhaustive review, the National Academy of Medicine found in 2017 that “cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of developing schizophrenia and other psychoses; the higher the use, the greater the risk.” Also that “regular cannabis use is likely to increase the risk for developing social anxiety disorder.”
Yes, you read that right. Marijuana use can trigger psychotic behaviour that at times can turn violent in frequent users. As Berenson says:
Advocates for people with mental illness do not like discussing the link between schizophrenia and crime. They fear it will stigmatize people with the disease. “Most people with mental illness are not violent,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) explains on its website. But wishing away the link can’t make it disappear. In truth, psychosis is a shockingly high risk factor for violence. The best analysis came in a 2009 paper in PLOS Medicine by Dr. Seena Fazel, an Oxford University psychiatrist and epidemiologist. Drawing on earlier studies, the paper found that people with schizophrenia are five times as likely to commit violent crimes as healthy people, and almost 20 times as likely to commit homicide.
Is it possible that increases in cannabis use as a result of its legalization will produce an increase in crime rates in Canada over the coming years? One factor that has not been commented on enough that Berenson details is the fact that the legalization and commercialization of cannabis has produced far more potent strains of cannabis than those that existed in previous decades. The concentration of THC is many times higher in commercial brands and that means potentially much more powerful effects on people’s behaviour.
So What Does Weed Do to Young People’s Behaviour?
And many, if not most, young Canadians have tried cannabis at least once. As reported by the 2015 Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol, and Drugs Survey as well as the 2014 General Social Survey on Victimization we get the following facts:
- 45% of people 15 years of age and older reported having tried Cannabis at least once in their lifetime.
- 7% of people 15 and older had used it at least once during the past month.
- 1.5% of people 15 and older reported having used cannabis daily during the past month.
- 13% of younger adults between the ages of 20 and 29 reported using cannabis at least weekly or daily.
- 2% of adults 55 and older used cannabis weekly or daily.
- 8% of men 15 and older used cannabis weekly or daily.
- 3% of women 14 and older used cannabis weekly or daily.
- 25% of adults in Canada had tried cannabis by the time they were 18 years old.
- For those who first tried cannabis at ages under 15 – to put it explicitly, 14 years old and younger – 31% stated that they now used it on a weekly basis.
- A link was found between frequent use of cannabis and physical or mental health disabilities.
- People who used cannabis more frequently reported lower levels of confidence in both Canada’s police forces and the country’s justice system.
- People who used cannabis more frequently were found to be more likely to have been victims of a violent crime during the past year.
- Out of those who reported having used cannabis during the past year, 17% said that they also consumed other illicit drugs.
- Of those who reported consuming other illicit drugs in addition to cannabis (the 17% of cannabis users over the past year as outlined in the previous bullet point) reported suffering a harm to their physical health, compared with 5% of people who only used cannabis over the past year.
However, it may be that its cognitive affect on younger adults and teenagers has been exaggerated. A recent meta-analysis of clinical studies going back to the early 1970s for the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine produced the following results:
Sixty-nine studies of 2152 cannabis users (mean [SD] age, 20.6 [2.8] years; 1472 [68.4%] male) and 6575 comparison participants with minimal cannabis exposure were included (mean [SD] age, 20.8 [3.4]; 3669 [55.8%] male). Results indicated a small overall effect size (presented as mean d) for reduced cognitive functioning associated with frequent or heavy cannabis use (d, -0.25; 95% CI, -0.32 to -0.17; P < .001). The magnitude of effect sizes did not vary by sample age or age at cannabis use onset. However, studies requiring an abstinence period longer than 72 hours (15 studies; n = 928) had an overall effect size (d, -0.08; 95% CI, -0.22 to 0.07) that was not significantly different from 0 and smaller than studies with less stringent abstinence criteria (54 studies; n = 7799; d, -0.30; 95% CI, -0.37 to -0.22; P = .01).
In plain English what this means is that the reduced cognitive abilities were seen as relatively small and that with 72 hours abstinence the cognitive abilities returned to their normal levels. As the study concludes:
Associations between cannabis use and cognitive functioning in cross-sectional studies of adolescents and young adults are small and may be of questionable clinical importance for most individuals. Furthermore, abstinence of longer than 72 hours diminishes cognitive deficits associated with cannabis use. Although other outcomes (eg, psychosis) were not examined in the included studies, results indicate that previous studies of cannabis in youth may have overstated the magnitude and persistence of cognitive deficits associated with use. Reported deficits may reflect residual effects from acute use or withdrawal. Future studies should examine individual differences in susceptibility to cannabis-associated cognitive dysfunction.
In other words, the study has two main conclusions:
- Weed doesn’t make you as dumb and dumber as previously supposed.
- There may be far more variation of cognitive effects between individual cannabis users than previously supposed and more study is needed in this area.
Dave’s Not Here – He’s in a Mental Asylum
Just like Dean Martin played the affable drunk in the 1950s and 1960s until society decided that drunk driving and alcohol-fueled domestic violence were no laughing matter, we may have to rethink how we view comics like Cheech & Chong. They are a Hispanic American (Richard “Cheech” Marin) and Asian Canadian (Tommy Chong) who in the 1970s and 1980s made a lot of people laugh hysterically with their comedy albums and silly films, many of them about smoking pot. Their act still occasionally goes on the road and you can go to YouTube to hear the original “Dave’s Not Here” skit or see their insane updated live versions of it. Their comedy is fondly remembered or raucously relived if you are one of those people who still goes to their live shows.
But is it time to stop laughing at Cheech & Chong’s comedy and think about cannabis in a new light?
More clinical studies may be needed, but if there is a link between violence and pot use, then while making the drug illegal again might not be feasible at this point, we should at least consider some of the implications that heavy cannabis use has on people and start to educate our children on the dangers when they’re old enough. Because we have to ask, do we want our children, or our friends or spouses, exposed to a risk factor for psychotic behavior and possibly violent psychotic behavior?