Opinion: Does the cannabis industry have a double standard with science?

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The gateway theory is not necessarily a concept that ensures a person who uses weed today will shoot heroin tomorrow.

The cannabis industry seems to be moving across the U.S. with the power of a Mack Truck screaming down the highway with a sign on the back that reads, “red-eye express.”

The business of growing and selling weed has matured into a multi-billion-dollar operation, despite the lack of support from the federal government and the fact that about 70 per cent of those surveyed think the business should be taxed and regulated like alcohol and tobacco.

Nevertheless, naysayers of the nug are worried that borderline apocalyptic times are coming from increased efforts to legalize the leaf. More than that, they can’t understand why the country is willing to listen to federal health agencies concerning pandemic-related issues while discounting the evidence against marijuana.

“At a time when millions of Americans are turning to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the NIH (National Insititutes of Health) for advice on COVID-19, the health warnings about marijuana from these very same institutions are being ignored in favour of claims delivered by pot profiteers,” wrote Kevin Sabet, president of the anti-drug organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), in a column for Newsweek. “Why the double standard?”

The biggest gripe Sabet has is the popular notion that cannabis isn’t a gateway drug. He believes pot supporters have the wrong idea about the “gateway theory.”

It’s not necessarily a concept that ensures a person who uses weed today will shoot heroin tomorrow; it’s just that, true to the gateway name, it opens the door to the possibility. “The truth is simply that people who use drugs do not normally use just one,” Sabet wrote, pointing to a prominent study in the journal Addiction that found cannabis users are 2.5 times more susceptible to opioid addiction.

While Sabet’s argument is admirable and even true, the same could be said about alcohol and tobacco, both of which are legal nationwide in the U.S. Any substance that alters the brain could be considered a gateway drug. Alcohol typically gets the blame, mostly because it’s what teens try first.

Higher crime is another concern Sabet has with ongoing moves to legalize cannabis. “While it is difficult to say whether marijuana legalization causes crime, plenty of research suggests a strong connection,” he wrote, sourcing two studies that show increased crime rates in Colorado, where weed is legal.

Realistically, however, this crime is pot-related and directly attributed to conflicting cannabis laws across the country. Legal weed isn’t causing an influx in rape, murder and theft. Most of the offences are connected to organized crime and money laundering, probation infractions and transfer using parcel services.

Sabet also seems to be worried about pot potency. He leans on several studies showing a link between high-potency cannabis and the development of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and psychosis.

“Today’s marijuana is up to 50 times stronger than marijuana used in the past, causing people to do more than just ‘chill out,’” he wrote. “Scientists have confirmed the harmfulness of these products.”

Is this true?

Well, maybe to some degree. There is a lot of conflicting evidence, yet those who develop mental health problems associated with regular cannabis consumption appear to be wired for it anyway.

Furthermore, as the New York Times published in 2019, yes, cannabis can cause schizophrenia, “but so can overuse of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, stimulants and hallucinogen.” Most of these are legal drugs in the U.S.

However, the paper continued, “the vast majority of people… do not go on to develop a persistent condition such as schizophrenia, which is characterized by episodes of psychosis that recur for years, as well as cognitive problems and social withdrawal.”

There’s also the lore about marijuana reducing the opioid epidemic. Sabet has a problem with this claim, and rightly so. As he lays it out in his column, cannabis advocates continue to rely on a “now-debunked” study showing a 25 per cent reduction in opioid deaths where marijuana is legal.

Cannabis advocates continue to rely on a “now-debunked” study showing a 25 per cent reduction in opioid deaths where marijuana is legal. /

Cannabis advocates continue to rely on a “now-debunked” study showing a 25 per cent reduction in opioid deaths where marijuana is legal. 

Stanford University has since done further research and found the opposite: Opioid deaths increased by 25 per cent in legal marijuana states. “We must stop perpetuating the false notion marijuana is an answer to opioid abuse,” Sabet wrote.

Almost full circle, studies show that, consistent with the gateway theory, people who regularly use cannabis are more likely to abuse prescription opioids. Other studies show that cannabis isn’t even an effective pain reliever anyway — at least no more than ibuprofen. It’s just not the same.

“Legalization supporters often argue as if they have science on their side. The truth is exactly the opposite: every single major medical association opposes legalization. Often citing non-peer reviewed papers, or papers in low-quality journals, legalization advocates’ cherry-picking does a severe disservice to those interested in the truth,” Sabet wrote.

People in the U.S. might be quicker to listen to the federal government about COVID-19 than cannabis because, well, they are two different things. Most fear being exposed to a virus and ending up on life support, but they are fully aware that marijuana doesn’t come with those risks.

They want information about vaccinations, masks and other prevention methods because they don’t want to die. After all these years, even marijuana’s greatest enemies aren’t worried about it killing people.

The real risk associated with cannabis continues to be in those policies supporting its prohibition. Hundreds of thousands of people are being arrested every year, families are being disrupted, jobs lost, etc., all because conservatives are afraid of high society.

Sure, there might be a double standard. This is America, after all. Double standard is what we do. But it’s coming from all sides.

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