If you grew up in the ‘80s or ‘90s, anti-drug campaigns had you convinced that marijuana was going to make you drop out of school, get hooked on heroin, commit murder, drive off a cliff, or maybe do all of the above.
But it’s a new millennium, and we’ve just debunked—or at the very least called into serious question—past “wisdom” about the “dangers” of egg yolks and dietary fat, we’re discovering that marijuana isn’t the evil, life-destroying substance we once believed it was.
In many regards, the jury is still out on weed’s long-term effects on human health. But now that cannabis is starting to come into the open, regular people—and scientists, and doctors, and lawmakers—are starting to think and talk differently about weed. And that conversation is not going away anytime soon.
A (very brief, complicated) history of weed in America
Modern American society has had a polarizing relationship with weed. Nixon declared his infamous “war on drugs” in 1971, on which Reagan doubled down in the ‘80s, imposing strict minimum sentences on all drug offenses, whether it was for marijuana or heroin. The government’s stringent restrictions on marijuana and its classification as a schedule 1 drug have made it difficult for researchers to study its potential medicinal uses.
Times are a-changin’, however. Where buying pot once meant meeting a drug dealer in a dark alleyway, new tech startups (like the Bay Area-based Eaze) offer an online shopping experience akin to buying supplements and having them delivered to your door. And it’s no surprise that these companies can now exist: The majority of American voters are in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana. (Some 69% of people said they were OK with legal pot in their state, according to an August 2017 survey.)
But while public perception of marijuana is trending more positively, new medical research is starting to present a more complicated picture. New studies about marijuana are also shaping conversations around its dangers, its benefits, and the effect legalization could have on society.
While there are more than 100 cannabinoids in marijuana, the two most common chemicals are tetrahydrocannabinol, which causes the high associated with smoking pot, and cannabidiol, which has significantly milder, or even nonexistent, mind-altering effects. The side effects associated with THC use—getting the “munchies,” dulled senses, and dry eyes—have been anecdotally beneficial for cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy, those suffering from chronic pain, and patients with glaucoma.
Meanwhile, several studies have explored the potential for CBD to treat medical conditions ranging from seizures to muscle inflammation, relieve symptoms of psychological disorders like schizophrenia, and even counteract the high users get from THC. That fact that CBD doesn’t make people high makes CBD a particularly attractive option for medical use, even for children suffering from epilepsy, although more research is necessary.
What’s up, doc: Marijuana as medicine
Fact: Opioid overdoses now account for more deaths in the U.S. than gun violence and car accidents combined. While it’s tempting to dismiss addicts as people who shoot heroin and lack self-control, that’s not the case: Of the 20.5 million Americans 12 or older who had a substance-abuse disorder in 2015, 2 million had a problem involving prescription pain relievers, while only 591,000 had a problem involving heroin. And it’s getting exponentially worse: From 2010 through 2016, the rate of opioid addiction rose almost 500%.
“I think most physicians are beginning to consider the push to treat pain—particularly chronic pain—with opioids over the last few decades to be a failure,” says Erich Anderer, M.D., chief of neurosurgery at NYU Langone Hospital – Brooklyn. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that future generations of doctors may look back at the way we currently use opioids with the same incredulity that doctors today look at past generations who advocated smoking cigarettes.”
Why does the opioid epidemic matter in relation to pot? “I think there is significant potential for marijuana to treat pain and anxiety,” Anderer says. “Viable alternatives to opioids need to be identified for the management of pain. There are already studies on cannabinoids’ effectiveness in treating anxiety.” Indeed, a highly publicized study found a significant dip in opioid overdoses in states that had legal medical marijuana. However, he stresses that “more work needs to be done to validate it for this use”.
Weed: Good? Bad? Ugly?
While there is promising research about marijuana for medical purposes, the science community’s consensus on marijuana so far is a big, resounding I dunno. Sure, some research presents potential health benefits of weed. But there’s a body of evidence that suggests marijuana presents serious health risks, including cancer, potential for abuse, mood disorders, and respiratory problems. And several studies found that marijuana use from a young age can alter the teenage brain.
“All drugs that are used inappropriately have risks, and marijuana is no exception,” Anderer says. “While the abuse potential and physical risks of withdrawal may not be as great as with other drugs such as opioids or cocaine, extensive marijuana usage has been associated with lung disease, difficulty with memory and executive function, anxiety, depression, and an increased risk of developmental delays in children whose mothers consume the drug.”
Weed: Tell us how you really feel
Still, there’s no question that marijuana has seen a huge image boost in the last few years, particularly with the economic boon it brought to Colorado when it became recreationally legal in 2014. Its reputation as a gateway drug has largely faded—the National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances”—and in 2017, for the first time, a majority of Republicans said they were in favor of legalization. As of January 2018, eight states and Washington, D.C. have legalized weed for recreational use, and 21 states, Puerto Rico, and Guam have legalized it for medical use, although the definition of “medical marijuana” and the regulations around it differ from state-to-state.
“Even four years ago, this was an industry that was largely untouched by technology, mostly because of the stigma and legal restrictions,” says Jamie Feaster, the VP of marketing and employee No.1 at Eaze, which counts itself as one of the first marijuana-focused tech companies. “Four years ago, 30% of my conversations with people about marijuana were positive. Now, it’s more like 70%.”
In his time at Eaze, Feaster has seen the category of cannabis consumers evolve from millennials to other consumer bases who may have held more conservative views of its use. “When we look at the data, we see this huge increase in women, Gen-Xers, and parents using marijuana products, and we look at this as real progress from consumers looking at it as a questionable alternative to a viable wellness tool,” he explains. “There are new lines of products, from topicals to bath salts, plus our ability to bring them to people in a professional, nonintimidating way—we think that’s helped to loosen the stigma.”
One nation, under green?
So, should we all get on the weed train? Not necessarily.
“If there is no current, legitimate medical use, then I would tell someone who smokes pot the same thing I would tell a patient who smokes cigarettes: Stop if you can, and try to decrease your intake if you cannot,” Anderer says.
But given that more than half of U.S. states will have effectively legalized weed in some context by 2018, we’re about to learn a lot more about it—not just about its impact on health, but on our society as a whole.
Feaster is (unsurprisingly) optimistic about what legalization means for America. “I believe that marijuana has a strong positive effect on communities,” he says. “I hope that this will bring some justice to those communities that were affected in a negative way by the war on drugs. It will help stimulate the economy, create jobs, and generate tax revenues that can be brought back into schools and law enforcement. I’m excited about marijuana’s future in a regulated market.”