Marijuana: from sacrament to health concern (or its more like tobacco than you would think)

A few centuries ago, tobacco would as often as not be used for ceremonial or therapeutic purpose and the received wisdom of the time was that it could heal much of what could ail you. This attitude still survives in Ayurvedic smoking practice. (The advantage of having a shorter lifespan is that even if something could kill you over the long run that aspect would cease to be as important if could be of benefit in the short).

And perhaps it was this ceremonial or magical approach to ingestion that distracted most people from considering the risks to everyday health. There are some reports from that time of people experiencing much stronger immediate effects from smoking, which has been explained through the much higher nicotine content of the variety of tobacco being used (n. rustica) than today’s more common n.tabacum. However one does get the impression from historical accounts that everyday regular smoking was not common.

Sounds a little like marijuana, doesn’t it?

Not long ago there was a “reefer madness” panic and though it never entirely disappeared, most negative reports on marijuana focus exclusively on effects on cognition. Very rarely will you hear or read the message we so often iterate on this blog (“(it’s not the substance), it’s the smoke”). There are exceptions. When the Canadian LeDain commission in the 70s examined the possibility of legalizing marijuana they did raise the concern that marijuana use could result in many of the same conditions resulting from smoking. (Harm reduction itself has not been entirely dismissed by cannabis users or activists), or by the public health community; some users were among the forerunners of adopting vaping-like technology (volcano ).)

And just as when you eat something that tastes bad you get the feeling it could also be bad for you, when something tastes good or makes you feel good, it must also be good for you (despite the saying to the contrary). So perhaps its natural to think that that good high protects you from everyday risk. It is not uncommon for users, who would scoff at taking a swig of someone else’s beer or a bite of someone else’s sandwich, not to think twice about swapping spit while sharing a joint with a stranger.

While it is almost impossible to find a smoker who actually thinks smoking is not bad for you, the opposite is true with tokers. Granted that there is little good research on the topic (one of the side effects of prohibition – it is precisely because smoking is legal (and popular) that we have so much information on the health effects) but due to the similar delivery system, we can generalize fairly confidently from smoking. It is more like it than not. There of course could be some variation on total harm; marijuana is not exactly the same as tobacco, most marijuana smokers smoke fewer joints than smokers smoke cigarettes, but they also tend to inhale them more deeply and hold in the smoke. And many tokers smoke cigarettes which muddies the results as well.

At the same time that prohibiting smoking altogether is gaining in popularity, so is the idea of legalizing marijuana. Some studies have found marijuana to have been tried by more children than cigarettes. Despite this, it is difficult to imagine even legalized cannabis ever becoming as popular as smoking; it interferes with productivity (and yes, there are exceptions – I know a few). Nicotine is very much the perfect post-industrialization and knowledge economy drug in that it focuses the mind and fine motor functions.

I am not arguing for or against marijuana legalization (though it is hard to see many benefits to prohibition), but to make the point that whatever the drug happens to be, there are good and bad aspects to it. Marijuana seems to be have quite a few therapeutic applications and there is no doubt that it is pleasurable to many more (and that is a true and worthwhile benefit).

No matter what or how great the benefits might be, it is in no one’s interest to ignore any attendant potential harms. We’ve had so much exposure to the false or overstated claims of one category of harm that we haven’t heard the legitimate concerns that could attend chronic use of marijuana. That is, if it is smoked.

Drug use is a choice. How you use that drug is a choice. But for you to benefit from having those choices, you need all the facts.

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2 thoughts on “Marijuana: from sacrament to health concern (or its more like tobacco than you would think)

  1. One would hope so though I am more concerned about the effects associated with inhaling the smoke. The link you provided describes something that would effect a small set of the population (a subset of marijuana users)whereas the health effects of smoking threaten all users.

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