Tuesday February 10, 2015

By Coit Stevenson


The debate on whether or not marijuana has any health effects has raged for many years. Despite its legality in Colorado, Washington since 2012 and now Washington DC and Oregon since the most recent elections in 2014, the debate rages on. For some, smoking marijuana seems too similar to smoking tobacco to not have any negative effects on the body. For others, no amount of research on the negativity of the matter could sway their opinions on how marijuana helps them, individually. Both arguments hold significant water, and because of the recent legalization, researchers have a far broader opportunity to learn exactly which side is closer to the truth.

On Monday, February 2nd, the Colorado Board of Health attempted to take another step forward in the understanding of the relationship between marijuana - in all of its forms - and the human body. In a 188-page published report, the Colorado Board of Health tackles high-profile concerns such as edible potency and duration of effect, in addition to the short-term and long-term effects of underage marijuana usage. While the report makes it explicitly clear that the results found are extremely preliminary, the findings may shock some Coloradans, both experienced users and new users alike. Additional results are even contradictory to similar studies performed on a national level.

No matter the findings, one theme prevails over the entirety of the now-public report: more research must be done to cannabis-related health effects before any concrete findings can be analyzed. We’re on the right path, but we’re just getting started. Until researchers believe we have thoroughly investigated the entirety of marijuana’s health effects over a long time period (key wording, there) much will still be up-in-the air, and even more will continue to be debated. Here are some major talking points that are sure to only stir the pot of debate even further:

Respiratory Effects

1. ‘...found substantial evidence that marijuana smoke, both mainstream and [water filtered], contains many of the same cancer-causing chemicals as tobacco smoke.’

This is quite a confounding conclusion, for two reasons. First, within hours of the release of this report, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy came out to say;

“[The U.S. government] have some preliminary data showing that, for certain medical conditions and symptoms, marijuana can be helpful...”

It seems as if these two reports - one from a national health board, and the other from a state health board - are contradictory. Notice, however, the national board mentions ‘certain medical conditions,’ of which such common tobacco smoke-caused ailments such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema may not be included. It is important to note that the published report from the Colorado Board of Health does go on to say that the evidence presented exhibited substantial indications that heavy marijuana use can be associated with bronchitis, but found insufficient evidence to suggest the same heavy use is associated with future emphysema development.

The conclusion presented by the Colorado Board of Health is also confounded by research conducted by the health board itself on the subject of immediate effects of acute marijuana use:

4. ‘...found substantial evidence that marijuana use (inhaled or oral) results in an immediate short-term improvement of lung airflow.’

It’s hard to imagine a substance which improves airflow immediately after use would somehow ‘flip the script’ and contribute to airflow constriction as is seen in chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and other respiratory diseases. Such contradictory findings are the reason for the Board of Health to suggest further testing be done before any further health advisories should be published regarding the respiratory effects - both short-term and long-term - of marijuana.

Extrapulmonary Effects

While none of the extrapulmonary effects show more than ‘limited’ evidence to any of the findings published, one ‘mixed’ result may begin to shift a societally accepted norm.

4. ‘...found mixed evidence for whether or not marijuana use increases risk of male infertility.’

It has been accepted for many years that males that use marijuana on a daily to multiple-times-daily basis are much less fertile than their sober counterparts. Although the evidence is preliminary, it appears to suggest this is simply untrue. This could drastically change the actions of couples using marijuana regularly that do not desire to have children and utilized this previously incorrect information in a manner that would typically produce pregnancy. I.e. don’t use marijuana as a form of contraception due to an out-of-date adage on the effects of male infertility.

Marijuana Use and Injury

It is hard to argue that marijuana use affects a person's ability to operate a motor vehicle. The Colorado Board of Health findings only further confirm this previously un-testable statement.

2. ‘...found substantial evidence for a positive relationship between THC blood level and motor vehicle crash risk.’

Again, not surprising to most. A somewhat insignificant finding in itself, since it has been widely accepted to be true since marijuana was sold medically starting in Colorado in 2000. What is significant to this section of the report, is the statement made in the ‘Research Gaps’ section at the end of each data summary. This final section to every data summary informs the reader as to what ‘next steps’ should be taken in order to further confirm or deny the findings of any given section. The final bullet points of the Research Gaps section for Marijuana Use and Injury read:

  • [Further research on] Difference in impairment based on frequency of use/tolerance.
  • [Continued] Improvements in roadside testing (e.g., saliva).

Those in favor of pot legalization have been calling ‘foul’ on the current roadside testing methods since January, 2014. In conjunction with these findings from the Colorado Board of Health - an independent review board, mind you - those in favor of altering or improving current methods now have ammunition in which to work. Don’t be surprised if these small bullet points at the end of the summary quickly becoming the biggest deal when it comes to roadside testing improvement.

Read Carefully

As one final note from someone who has now read this 188-page report more times than I care to tell, be sure to take each statement and finding with a grain of salt. The purpose of the report is not only to educate those who wish to read it, but also lend blanket statements to law makers regarding future marijuana regulations. Take the image below, for example. Shown are the general Evidence Statements and Public Health Statements of the findings regarding Extrapulmonary Effects of marijuana. The two listed sections are meant to coincide, but more importantly to also succinctly dictate the findings in such a way that lawmakers can turn around and use the wordage for future marijuana regulation. Take the first numbered statement in each section:

Monitoring Health Concerns Related to Marijuana in Colorado: 2014

1. ‘We found LIMITED evidence that acute marijuana increases risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack).’

- Evidence Statements

1. ‘Acute marijuana use may be associated with INCREASED risk of heart attack among adults.’

- Public Health Statements

Whoa, certainly seems like the statement for Public Health is saying the opposite of the statement of Evidence. It’s all in the definition of ‘limited’. While the word is commonly used to indicate nearly nothing, in the case of this report, it is used to mean at least some evidence to the affirmative is present. Common sense, in other words, should be thrown out the window in place of critical thinking and reading. Two concepts not typically associated with smoking marijuana. Maybe the next report published will dispel this age-old myth, as well.

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