16 November 2019
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Is marijuana safe? Should it be legalised?

Dr Ross Walker
24 October 2019

In the USA, marijuana is legal in a number of states for both recreational and medical use. To quote a very recent article in the Canberra Times, “The ACT government legalised cannabis for adults in late September, and the law was to take effect at the end of January. It allows Canberrans to grow two plants per person, or four plants per household, and possess 50 grams in dry form. But federal law still makes it illegal to possess cannabis, punishable by a hefty jail term.”

There are many people around the world who sit on both sides of this argument. Numerous people believe that the recreational use of marijuana is harmless and provides a safe and effective means of relaxation, with enhancement of general well-being. On the other side of the argument, many people (and I must say I am one of these) believe that the smoking of recreational cannabis may lead to significant harm and a number of different health issues.

For a number of years there has been a great concern around the use of smoked marijuana and the precipitation of acute psychoses in people who are predisposed to these conditions. There have been some studies suggesting a more rapid progression to dementia, but this has not been validated in large trials. There are also studies suggesting double the rate of heart attacks in regular users of marijuana. There appears to be a significant effect on a person’s hormonal status and some studies have suggested a similar rate of chronic lung disease when you compare smoking three joints per day with 20 standard cigarettes per day.

A recent study from the Boston University School of Public Health has suggested that males who smoke marijuana on at least one occasion per week demonstrate double the rate of miscarriage in their female sexual partners. These miscarriages tend to occur within eight weeks of conception, suggesting that the smoked marijuana leads to defective sperm. It has been demonstrated previously that marijuana leads to a reduction in sperm count and damages the DNA in sperm.

The study included 1,400 couples of which 8% of the males smoked marijuana at least once a week. During the study, 82% of the males never used marijuana. 19% of the couples who conceived went on to have a miscarriage.

The relationship between smoking marijuana and miscarriage persisted even after excluding the females who did not use marijuana. The study also controlled for cigarette smoking, alcohol intake, regular use of caffeine, weight, sleep time, prior sexually transmitted diseases and also mental health disorders. Clearly, this was a very well done and well-regulated study.

I believe this is more evidence why legislators should be very cautious in making recreationally smoked marijuana more freely available. The argument regarding legalisation of any substance has pros and cons on both sides but, in my view, there is no doubt that the more legal a substance is, the more available it is to the public and thus the more people will use that substance. This is clearly proven with the fact that standard cigarettes are legal and contribute to 80% of drug-related deaths in our society. In my view, and this is the topic for another discussion, I believe there is enough evidence to ban the use of standard cigarettes.

Finally, it is important to draw the line in the sand between recreationally smoked marijuana and medical cannabis. At this point, I must declare that I am on the board of MGC pharmaceuticals, an international company that is growing, researching and marketing medical cannabis throughout the world and I am clearly a strong supporter of medical cannabis. Medical cannabis is not smoked and does not contain the high doses of THC found in smoked marijuana, which is felt to be the main factor in the health concerns regarding its use. The growing body of evidence to support the use of medical cannabis, in my view, is very strong and we are now seeing evolving legislation to make medical cannabis more easily available and cheaper for people with a variety of conditions for which these therapies have been shown to be beneficial.

Dr Walker is a non-executive director and head of the strategic advisory board for MGC Pharmaceuticals.

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