Rationalized: The Weed Edition
Why are we as humans always trying to rationalize our indulgences?
Let’s face it, we all require certain pleasures to get through the day. More so perhaps in the last 733 days than usual (not that I’m counting). For me a generously frosted cake brings me more joy than almost anything else on earth. At the end of long day, it is hard to beat a bath with a glass of wine in hand, and there is little more rewarding than heading to happy hour for a beer after a long day snowboarding.
None of the above qualify as part of a healthy lifestyle. There is no AHA guideline for the amount of cupcakes you should consume for your heart health. Beer doesn’t contain nutrients essential for your survival, no matter how much we wish it to be so. Nevertheless, I propose that life can be vastly improved if we remember to indulge ourselves, with restraint, in the little things that make life worth living.
However, we live in the times of healthier-than-thou, magnified by constant reminders on social media that there is always someone out there doing it just a little better than you. We’ve all seen those people on Facebook bragging about how “clean” they eat, or how many chia seeds they can jam in their “superfood” smoothies. Even if you have zero health issues, the wellness machine will try to convince you that there is some magic food or supplement that can help you attain a higher (likely non-existent) level of healthfulness. In this context, it is little wonder that people feel compelled to prove that their choices align with the latest health whims of the internet.
While I believe cupcakes make the world a happier place, I do not feel obliged to assign them non-existent magical health properties to justify the sheer bliss I derive from their consumption. I’m concerned that as a society we are collectively losing our ability to compartmentalize. Some things are not meant to be good for you, they’re meant to be a treat — existing purely for your enjoyment. Period. Full stop. We have have already tried to wrangle dark chocolate and wine into the “healthy” column by grasping at any one-off study that suggests a potential health benefit.
The Almighty Herb?
Marijuana has not escaped this very human tendency to ascribe meaning to our favorite habits. And being in the capital of high living here in the mountains of Colorado, I have had a front seat to the twists and turns of the debate over weed. For many smoking a bowl is merely a great way to unwind. For tourists stopping at a dispensary for an edible has become an attraction. But for adherents to the almighty cult of weed, cannabis is a the Holy Grail.
The use of marijuana for nausea, anxiety, and pain is fairly commonplace. However, cannabis has been proposed as a solution for basically anything that ails humanity: cancer, asthma, epilepsy, stress, multiple sclerosis, pain, cholesterol, immune boosting, and even to prevent organ rejection after transplants. At the extreme, advocates claim that marijuana “cured” illnesses that have eluded diligent and committed medical researchers.
Anytime something is presented as a magic bullet, a cure-all for any and everything under the sun, you should be reaching for your skeptical hat. As I’ve scrolled through social media and seen friends hawking CBD oil as a miracle therapy or headlines reading “33 Scientific Reasons to Smoke More Weed,” I’ve had to wonder: is marijuana really the magic bullet many devotees proclaim, or are we getting a little ahead of ourselves to rationalize one of society’s favorite pastimes — lighting up a joint?
By this point I’m already likely to have some weed-enthusiasts knocking down my door, explaining to me how their friend’s uncle’s cousin had seizures every five minutes and hasn’t had one since he started smoking. So I think it’s time for a disclaimer: marijuana is not my cup of tea. I much prefer a nice sour or a glass of sauvignon blanc to relax. However, I unequivocally support the legalization of cannabis and the right of adults to enjoy it in its many forms — especially given its safety record in comparison to alcohol or other recreational drugs.
Tales of Cancer and Cannabis.
Regardless, I think we need to take a step back from the hype perpetuated by overly zealous proponents of marijuana to see where the science really stands — starting with one of the most heinous of diseases. Advocates of alternative medicine often bandy around the C word with far too much abandon. And, unfortunately, in the case of cannabis, the claims about curing cancer have far outpaced the evidence.
According to the American Cancer society:
“THC and other cannabinoids such as CBD (cannabidiol) slow growth and/or cause death in certain types of cancer cells growing in laboratory dishes. Some animal studies also suggest certain cannabinoids may slow growth and reduce spread of some forms of cancer…There is no available scientific evidence from controlled studies in humans that cannabinoids can cure or treat cancer.”
As Dr. David Gorski expounds, virtually all testing on cannabis has been pre-clinical — either in vitro or tested only on animals — thus far. Even in a lab setting the anti-tumor has been relatively modest on specific types of cancers. He argues if cannabis were to pass through rigorous clinical testing, it likely would have to be paired with existing cancer treatments.
Killing cancer cells in a petri dish is easy. Water can kill cancer cells in a lab, so can heat, cold, acid, or even accidentally knocking over the culture causing it to dry out. But translating those results to the decidedly more complex human body is undeniably less simple, compounded by the fact cancer is actually a set of multiple related diseases unlikely to have one blanket cure. Questions remain about the high doses required for THC to be effective in eliminating all cancer cells, as well as the ability of active ingredients to reach the tumor, as they are not easily water soluble and do not travel well in our tissues. Moreover, in certain instances cannabinoids have been shown to encourage tumor growth and potentially suppress the body’s own immune response.
There are many new avenues of cancer treatment being pursued around the world. Marijuana is only one of many, and as far as I can ascertain not even the most exciting or promising. I can say with certainty that based on available evidence, claiming that THC, CBD, or hemp oil can cure cancer in humans is an outright myth, a potentially dangerous one at that.
Wading Through the Hype.
While exploiting cancer to push an agenda grinds my gears perhaps more than anything else, it’s worth looking a the dozens of other conditions marijuana is alleged to treat. Fortunately, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine did just that, examining thousands of scientific studies on medical use of cannabis. Conveniently, the Skeptical Raptor broke down the four hundred page review more accessibly.
Giving weight to the highest quality studies, the committee found “strong scientific evidence” currently only supports use for three conditions — chronic pain, chemo-induced nausea, and patient-reported MS spasticity symptoms. The latter two require an oral version of the drug, known as nabiximols, rather than smoking. Even the use of cannabis for pain relief is not so cut and dry. According to Dr. Novella, we need further research to distinguish if there is anti-pain effect separate from just feeling so damn chill after that pot brownie that you forget what hurts.
As previously taboo substances become more widely accepted, we are seeing them come to the forefront of public discussion. You can’t spend five minutes these days on social media without running into an article, meme or website dedicated to the contentious plant. Years ago the story of Charlotte’s Web — about a girl with a rare and debilitating form of epilepsy called Dravet’s syndrome — made its way from the internet to mainstream news. The tale of the miraculous improvement she experienced with the use of a marijuana strain, low in THC and high in CBD (cannabidiol), tugged at the hearts of many. More importantly, it seems to have prompted increased research on the use of cannabis for epilepsy. The FDA recently approved a CBD-based drug called Epidiolex to treat two rare forms of epilepsy, including Dravet’s.
In this instance, an anecdote helped provide a launching point for a fruitful investigation. But as is the case with marijuana at large, CBD’s popularity is running wild, and the science just hasn’t caught up. “It’s important to know that the research in this area is in its infancy, partly because we haven’t really understood much about CBD until relatively recently,” Marcel Bonn-Miller reminded LiveScience.
Because of the long-time hurdles to studying cannabis, including CBD, scientists tend to agree that we know very little about its effects on the body, and that legitimate research remains scarce. Still retailers are adding CBD to everything from coffee and cupcakes to face creams. They are also making bold, unsubstantiated claims about its healing properties for conditions including joint pain, anxiety, and sleep disorders. Former marijuana skeptics are now getting CBD massages and ointments, and mothers are looking up ways to use it for their children’s ADHD.
What’s The Harm in Trying?
I recently ran across a story about a woman who opted to treat her daughter’s brain cancer with cannabis distilled in coconut oil. Although the mother is ultimately responsible, we cannot overlook that the internet is spattered with countless posts making outlandish claims that the government is suppressing evidence that marijuana cures cancer, as well as unverified accounts of folks that ditched chemo in favor of weed and have miraculously survived eight years.
A recently published study addressed the concerns of health professionals that misinformation about use of cannabis for serious conditions, and in particular cancer, is becoming more prevalent on the internet. The researchers discovered a ten-fold increase in the “search volume for cannabis and cancer” compared with standard therapies.
Perhaps even more troubling, the results found that, “the top false news story claiming cannabis as a cancer cure generated 4.26 million engagements on social media, while the top accurate news story debunking this false news generated 0.036 million engagements.” For desperate individuals, stumbling across this rampant false information (so often presented as fact) about marijuana could prove disastrous. Especially if they opt to forgot proven medical interventions at the behest of the internet.
Everyone, Just Calm Down.
So let’s not put the cart before the horse to lend credence to our marijuana fascination or in our fight for legalization nationwide. We can only hope that more research avenues will be opened up as marijuana becomes legal in more states and countries. But we must remember that a single, small study is not settled science and anecdotes do not equate to proof — no matter how virally they spread across the internet.
Claims will require the broad weight of scientific evidence and although certain chemicals contained in cannabis have potential, most research is still in a very early state. A whole lot more studies will be needed to isolate active ingredients, determine bioavailability, dosage, interactions with other medications, and of course side effects. Still, odds are that weed will not be a panacea to cure all diseases known to mankind, end world hunger, and bring long-awaited peace to the middle east as some may tacitly imply.
If in 2050 we find out that weed does little except get you high — let me say this loud and clear — that is perfectly alright. If it helps you get through the day and make life a little better, than I say go for it. Declaring, “I enjoy smoking weed or indulging in edibles, and I don’t think I should go to jail for enjoying something less toxic an alcohol,” is more than acceptable. As someone who is no stranger to caving to the delights of food and alcohol, I can one hundred percent get behind this argument.