Medical Marijuana and “What’s the Harm

Recently I posted this article on my Facebook: Marijuana Beliefs Outstrip Evidence. I summarized a key point thus, “The only use for which marijuana has reasonably good evidence of effectiveness is for nausea.”

Note, I am all for removing marijuana from schedule 1 of FDA regulation and allowing for comprehensive research of the ways in which marijuana derived substances can be used medically. However I am firmly of the belief that they should go through the exact same FDA process as all other drugs.

The responses I got were predictable. One of the key points made by many was that if it helps people then what’s harm? I am going to set aside the point that it’s not helping most users and focus on the old “what’s the harm?” gambit. It is a standard part of the responses to criticism of alternative medicine.

So, What is the Harm?

If a treatment is just a placebo, and does not provide actual benefits then these are the harms that may result:

  1. Money. These are hardly ever free. And especially in a country where medical expenses are the most common cause of personal bankruptcy the cost of a treatment that doesn’t work is harm.
  2. Time. The time spent going and getting a treatment done, transportation etc. are all costs for the patients and these are things that have a tangible monetary value and therefore refer back to the above point. Is the patient giving up time at work spending, money on transportation and so on? If so that is a very real harm.
  3. Delayed treatment. If a person delays getting effective treatment because they mistakenly believe that this placebo is actually treating their condition then that is an unambiguous harm which has demonstrable negative effects in a wide variety of diseases.
  4. Side effects. Marijuana very clearly has side effects if we are viewing it as a medicinal substance. It is used specifically for its mind-altering effects. Remember the point of this drug originally was that it got you high, that you are stoned while you’re taking it. This is incompatible with most jobs. And even when it’s not it’s still constitutes a set of risks. FDA-approved drugs go through a risk assessment process comparing the benefits to the risks. And as detailed in the linked article above there are very clearly side effects from marijuana use.
  5. Purity and content testing. FDA approved drugs are rigorously tested for their purity, that is their absence of toxic substances and adulteration. As well as that the medication actually contains what it says on the package. Marijuana for medical purposes lacks all of these protections.
  6. Addiction potential. While marijuana does not have the same addictive properties that opioids do it still possesses a risk of becoming habit forming, as can any behavior, especially when it is a mind-altering one such as marijuana use.

This list is not intended to be comprehensive. But does at least hit the highlights of the potential harms of medical marijuana.

An additional range of harms from the current approach to medical marijuana also includes the fact that it increases the danger to children for accidental ingestion and poisoning, especially with the prevalence of edibles and related products that are in similar packaging and have similar names to candy, as detailed here: More Marijuana More Problems for Young Children.

Conclusion

Ultimately, my position on this topic is that all medical treatments should be subject to a uniform study and approval process. The FDA is not perfect but they have a very good track record. The objective should be to lobby for marijuana to be removed from Schedule I, not to create a carve out from regulation where marijuana gets a free pass written by legislators.

Author: Steven Hirsch, DPT, CSCS

Physical therapist, strength coach, historical fencer.

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