On Cannabis's "Toxicity"

On Cannabis's "Toxicity"

This article originally published at the-libertarian.co.uk.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has never exactly had the reputation of an unbiased authority on drug use, and this is not simply because of its name. As CNN’s Sanjay Gupta recently pointed out, the agency is responsible for approving every scientific study on marijuana, and 94% of current studies deal ostensibly with the drug’s harms, leaving only 6% to investigate its medicinal benefits. However, the latest statement from the organization sets a new record for anti-marijuana zealotry.

“Claiming that marijuana is less toxic than alcohol cannot be substantiated,” the agency complained in response to a recent pro-legalization advertisement funded by the Marijuana Policy Project, “since each possess their own unique set of risks and consequences for a given individual.” This statement is an insult to the public’s intelligence in more ways than one.

Firstly, the full set of risks or potential consequences of use was not the issue; the question was toxicity. So the NIDA has changed the subject in mid-sentence. Secondly, the reference to “unique” risks for “a given individual” in this context seems to be an attempt to deny that the general effects of various drugs can be and are formally estimated, giving an idea of their average risks for users, as well as specifically their toxicity levels.


Cannabis Sativa

Image credit: Wikipedia


Yet whenever this is done, marijuana is ranked far lower than alcohol. This is unavoidable, as there has never been a recorded fatality which was attributed solely to marijuana. Alcohol, by contrast, is responsible for an estimated 80,000 deaths per year in the US alone. While prohibition supporters sometimes attempt to brush off this distinction by pointing out that something can be harmful without causing death, it is extremely unusual to find any drug which has no known lethal dose. As the DEA’s own Chief Administrative Law Judge admitted almost 25 years ago in a ruling on medical marijuana, “Nearly all medicines have toxic, potentially lethal effects,” including aspirin which apparently causes several hundred deaths per year. As Dr. Cynthia Lewis-Younger, medical director of the Florida Poison Information Center in Tampa, admits, “It is possible to drink enough water to poison yourself.” By NIDA’s standards, then, can it also “not be substantiated” that water is less toxic than alcohol? It would certainly seem so, since water is more toxic than marijuana.

Toxicity is often used to refer to the potential for a substance to cause death, but let us be charitable for the sake of argument. Let us say the NIDA interpreted “toxicity” not to refer to acute toxicity (the potential to cause death) but to the broader concept of “the degree to which a substance can damage an organism.”

Chronic heavy drinking can cause damage to almost every organ in the body. This damage can include cirrhosis of the liver, heart disease, pancreatitis, and damage to the nervous system, including the brain, causing psychiatric problems. Alcoholism also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Marijuana use, by contrast, has not been conclusively proven to cause or increase the likelihood of any disease. Some studies suggest a possible link between heavy marijuana use and cancer, but others refute this, and some even suggest anti-cancer properties for certain chemicals in marijuana.

We might also consider the more indirect harm of withdrawal. When people with severe alcoholism suddenly stop drinking, the resulting symptoms can include life-threatening seizures, brain damage and delirium tremens. Symptoms of withdrawal from heavy marijuana use, by contrast, are generally psychological issues such as difficulty sleeping and irritability.

Regardless of how we interpret “toxicity,” then, marijuana is clearly less toxic than alcohol. The NIDA’s denial of such an obvious distinction between the two is simply a desperate attempt to defend a ludicrous public policy which science has thoroughly debunked.