Since I was a child, I’ve had a strong aversion to marijuana because of what I have witnessed. This only intensified during my teenage years, at a time when I was deciding whether to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or use drugs. Luckily, I declined them all.
My first encounter with the potential dangers came when I woke up one morning to the spectacle of a naked man shouting incomprehensibly on our front lawn in Kingston, Jamaica. The troubled young man was my grandfather’s sales assistant, who helped unload deliveries when they were on the road. He had begun to embrace Rastafari, taking ganja as his sacrament and it was taking its toll.
The second time was nearly ten years later, as I was walking past the high school near my house and gazing over the fence at the football match being played. A voice called my surname and I turned to see a guy whom I didn’t recognise at first. I hesitated but he was insistent and I moved in his direction. Relieved, I realised that he used to attend my school but had been expelled before we graduated. As we tried to exchange small talk, he was completely spaced out, trying to inhale from a fragment of paper so tiny that he couldn’t hold it between his fingers and lips at the same time. I’ll never forget the sight of that teenager on his hands and knees, scratching around in the dust, trying to find the last few shreds of precious ganja, as I walked away.
Since then, I’ve learned more about how marijuana affects people who have undiagnosed mental conditions, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression, or those who have a genetic tendency towards psychotic illnesses. At the same time, I began to hear about some of the positive effects of this controversial plant.
The first time I heard about the work of the late Prof. Manley West, it was from his son-in-law, a good friend of mine. As the Head of Pharmacology and Dean of Medical Sciences at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, Prof. West began to research the effect of marijuana on the eyes, based on stories told by rural fishermen that smoking ‘the herb’ and drinking ganja tea improved their eyesight. His work led to the formulation of Canasol, a leading treatment for glaucoma. Subsequently, he discovered treatments for bronchial asthma and motion sickness – all derived from cannabis.
These memories were awakened over the last couple of days, by watching a CNN special report, ‘Weeds 4 – Pot or Pills’, hosted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta. It presented an avalanche of research, experts, evidence and testimonies about the amazing medicinal powers of cannabis for relieving pain, inflammation, seizures and, paradoxically, drug addiction. With the USA in the grip of an opioid crisis that is causing an average of 150 deaths on a daily basis, it has a greater number of casualties than major killers such as road accidents and breast cancer. It is so common that police, paramedics and fire services in every city are all being trained to deal with opioid overdoses.
For the uninitiated, opioids are highly effective painkillers that can be legally prescribed by your doctor, especially after surgery, fractures and chronic long-term conditions, including cancer. They are derived from poppies, which produce morphine, codeine and chemically refined, illegal drugs like heroin. They are extremely efficient in pain management in the short term but longer periods (months) can result in addiction that lasts long after the pain has subsided.
The evidence suggests that appropriate use of marijuana-based treatments can reduce and even eliminate opioid addiction. For example, while opioid abuse rates skyrocket across every US state, many of the states that have legalised the use of medical marijuana have seen sharp declines of up to 40% in opioid addiction and corresponding death rates. I found this astonishing, after all we have been told about marijuana as a ‘gateway drug’ that leads to harder drugs, such as cocaine and heroin.
For staunch opponents of ‘getting high’, consider these facts before you fly into a righteous rage. Cannabis has over 400 components, including psychoactive THC, the drug that gives users a high, and cannabidiol (CBD) which is non-psychoactive and the primary component that has been licensed for medical use. CBD was given the green light because of its proven anti-inflammatory effect (reducing the cause of pain), unlike opioids that relieve the feeling of pain but not the source of it. CBD is proven to be effective in controlling epileptic fits, amongst other benefits.
And yet, the huge wave of opioid addiction in the USA actually begins with the legal prescription of medication for severe pain, which leads to dependence and, eventually, addiction. In the last 20-30 years doctors began dishing out these prescriptions in record numbers because of the persuasive marketing and incentivising done by the pharmaceutical companies. And that seemed to be fine because it is completely legal to prescribe some drugs derived from morphine – unlike its illegal cousin, heroin.
Here in Nigeria, we are on the verge of a codeine epidemic, with millions of young people consuming cough syrup that contains the drug. In the north, it is estimated that 3-4 million bottles of this medicine are abused daily. Why the north? Its mainly Muslim population frowns upon alcohol, so this is how many desperately poor and illiterate people get their high. As usual, the federal and state governments are sleepwalking through the beginnings of a crisis, leaving it to international media and foreign NGOs to sound the alarm.
Although I’m unlikely to smoke ganja or abuse any other drugs, legal or illegal, I believe that it is time to open our eyes to the medicinal value of marijuana and its role as a relatively non-lethal alternative to opioids for some pain medication. In spite of conservative opposition over decades (including me), there is one fact that is accepted by everyone – that there isn’t a single recorded death by cannabis overdose, anywhere in the world. In our arguments for and against marijuana, that’s something we should all bear in mind.
Like all drugs, compounds derived from cannabis should follow the tried-and-tested route to legalisation – research, clinical trials, approval and regulation. Our irrational fears and scaremongering need to cease. Let scientists do their work. There is no logic for choosing the derivatives of the opium flower over the cannabis plant, when the evidence shows benefits for each, as well as dangers that need to be avoided.
Let’s accept that the ‘war on drugs’ has been a dismal failure, with a huge bill and an even greater cost to families. In fact, the only winners appear to be the huge pharmaceutical companies who profit from legal drugs and the corporations that own prisons and benefit from mass incarceration of mostly Black and Brown people.
I hope this post starts a debate with people just like me – those personally opposed to marijuana but open to the possibility that we may have been mislead by the powers that be. Perhaps the ultimate irony is watching how the foremost prosecutor of the ‘war on drugs’, the USA, while suppressing the rights of other countries to produce and export medical marijuana, is quietly gearing up to be the biggest producer and profit-maker in an in industry already worth billions of dollars.
“Indeed, marijuana is less toxic than many of the drugs that physicians prescribe every day.” ~ Joycelyn Elders, former US Surgeon General and paediatrician
“I have seen many patients with chronic pain, muscle spasms, nausea, anorexia, and other unpleasant symptoms obtain significant – often remarkable – relief from cannabis medicines, well beyond what had been provided by traditional (usually opiate-based) pain relievers. ~ David Hadorn, MD, PhD, Medical Consultant for GW Pharmaceuticals, Ltd.
“It is irresponsible not to provide the best care we can as a medical community, care that could involve marijuana. We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.” ~ Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Neurosurgeon