Weeding out the truth

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

20 thoughts on “Weeding out the truth

  1. Wow!
    This is too much to take in at once but I follow totally

    Thank you for your informed and well researched articles
    This is mind blowing and makes lotta sense cos once of my closest person takes marijuana but doesn’t abuse nor misbehave
    One of the most intelligent and disciplined person I know and I have been searching for a logical explanation until now

    Thank you so much

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  2. My initial thoughts were that the giant Pharmaceuticals who are already gaining from distribution of opioids may just be happy with their fat pockets and the high rate of addiction, that introducing any new less addictive drug , (better or not), that affects their bottom line negatively , may not be so appealing.

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    1. Hi Lara. You’re quite correct. It’s possible that they may be lobbying the US government to keep marijuana compounds illegal at the federal level. However, once they are legal, I guarantee that Big Pharma will start buying up these smaller companies that have a head start in cannabinoids and take control of worldwide distribution.

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  3. After having severe, debilitating migraines for years and having tried just about every Big Pharma had to offer in ever increasing strengths, I can attest to having benefitted from the use of subject herb out of sheer desperation.
    There are too many reports of persons with a variety of complaints who have been helped by it. We really need to fully exploit it within all legal and ethical boundaries.

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  4. Just read this piece and found it really profound. I’m not a user of marijuana but I always knew it has enormous medical potential. The powers that be are now ashamed to admit it but are prepared to benefit financially from it. Lovely piece.

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  5. Thanks for an insightful article Michael. This is a wake up call to take control of our health. The alternative health industry has been aware of the benefits of medical marijuana for several years, using it to treat cancer and other chronic illnesses. The challenge has always been to source the oil and the price tag that comes with it.

    The pharmaceutical industry makes generates big revenues for chemotherapy drugs. Brentuximab was fairly new in 2013 and cost the UK NHS £9000 per treatment. My wife received 10 of those to the tune of £90k so 12 patients would have earned that drug company over £1m easily. Multiply that across the NHS and worldwide and it becomes easy to see why Big Pharma will block any threat to its profits. So what about people being cured? Sure but on their own terms when they can control the patents and the profits.

    As you say Michael let’s open our eyes to the benefits of medical marijuana and let’s also look at the other powerful herbs that God has provided for our healing. We may be surprised by the simple but extremely effective remedies available

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    1. Hi Paul. You’re very welcome. It’s so funny that marijuana is stigmatised because of its recreational use and the negative stereotypes that arise. Meanwhile, opium poppies produce deadly heroin, which remains illegal, but it is the same source for morphine, codeine and a host of other legal opioids. Clearly, the only difference is the money that’s made by Big Pharma, compared to the relatively tiny alternative health industry. However, the first legal CBD drugs to be globally available are only months away.

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  6. Hi Michael, Thanks for this piece. I spent many years praying furiously that my sons would not be attracted to ganja even as I watched the decline of many of their friends and acquaintances as they experimented with the drug. I worried and fretted and it was a great blessing to see the 4 of them emerge from the most vulnerable period of their lives unscathed into responsible non-smoking adults. As far as I know they never tried it and they never smoked even cigarettes. Good for them. From my mother I knew of the benefit of soaking the leaves in rum, chiefly it relieved menstrual pains…I guess the rum helped too. So more power to the researchers that we can all benefit from the medicinal qualities and also that there is financial gain shared in Jamaica.

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    1. Hi Clover. You were not alone, I assure you! That was the number one fear of parents in the 70s and 80s. Just the sight of a red, green and gold belt was enough to spark a household crisis. I remember how we used to laugh when Rastas said that “herb is for the healing of the nation”. It turns out that they were right, even if smoking is not the best way to access its benefits. We live and learn.

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  7. Random, unstructured thoughts on big pharma:
    1) As one who’s seen (:-)) a lot of weed-smoking up close, I’ve always known that the bad rap was mostly just bad press, driven by big pharma interests who had the most to lose from something that could be grown in one’s back garden.
    2) Do you remember my sister Michelle? She suffered epilepsy her entire life, and spent much of her life – AND a fortune – on barbiturates to control it. I can draw a direct line from her discovery of cannabis to the decline of her fits. Big pharma.
    3) Like you, I knew Manley West’s product Canasol, and saw first-hand how he failed to gain traction on the open market against big pharma. My mother was medical, and I also saw first-hand how aggressive and persuasive medical reps could be. They would practically PAY HER to prescribe their products, knowing the patients would be hooked, and they would win over time. Even back then, putting 2 and 2 together, I knew something was up.
    4) Now that they can’t hold back the tide anymore, it’s ironic how quickly big pharma can “turn” former detractors by carefully placed messaging to suit themselves.
    5) I watched incredulously as American diplomats bullied the Jamaican government a couple of years ago, threatening sanctions if they legalised, while at THE VERY SAME TIME, they were opening up Colorado and California, because as little as Jamaica is, the threat of such a well-known product – even in small quantities – was not something they were prepared to allow.
    6) Finally, acknowledging that I have no data to back me up, I always thought that those people who lost their way “to weed”, would probably have lost their way to something else – weed just happened to be what they had. Clover Batts had nothing to fear.
    On this, the rastas were right.
    Walk good, brother.
    Alistair

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    1. Hey Alistair! There’s something that I always wondered about – how the vast majority of Rastas could smoke copious amounts of ganja over a lifetime and never go mad (Jamaican myth) nor move on to hard drugs (US myth). I saw it affect some people, but it was always those who had underlying mental illnesses. I was never attracted because I don’t think smoking of anything is good for your lungs, however, the scare stories and bullying of the US blinded us to the positive benefits. I think I know how this will play out – Big Pharma will buy out the small cannabis pioneers eventually, once federal laws change and the money gets too big to resist. Or, the other way around – money gets big and they get the laws changed.

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      1. When I first heard the “Legalise It” song by Peter Tosh I knew he was onto something. Think of the many people who’ll be out of work if there is no illicit drugs trade in America- DEA, ICE, narcotics units in the FBI and the police etc. Heck, the CIA was revealed in the book by Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks “CIA and the Cult of Intelligence” to cultivate ties with drug lords. The whole anti-drugs thing is a racket and Big Pharma plays a role in keeping it alive.

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