The THC Fear Factor


It was great news to hear that New York has decided to legalize medical cannabis.

Well, sort of. 

After weeks of debate and many compromises, the state will allow doctors to prescribe patients suffering from multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, glaucoma and cancer to use medical cannabis in the form of tinctures, edibles or oil for vaporizers.

They will not be allowed to smoke it. 

The official reason for this peculiar concession is that Gov. Cuomo, along with some in the state legislature, are concerned that marijuana is a gateway drug. Welcome to the THC Fear Factor.

Never mind that we’re not talking about the recreational user or children here; these are people with debilitating illnesses looking for symptom relief. Some will be using cannabis to replace the prescription drugs they currently use. And the governor is worried that they might get hooked on cannabis? That they might be looking to sneak a buzz instead of finding respite from a crippling disease?

Never mind that the “gateway theory” has been pretty much scientifically discredited. As far back as 1999, a government study, Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base laid it out pretty succinctly. “The gateway analogy evokes two ideas that are often confused. The first, more often referred to as the ‘stepping stone’ hypothesis, is the idea that progression from marijuana to other drugs arises from pharmacological properties of marijuana itself.”

As the researchers found out, the “stepping stone” analogy applies only in the sense that someone who enjoys the feelings of cannabis might be wiling to try other mood-altering drugs.

“There is no evidence that marijuana serves as a stepping stone on the basis of its particular physiological effect,” they write. “One might argue that marijuana is generally used before other illicit mood-altering drugs, in part, because its effects are milder; in that case, marijuana is a stepping stone only in the same sense as taking a small dose of a particular drug and then increasing that dose over time is a stepping stone to increased drug use.”

The second is that marijuana leads to a world of harder drugs where there is more pressure to try other illicit substances. “The latter does not suggest that the pharmacological qualities of marijuana make it a risk factor for progression to other drug use,” they found. “Instead, the legal status of marijuana makes it a gateway drug.”

That hasn’t stopped prohibitionists and whomever has Gov. Cuomo’s ear on this subject these days from promoting the gateway theory 15 years later. The THC Fear Factor has dominated prohibitionist lore back to the 1930s. There is no evidence to suggest that people who alter their consciousness are any better or worse off than people who don’t. But something about THC brings out a kind of moral fervor in some to try and keep the rest of us from enjoying it. And this, even though their own consciousness is altered by everything from alcohol to ice cream and coffee.

For many patients, smoking cannabis is still the fastest delivery system, and the one they can most control. For people dealing with nausea and extreme discomfort, waiting an hour for an edible to come on isn’t a reliable option, and edible consistency is still a work in progress. But that people with epilepsy, glaucoma and cancer shouldn’t be able to smoke marijuana because it might be a gateway drug sounds pretty desperate, especially from a credible governor of a major U.S. state. Will Cuomo arrest patients if they are caught smoking? Or for buying bud from the black market?

THC Fear Factor thinking is at work in states that have allowed medical cannabis, but only if it’s extremely low in THC and high in CBD, another prominent cannabinoid. Florida last month joined Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin to enact restrictive, CBD-only medical marijuana laws.

The problem is that some of these programs are aimed at one particular disease, specifically the rare epilepsy disorder that is calmed by “Charlotte’s Web”, a high-CBD strain featured in Sanjay Gupta’s CNN Weed specials. Although that’s a start, only a low percentage of patients need that particular strain. Many who use cannabis for other ailments won’t be helped by low-THC strains.

Tests and research indicate that hybrid strains that include THC and CBD (and other of the 85 cannabinoids) work better for those contending with multiple sclerosis, pain and nausea. And though the federal government doesn’t accept medical cannabis, it has approved a synthetic THC pill called Marinol. The jury is still out on whether it works as well as cannabis itself.

I don’t generally use the cannabis/alcohol analogy, but it applies here. People who change their consciousness with alcohol (or coffee, or prescription drugs) and want to restrict others from changing theirs with THC are the worst of hypocrites, especially since the scientific evidence continues to prove that alcohol is far more dangerous than cannabis.

Even if you believe that medical cannabis is a ruse to push legalization, millions of people around the country are using it to alleviate symptoms of various ailments, and whether they smoke it, eat it or vaporize it, if it works for them, why should anyone else care?



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