Close up of a cannabis flower head

Marijuana: Genuinely Safe?

The debate to legalise marijuana for medical use in the UK has been raging for years, but has only recently begun to grow in fervour. There are some within the UK, with conditions such as multiple sclerosis, who use what is known in some countries as medical marijuana, citing pain relief as one of the greatest advantages, choosing to be outlaws rather than live with the debilitating nature of their conditions.  These are the people campaigning the hardest for a change in the law. Others have used this to go so far as to argue that it should be legalised for recreational use, with many arguing that compared to other legal drugs such as alcohol, marijuana is a relatively ‘safe’ drug.  But how true is this assessment? Can marijuana really be considered safe and should calls for its legalisation be taken more seriously?

One of the most common arguments in favour of legalising cannabis is that it has far fewer negative side effects than alcohol. Certainly statistics have shown that deaths and illnesses related to over-consumption of alcohol are far higher than that of frequent marijuana use, but that does not mean that there will not be adverse health issues for those who use marijuana on a regular basis. Similarly, death rates caused by those driving under the influence remain high despite an increase in legislation, whilst rates for those who had been smoking cannabis are lower than this.  However, arrests of those driving under the influence of marijuana is still relatively high, accounting for around 80% of all arrests made for those driving under the influence of drugs.

One argument that does seem to be grounded in the statistical evidence is the statement that more instances of violence and domestic abuse occur when the perpetrator has been drinking alcohol than when they have been smoking cannabis, although there are articles that will still argue the opposite. Perhaps the strongest argument for the legalisation of cannabis, however, is the argument that it will bring greater legislation to the manufacturing of the drug, allowing for the ability to monitor the quantities in which it is consumed.  At the moment alcohol levels are carefully measured and monitored with clear guidelines presented on how much is safe to consume, whereas the content of THC (the hallucinogenic ingredient) in marijuana is often unknown to the user and steadily on the increase. Levels of THC in marijuana have increased to almost 20% in the past 20 years with some versions of skunk suspected to contain even more than this.  This substance is considered to be the addictive element in marijuana and the long-term health effects of consumption in such high doses remains unknown. A legalisation of the drug would see greater checks on the levels of THC present and better research on its effects.

Whilst there are a number of health risks involved in marijuana consumption, not least the fact that it is most often inhaled and therefore carries similar risks as tobacco, many who use marijuana for medicinal purposes say these are far outweighed by the benefits they receive. Those with cancer argue that it has been proven to slow and stop the growth of new cancer cells in the brain, breast and the lugs as well as helping to minimise the side effects of chemotherapy. Those with Parkinson’s report that it reduces tremors, others use it to relieve the symptoms of conditions such as arthritis.  Many who have long-term debilitating diseases cite that it has seen a massive reduction in the pain that they experience. Some argue that marijuana helps to relieve stress and anxiety, although research into this have shown that in other cases the use of marijuana has seen an increase in anxiety and depression. All of these benefits come from those who have used marijuana illegally to relieve these conditions. If it were to be legalised, greater, better-regulated research would have to be carried out to determine whether these statements were indeed grounded in scientific fact.

Many argue that marijuana is the safest form of recreational drug and should be categorised in the same way as alcohol for this reason.  Whilst marijuana is known to be addictive in high quantities, some argue that the lower-dose versions are no more addictive than alcohol and therefore should not be considered as dangerous as drugs such as cocaine.  Users also argue that the effects of marijuana on a person are less severe and debilitating than when using drugs such as heroin and cocaine.  However, one of the most cited arguments against the legalisation of marijuana is that it is seen as a ‘gateway drug’, a drug that leads to users turning to other, more dangerous drugs such as cocaine and heroine.  This could be due to evidence suggesting that the chemicals present in marijuana can take up to two weeks to leave the system, thus building up a resistance, resulting in users no longer experiencing the same sense of euphoria and beginning to look for alternatives.

Evidence on this topic is varied and often contradictory as those publishing articles and papers do so with their own personal agenda in mind.  A government-condoned article will argue that marijuana is extremely dangerous whilst a campaign group will claim that marijuana is perfectly safe. At the moment this is an argument based heavily on opinions, which are clouding any facts that may be out there. It is worth noting that many who are advocating for the legalisation of marijuana feel that its use as such should not be viewed as a criminal issue but rather as a social and public health issue.  This does not mean that they believe marijuana to be a safe drug. Further research needs to be carried out to help determine the facts in this case and perhaps the best way to see that happen is to legalise the drug in some form.

Perhaps it is safer to smoke weed than it is to snort cocaine or inject heroin. Perhaps marijuana consumption is safer or at least on par with drinking alcohol in excess.  This does not mean that marijuana is safe.

Image credit: flickr.com/100651935@N07

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Katherine Halliday

I am an English and History graduate from Dundee with a passion for travel and a passion for writing.

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