The smoke over medical marijuana

Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk

A comprehensive 2015 scientific review found medical marijuana to be useful only for a small number of medical conditions. Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, an international team of researchers found scant evidence to support broad claims for the drug’s effectiveness. Although clinical trials showed that chronic neuropathic pain and cancer-related pain could often be treated, other forms of pain, such as those related to rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, HIV and multiple sclerosis did not show statistically significant improvement. Researchers also found inconclusive data for people with insomnia, anxiety disorders, depression, Tourette syndrome, psychosis, and sleep disorders. They registered concerns about medical marijuana’s significant side effects as well.

Yale University researchers, commenting on the review, noted how the approval process for medical marijuana in U.S. states and jurisdictions has often been based on “low-quality scientific evidence, anecdotal reports, individual testimonials, legislative initiatives, and public opinion.” They raised concerns around the fact that medical marijuana seems to be receiving “special status” and is being “fast-tracked” for legalization, when it should instead be subject to the standard scientific verifications of the FDA approval process to assure its efficacy and safety. The Yale authors offered this corrective: “Imagine if other drugs were approved through a similar approach… If the goal is to make marijuana available for medical purposes, then it is unclear why the approval process should be different from that used for other medications.”

In his influential exposé Marijuana Debunked, Dr. Ed Gogek emphasizes how the idea of medical marijuana “didn’t come from doctors, or patient advocacy groups, or public health organizations, or the medical community. The ballot initiatives for medical marijuana laws were sponsored and promoted by pro-legalization groups.” These groups have used the medical marijuana trump card to grease the skids for the acceptance of recreational marijuana. This pincer movement has enabled them to control and reap the windfall from an extensive system of dispensaries that supply and distribute addictive substances. Even if recreational marijuana does not ultimately become legalized in a particular jurisdiction, it is well documented that medical marijuana dispensaries often end up supplying the drug not for rare, valid medical uses, but for substance abuse, similar to the situation with opioid pain medications.

Yet the push for marijuana continues unabated. In May 2018, the New York State Comptroller, Scott Stringer, issued a report declaring that legalized marijuana in the Empire State would be a potential $3 billion market, with taxes from its sale generating a potential $436 million annually statewide, and $336 million for New York City. With such sums at play, not only are investors coming out of the woodwork, but towns and municipalities are also issuing ordinances and changing zoning laws to bring in the dispensaries. Indeed, dollar signs beckon, much as they once did for tobacco companies and plantation owners.

Besides being addictive and profitable, tobacco and marijuana have other similarities. Marijuana smoke contains harmful chemicals, with ammonia, benzene, toluene, and naphthalene levels in marijuana exceeding those found in tobacco smoke. These chemical components may contribute to emphysema, bronchial irritation and inflammation. Patients with medical conditions treatable by medical marijuana can avoid these toxic chemicals and other side effects by using more purified preparations containing only the active ingredients.

In 2003, the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that evaluates medical issues, acknowledged that components of marijuana may have medicinal uses, and strongly recommended the development of prescription cannabinoid medicines based on those components: “If there is any future for marijuana as a medicine, it lies in its isolated components, the cannabinoids and their synthetic derivatives.” Several different cannabinoid medications have been developed in recent years, and these medicines work as well as or better than marijuana, have fewer side effects, and are less likely to be abused. These drugs also tend to be effective in the body for longer periods.

Dr. Gogek notes the irony of the loud public outcry that would ensue if the FDA were to approve “a drug that had no advantage over safer alternatives, went mostly to substance abuse, increased teenage drug use, and killed people on the highways.” He concludes, “We should not be sidestepping the FDA approval process that was designed to protect us.”

In sum, the reality behind medical marijuana is far from the rosy view painted by advocates.  Marijuana is not “just a plant.” It is an addictive drug abused in epidemic proportions, inflicting a serious individual and societal toll. Its use as a medicine needs to be carefully regulated through standard scientific oversight and the FDA approval process, not handed over to recreational enthusiasts and opportunistic businessmen. The current practice of encouraging states and municipalities to legalize medical, and then recreational, marijuana, is, in the final analysis, neither reasonable nor ethical.

COMING UP: Synod: Topics from the final document on young people

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

After intense days of dialogue and discussion among bishops and invited young people, the Synod on young people, the faith and vocational discernment came to a close in Rome on Oct. 28.

Here we offer a brief summary of the document which was approved a few days before the closing. It contains 167 points and proposals which seek to transmit the Word of God and address the needs of young people throughout the world.

The citations provided are not approved English translations of the document. The document has only been released in Italian.

Sexuality

The document states that the Church works “to communicate the beauty of the Christian vision of corporeality and sexuality.” It asks for more adequate methods to communicate it. “An anthropology of affectivity and sexuality, capable of also giving a fair value to chastity, must be proposed to young people.” To do so, “it is necessary to tend to the formation of pastoral workers, so that they may be credible [witnesses], beginning with the maturity of their own affective and sexual dimensions.”

Accompaniment

Another recommendation asks for better accompaniment to help young people “read their own story” and live out their baptismal call “freely” and “responsibly.” The document also asks for better accompaniment of people with same-sex attraction, reaffirming the “decisive anthropological relevance of the difference and reciprocity between man and woman,” and considering it “reductive” to define a person’s identity based on his or her sexual orientation.

Women

The difference between men and women can be a realm “in which many forms of dominion, inclusion and discrimination can emerge,” elements the Church must free itself from, the document says. It says that among the youth, there is a desire for a “greater acknowledgment and valuing” of women in the Church and society. Furthermore, it says that the absence of the feminine voice and outlook “impoverishes” debate and the path of the Church, robbing it of a “beautiful contribution.”

Vocation

The final synodal document calls for a “true and specific vocational culture” and a “constant prayer commitment” for vocations. It affirms that the mission of many consecrated men and women who give of themselves to those in the peripheries of the world “manifests concretely the dedication of an outward Church.”

It highlights that the Church has always had a particular care for vocations to the priestly order, knowing that it is a “constituent element of her identity and necessary for the Christian life.” Moreover, the Synod acknowledges the condition of the single life, which, assumed with a logic of faith and self-gift, can lead to paths through which “the grace of baptism acts and directs toward that holiness we are all called to.”

“The Eucharistic celebration generates the communal life of the Church. It is the place for transmission of the faith and formation for mission,” the document states. Young people have shown “to appreciate and live with intensity authentic celebrations in which the beauty of the signs, the care for preaching and the communal involvement truly speak of God.”

It encourages that young people discover “the value of Eucharistic adoration as an extension of the celebration, in which contemplation and silent prayer can be lived out.”

Migration

The document expresses the Church’s preoccupation regarding those who “escape war, violence, political and religious persecutions, natural disasters … and extreme poverty.” In general, immigrants leave their countries in search of “opportunities for themselves and for their families” and are exposed to violence on their journey. Many leave with an idealized version of Western culture, “at times feeding it with unrealistic expectations that expose them to hard disappointments.”

The synodal fathers highlight the particular vulnerability of “unaccompanied migrant minors” and see that “it is necessary to decisively reject” a xenophobic mentality regarding migration events “frequently promoted and exploited for political ends.”

Featured image by L’Osservatore Romano