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Reefer Madness Forever

“Marijuana's Role in the Tucson Shooting” was the extremely misleading headline on an article by Joe Califano that the Huffington Post ran Jan. 21. Why is that supposedly liberal site disseminating propaganda by a leading Drug Warrior? There is no evidence that marijuana had any “role” in the Tucson shooting. Readers who only glance at the story will assume otherwise.

Califano begins by blowing politic kisses towards Barack Obama and John Boehner. Then he changes tone to sneer at “the thousands of pundits, left and right, arguing about the meaning of the tragedy in Arizona,” who missed a lesson “as important as any other lesson to come out of this tragedy. It's about the relationship of marijuana use to psychotic illness.”

After another shot at commentators preoccupied with laws that allow automatic weapons and super-size ammo clips, Califano makes his pitch: “I haven't seen press reports or talking heads discuss their concern about how easy it has been for this mentally ill young man to get marijuana. And there has been no mention of the potential of marijuana to spark latent psychosis and exacerbate schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.”

Califano cites a study in “the British Medical Journal Lancet [The M and the J should be lower case, since he's referring to a piece in the Lancet. Califano or the staffer who writes his stuff must have vaguely remembered a publication called the British Medical Journal and conflated the two] and two other studies suggesting that using cannabis leads to psychotic breaks. Califano does not allow that these studies are considered inconclusive at best by many psychiatrists, including Lester Grinspoon, whose textbook on Schizophrenia has been the standard text.

Califano quotes reports that Loughner once used marijuana; but he ignores other reports that Loughner quit three years ago and that his drug of choice was Salvia Divinorum. Califano wants the question settled: “If the police have any of the hair shaved from Loughner's head, they can easily find out if marijuana was in his system at the time of the shooting. They may even be able to do so from hair that grows back in.”

It seems like an easy test to rig if one were so inclined. And we know Joe Califano of old, he has few qualms about manipulating the facts. The following is from O'Shaughnessy's report on the Prop 215 campaign (the ballot initiative by which California voters legalized the medical use of marijuana on November 4, 1996):

In the final weeks of the campaign some leading drug warriors from Back East -stunned that the people of California were on the verge of rejecting a lifetime of their propaganda-decided to step in. Joseph Califano, president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, flew out to Los Angeles on Tuesday, Oct. 28 to warn Californians that they did not understand the open-endedness of Prop 215. Califano had hired two pollsters to query 800 residents over the weekend. He must have been very confident of the outcome because arrangements for his press conference were made before the questions had been asked. “It was a push-pull,” explains Paul Maslin, a San Francisco pollster. This is a type of survey in which the questioner, after getting an initial response, provides additional information and then asks again, evoking a changed response. Califano announced at his press conference that 46 percent of the respondents supported Prop 215 when first asked, but only 36 percent after its inherent looseness had been pointed out to them. Califano's goal in commissioning the poll, according to Maslin was to make voters think that the “no” side still had a realistic chance on Election Day and to minimize any bandwagon effect that would magnify the “yes” vote.

Flash-forward to the Huffington Post, Jan. 21. Califano concludes: “we should be asking this question: Is Jared Loughner an individual whose psychosis was prompted or exacerbated by the use of marijuana? Whether or not he is, it is important for the press and parents to see this horrendous incident not only as a teaching moment about the easy availability and dangerous potential of automatic weapons, but also as a teaching moment about the easy availability and dangerous potential of marijuana to spark and exacerbate psychosis and schizophrenia in individuals with latent mental illnesses.

“The missing story line in existing news reports and television chatter shows is about the terrible trinity of easy availability of guns, easy availability of marijuana and mental illness. The question for all of us, especially parents of teenagers, to ask is this: Is the media's failure to acknowledge this tragic trinity due to its tendency to overlook or underplay the dangers of marijuana use?

“Joseph A. Califano, Jr., Founder and Chair of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, was Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Carter Administration, and served from 1965 to 1969 as chief domestic affairs assistant to president Lyndon B. Johnson.”

At which time one of his top aides, a Harvard honors grad and future corporate CEO, used to roll amazingly perfect joints with hospital corners. Califano never thought his aide was impaired at work because he wasn't.

Outgrow CBD Opportunism

It's very tempting for those of us who are talking up the medical potential of Cannabidiol to emphasize the absence of psychoactive effects in such a way as to imply that CBD is the good cannabinoid, as opposed to THC, the bad cannabinoid. That is a shortcut to acceptance that we consider opportunistic at best, unethical at worst. Countless scientists have spent countless millions of U.S. taxpayers' dollars trying to establish the harmful effects of high-THC marijuana, and they heaviest they could come up with is bronchial irritation.

To explain what we mean by “CBD opportunism” we quote from an article in the New Scientist by Lady Amanda Neidpath of the Beckley Foundation, a British charitable trust “that promotes the investigation of consciousness and its modulation,” and Paul Morrison, a researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry in London.

It's lack of balance that makes skunk cannabis do harm. The effects of cannabis on mental health have attracted much attention over the years. As far back as the 19th century it was recognised that cannabis could induce a transient psychosis which mimics the symptoms of schizophrenia. Despite this, until the last decade or so, most psychiatrists regarded cannabis as essentially benign.

This is the reverse of the truth. “Most psychiatrists” in the UK and the US are Prozac purshers who have accepted cannabis Prohibition without a peep.

...The type of cannabis taken is an important factor. Street cannabis has indeed changed over the years. So-called “skunk” does contain higher than normal concentrations of the main psychoactive compound, a molecule called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). What is less well known is that another constituent, cannabidiol (CBD), has been eliminated from skunk through selective breeding to increase the THC content.

CBD has been bred to trace amounts not just in skunk but in nearly all strains grown for psychoactivity.

The elimination of CBD may play a key role in the development of psychosis. Laboratory studies have shown that pure, synthetic THC causes transient psychosis in 40 to 50 per cent of healthy people.

At what doses? Which studies? This is Reefer Madness 2011.

In stark contrast to THC, CBD appears to have an anti-psychotic effect, at least in animals. Studies in humans, though few in number, have produced similar findings.

The elimination of cannabidiol from skunk may play a key role in the development of psychosis. In one human study, published in Neuropsychopharmacology, Sagnik Bhattacharya and colleagues at the Institute of Psychiatry in London used functional MRI brain scanning to study the effects of THC and CBD on the brains of healthy volunteers. They found that THC and CBD acted in opposition; in brain regions where THC increased neural activity from a baseline, CBD decreased it, and vice-versa.

In a further experiment, a group including one of us (Morrison), in collaboration with the Beckley Foundation, compared the effects of a mixture of synthetic THC and CBD (to mimic traditional cannabis) with THC on its own (to mimic skunk). The aim was to find out if CBD offered protection against the psychotic effects of THC. Healthy volunteers were given the molecules intravenously for two sessions.

Two synthetic molecules don't “mimic traditional cannabis,” and people don't shoot cannabis. What does this experiment have to do with the real world? Niedpath & Morrison conclude, “The evidence supports the idea that nature knows best, & that the reintroduction of CBD would be beneficial. Two molecules are better than one.”

But the whole plant is better by far. ¥¥

(Fred Gardner is managing editor of O'Shaughnessy's, the journal of cannabis in clinical practice. He can be reached at .)

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