Some people in Minnesota and other states where marijuana is illegal might buy a bag anyway, light up and think, “What’s the harm? It’s legal in Colorado and Washington, and marijuana laws in California are pretty lax. It should be legal here.”
Others see marijuana as an addictive, potentially destructive drug that should be banned everywhere.
According to Dr. Charlie Reznikoff, a general medicine physician at Hennepin County Medical Center and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, labeling marijuana as “all good” or “completely bad” isn’t the right was to go about addressing the substance.
Reznikoff came to Chisago Lakes High School in Lindstrom Nov. 26 to talk about the impacts of marijuana: physical, psychological and socioeconomic.
The Chisago County Tobacco and Marijuana Education Team and Community Partnership with Youth and Families sponsored the presentation.
Usage among age groups
Reznikoff said about 80 percent of people who use marijuana start between the ages of 12 and 19. Of those who use the substance, most quit by age 26, he noted.
He said about 50 percent of Americans have tried marijuana sometime during their lifetimes, but only 1 to 4 percent could be labeled as “heavy” users.
He said heavy use usually peaks when people are of college age, 18 to 25.
Physical effects of marijuana
Reznikoff said there are definite physical side effects of using marijuana.
“The big one of marijuana is chronic bronchitis,” he said. “I think even young people who smoke it will feel less physically fit. They’ll cough more, they’ll feel shorter of breath and they’ll feel less athletic.”
He also noted there’s a small risk pneumonia related to marijuana use.
Reznikoff said unlike tobacco, which is known to cause cancer and heart disease, there isn’t definitive medical evidence to link marijuana use to either one of those maladies.
But he said heavy marijuana use might be a sign of something else: mental health disorders.
“Daily marijuana users who are in their teens are very likely to have a mental illness,” he said.
He noted those disorders often include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression.
“When I hear, “Daily marijuana user, age 17,” I think, “Have you had a thorough psychiatric evaluation?”
Reznikoff said people with those disorders sometimes use marijuana to “self medicate,” and some people with ADHD have claimed smoking marijuana allows them to concentrate better.
Medicinal, not medicine
Reznikoff said marijuana does have medicinal properties, but that does not make it a medicine.
“There are definite medicinal effects to marijuana,” he said. “Anyone who says otherwise, that’s just not true.”
He noted the substance is a fairly potent pain reliever, stronger than Advil or ibuprofen. He said it’s comparable to some low-dose narcotic pain relievers.
He also explained marijuana can relieve nausea in many people, except in rare cases where smoking or ingesting it can actually make a person vomit.
Reznikoff argued marijuana is an inferior treatment for glaucoma, because there are eye drops that are very effective in treating that disorder.
But even with the medicinal properties of marijuana, Reznikoff wanted to make a clear distinction between it and medicine.
“Just because it’s medicinal does not mean that it is all pure and good,” he said. “It does not mean the benefits outweigh the negatives.”
He added, “A drug is something that you put into your body that changes your health. A medicine is something that improves your health.”
Is it addictive?
Reznikoff said he doesn’t know why there’s controversy about marijuana being addictive.
“Yes, it’s definitely addicting,” he said.
However, he noted there is too much emphasis on addiction.
“It’s addictive, it happens,” he said. “But you can hurt yourself with a drug without being addicted to it.”
He noted studies have shown marijuana impairs one’s ability to drive, and a person doesn’t have to be addicted to the substance to use it, get high, hop in a car and subsequently get into a car accident.
Reznikoff also mentioned there have been studies done that look at the socioeconomic effects of regular marijuana use.
He said a recent New England Journal of Medicine report looked at a cohort in New Zealand over numerous years.
“Those who smoked marijuana heavily, especially in adolescence, had achieved less scholastically and scored lower on IQ tests, he said. “Their socioeconomic status was also lower (than average).”
However, he noted some people could argue the particular group studied in this cohort, and other cohorts in similar studies, were “going to achieve less, anyway, and marijuana was just something they did along the way.”
“It’s very difficult to prove cause and effect,” he said.
Compassion for the terminally ill
Marty Super, a Minneapolis resident and member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, was at the meeting and questioned some of what Reznikoff said during his presentation.
He said people should be able to smoke marijuana to deal with medical maladies.
He said his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer — a brain tumor — and eventually died.
The tumor and the treatment she was receiving to combat the cancer caused pain and nausea.
“We tried six different pharmaceuticals (to deal with the symptoms),” he said. “The last one, each patch cost $450. They didn’t work and there were lots of side effects. We purchased marijuana on the black market and that took her nausea away.”
Reznikoff referenced an Institute of Medicine opinion when addressing Super’s comments.
“The Institute of Medicine said it doesn’t support medical marijuana, but in the case of someone dying, have a little compassion,” he said. “They’re on high-dose morphine, for God’s sake. They’re on high-dose all sorts of drugs.”
Reznikoff said he agreed with Super’s assertions about giving marijuana to terminally ill patients.
“If I could give medical marijuana to those dying of a terminal illness and not have to deal with the 97 percent of 25-year-olds who want to smoke marijuana recreationally and have legal coverage, I’d go for it,” he said. “I have no issue with that.”