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Weeding out ganja myths

Published:Sunday | March 16, 2014 | 12:00 AM
In this October 19, 2009 photo, Samuel Bagdorf of San Francisco, who suffers from anxiety disorders, lights his marijuana pipe at the San Francisco Medical Cannabis Clinic in San Francisco. Pressure is growing in Jamaica for ganja to be decriminalised so the country can benefit from the billion-dollar global medical marijuana industry.-AP
Professor Henry Lowe and allies have formed Jamaica's first ganja company.
Ian Boyne

Ian Boyne

We are so intoxicated about the prospects of escaping our perennial poverty through the booming US$140-billion global ganja business that we couldn't care less about any scientific evidence which might exist about its potential harm. Ganja market and investment enthusiasts - not to mention Rastafarians like Michael Lorne - are so high over decriminalisation that they are impatient of discussion of any negative effect of ganja smoking.

When Dr Derrick Aarons pointed out in a recent In Focus article ('Protect kids from ganja') that "a not-so-well-known or little-discussed fact is that the intake of ganja into the body negatively affects short-term memory, thereby inhibiting a student's ability to learn", he was attacked as alarmist. Our aversion to reading is what is behind so much intolerance and incivility.

Dr Sanjay Gupta, CNN medical analyst who is being hailed for his recent series on weed, is on record as saying he believes the evidence shows that ganja affects the developing brain and that is why he believes ganja should be restricted to youth up to at least 25. The ganja enthusiasts who mention Gupta are not going to tell you that.

"Traditionally, we consider 21 to be the age of adulthood, but research clearly shows our brains are still developing at 21," Gupta is quoted as saying.

But what you might be surprised to learn, because for many of us, things are safely hidden in books, is that the Jamaican scientist whose name is now most associated with ganja research, Dr Henry Lowe, marshals the scientific evidence on the potential harm of ganja in his recent book Ganja: The Jamaican and Global Connection.

Lowe, with co-author Professor Errol Morrison, says in the book: "Scientific evidence continues to support the fact that, though many believe cannabis is relatively safe, there may be some potentially harmful effects associated with its long-term use ... . Psychosis has long been known to be an effect, but recent studies have further explored the relationship in depth."

Lowe and Morrison, in their fascinating and empirically rich book, cite a 2007 meta-analysis published in the esteemed Lancet journal which concluded that cannabis users are 40 per cent more likely to suffer psychotic illness than non-users.

"According to a ... survey on drug abuse, kids who frequently use marijuana are almost four times more likely to act violently or damage property, and also five times more likely to steal ... . Cannabis has been assessed by several studies to be correlated with the development of anxiety psychosis and depression ... ."

Ganja's effect on memory has been well documented. "A 2008 review of evidence surrounding the acute impact on memory concluded that cannabinoids impair all aspects of short-term memory."

The book also asserts: "Quantitative studies on the smoking of marijuana have suggested that when compared with tobacco smoking, marijuana smoking is associated with nearly fivefold greater increase in the blood carboxhaemoglobin level and an approximately threefold increase in the amount of water inhaled and retained in the respiratory tract." And: "Recent studies have also found that there may be adverse pulmonary effects associated with marijuana inhalation such as impaired lung function and respiratory infection, among others." This is not to scare anyone or to be "alarmist", but to help balance a discussion that has been skewed.

Chapter Five of Ganja: the Jamaican and Global Connection is titled 'Major Effects'. The two distinguished scientists say clearly: "Legislation activists and many marijuana users believe smoking marijuana (pot) has no negative effects even though scientific research indicates that marijuana use can cause many different health problems."


If we are going to have a serious discussion about ganja and decriminalisation, let us put all the relevant facts on the table. The ganja book points to University of Leicester researchers who, in the journal Chemical Research in Toxology, found "convincing evidence" that cannabis smoke damages DNA and that it could potentially increase the risk of cancer development in humans.

Reference is also made to a January 2009 edition of The Journal of Psychiatric Research, which asserted that adolescents and young adults who are heavy users of marijuana are more likely than non-users to have disrupted brain development. The foolish argument that many bright middle-class youth smoke herb and are obviously doing well so that research is "rubbish" is what should be dismissed as that - rubbish. There is a difference between correlation and causation.

Drs Lowe and Morrison are balanced. They acknowledge, in a quote attributed to Stanley Zammit, that "even if cannabis did increase the risk of psychosis, most people using the drug will not get ill". The fact is that alcohol and tobacco are very harmful to humans and they are not criminalised. The fact that ganja can be potentially harmful is not necessarily an argument for its criminalisation. But if we get the impression that scientific research has finally settled on the harmlessness of ganja and it's just a bunch of prudes and control artists who are "stopping the progress", you won't have the necessary education programme if we do decide to decriminalise.

The fact is that CARICOM was right last week to implore the fast-tracking of medical marijuana research. Jamaica and the Caribbean cannot afford to be left behind in this growing market for medical marijuana. My unequivocal support is with this, and the Jamaican Government must move fast to ensure the way is cleared for further research and development work on medical ganja.

Twenty US states now allow medical marijuana, and Colorado and Washington state have legalised ganja for recreational use. (Uruguay has also legalised it.) International opinion has shifted in favour of legalisation, not just decriminalisation. A January CNN poll found that 55 per cent globally support legalisation. In the US, public opinion has shifted by about 10 per cent between 2012-2013, with about 55 per cent now showing support for legalisation.

US President Barack Obama is expressing more liberal views publicly. In November, Florida will vote on legalising medical marijuana, and in New York and Georgia, state legislatures are debating medical marijuana. Oregon and Alaska are expected to put legalisation on the ballot this year.

Jamaica must prepare for this windfall. We have someone like Dr Henry Lowe who has been ahead of the game and who has done substantial scientific work over many years. Don't forget also Manley West and Albert Lockhart. It would be a pity if Jamaica's intellectual capital in ganja research should not be exploited for the country's benefit at this crucial time.


Government must do everything to ensure we are ready to make use of existing and emerging opportunities. The medical marijuana business is worth US$2.5 billion in the US alone. We talk about a logistics hub, but in addition, Jamaica could become a medical marijuana hub for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Jamaica needs scientific innovation to move ahead.We need value-added production. Medical marijuana offers us that - a safer way out of our IMF trap than waiting for foreign direct investment in assembly industries. We could use the opportunity to develop pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, and cosmeceuticals. The opportunities are vast.

I agree with Lowe and Morrison in their book: "Nevertheless, the current 'anxiety' about marijuana does support a need for controlling its production and research and medicinal application ... . Trafficking must be subject to the full measure of the law."

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to and