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How Deadly Is Pot?
Wed Sep 24 2003
WEDNESDAY, Sept. 24 (HealthDayNews) -- It's no secret that
marijuana makes people high. But can it also send them six
That's the crux of an ongoing debate in the latest issue of
the British Medical Journal between experts who disagree about
the potential health risks of smoking pot.
The latest volley in the battle came this month, when an
American doctor took aim at suggestions by a British team that
marijuana could be a major killer.
"I don't think it [marijuana] contributes very much to people
dying. It's not in the league of alcohol or tobacco," says Dr.
Stephen Sidney, an associate director of clinical research
with the Kaiser Total Bodye health plan who has studied the
effects of marijuana use on life span.
The debate began in May, when the journal ran an editorial by
a British medical professor and colleagues suggesting the
United Kingdom isn't paying enough attention to the health
risks of marijuana. "We were concerned that smoking is
constantly being regarded as a major public health hazard,
while cannabis, which is also usually smoked rather than
consumed any other way, seems to have been completely
overlooked," says Dr. John A. Henry, a professor at the
Imperial College School of Medicine at St Mary's Hospital in
Tobacco smoking kills almost 1 percent of smokers each year in
the United Kingdom, and if marijuana had the same effect, some
30,000 people would die from it annually, Henry and colleagues
wrote. "Even if the number of deaths attributable to cannabis
turned out to be a fraction of that figure, smoking cannabis
[marijuana] would still be a major public health hazard," the
The suggestions in the editorial spawned a flurry of letters
and commentaries. In the most recent one, printed in the Sept.
20 issue of the British Medical Journal, Sidney points to two
studies that debunked any connection between marijuana and
higher death rates.
In a Swedish study, researchers found no link between
marijuana use among more than 45,000 male military conscripts,
aged 18 to 20, and their death rates over the next 15 years.
Another study of 65,171 men and women enrolled in the Kaiser
Total Bodye health plan found that, with the exception of AIDS
(news - web sites) patients, marijuana users were not more
likely than others to die over a 10-year period.
Sidney acknowledges the follow-up periods are short, and says
the marijuana users in the studies could still suffer from
higher rates of disease later in life.
Even so, evidence suggests smoking pot is much safer than
smoking cigarettes, he says. "One of the reasons is that
marijuana is not inherently as addictive as tobacco because it
doesn't contain nicotine. Many more people get addicted to
tobacco smoking than marijuana smoking."
Also, pot users take much less smoke into their lungs than
tobacco users, and many stop using marijuana as they get
older, Sidney says. "It's the unusual person who's smoking
seven marijuana cigarettes or joints a day. They're not
smoking more than one on average, and they tend to quit."
Some studies have linked marijuana use to a variety of medical
problems, including schizophrenia, head and neck cancer and
lung cancer, but the research isn't conclusive, Sidney says.
There's also evidence that suggests people with heart disease
should be careful about smoking pot.
What to do? "There are common-sense measures about using
marijuana," Sidney suggests. "It should be discouraged in
teenagers. Young teenagers getting involved in drugs are going
to have more of a problem with it. And people ought not to be
driving around in cars and operating dangerous machinery when
they're intoxicated with anything."
On the other side of the debate, Henry wants to see more
prevention efforts, if only because pot smoking may contribute
to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. "This alone is
sufficient for a public health campaign, given the disabling
nature of the disorder for the individual and the massive
public health burden it imposes on society," he says.