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Dr. Leana Wen is Wrong; We Should Be Celebrating Cannabis Use

Reading Dr. Leana Wen’s Washington Post opinion piece this week, “We should not be celebrating marijuana use,” I could not help but think back to 2015, when I attended an early MJBizCon show at one of Chicago’s great hotels. While I was in the Windy City, I stopped by the offices of lawyer friends from another industry to say hello. When I told them I was writing about the then nascent cannabis industry, one of them made a face. This was a talented first amendment attorney and constitutional scholar whom I respected deeply, and I asked him why he reacted as he did.

“We don’t believe in recreational marijuana,” he said. I was immediately taken aback, mostly by his confident use of the word ‘we,’ and could only blurt out, “Why?”

“We just think medical marijuana is a front for the recreational movement,” he said matter-of-factly, as though a thorough assessment by serous minds had come to that conclusion and the matter was closed to debate. It was the first blanket judgement I had heard about the effort to legalize cannabis that dismissed out-of-hand its medical benefits, but it would certainly not be the last. Dr. Wen’s piece, offered under the auspices of the Post, which did have to publish the editorial, is of a piece with that first blanket denunciation of any legitimate medical component to the industry, but what surprised me most was Dr. Wen’s biased and simplistic evaluation of a plant that is in fact extremely complex, chemically-speaking.

Dr. Wen is not advocating for the continues criminalization of cannabis. To the contrary, she is in favor of decriminalizing possession, but she is also fixated on a panoply of harm she says can be traced to one source: THC. “Marijuana users frequently tout its beneficial effects of helping people feel relaxed and happy,” she writes. “These can be attributed to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a chemical in the plant that mimics naturally occurring brain chemicals known as cannabinoids that stimulate dopamine release. This activates the brain’s reward system and induces pleasurable sensations.

“But THC also exerts numerous other effects on the brain,” she adds. “It disrupts the hippocampus and frontal cortex, which control memory, attention and focus. This is why the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that ‘using marijuana causes impaired thinking and interferes with a person’s ability to learn and perform complicated tasks.’”

But that’s not all. “In addition, THC alters the function of the cerebellum and basal ganglia, which regulate balance, coordination and reaction time,” she writes. “Though marijuana use is not as clearly linked to motor vehicle accidents as alcohol, it alters judgment, slows reactions and distorts perception.”

She goes on to list the many other alleged downsides to using cannabis, including that it “can be addictive, 30 percent of users suffer from “marijuana use disorder,” and daily use increases “the chance of developing psychosis nearly five-fold,” and concludes her litany with the loss of IQ and memory that young users can anticipate as well as the damage that can “occur during fetal development.”

With all that established, she wonders at the “widespread public perception to the contrary,” reminding proponents of medical cannabis that “the Food and Drug Administration has only approved THC compounds for limited uses in treating chemotherapy-associated nausea and AIDS-related weight loss,” and wiping away the ‘it’s better than alcohol or tobacco” argument with the now common retort that that’s “hardly a ringing endorsement for marijuana’s safety.”

Her final argument is that “possession shouldn’t be a crime, but neither should it be normalized and encouraged,” and on a practical level, that society needs to treat it exactly like “tobacco and alcohol — legal substances that should be carefully regulated, including with clear warnings about their potential for serious and lasting harm.”

The regulated industry is already mandated to provide clear warning labels, of course, to the extent that they literally obliterate any other messaging. The fear factor surrounding cannabis is already so ingrained in the government and law enforcement psyche that cannabis operators dream about the day when they are treated on a par with tobacco and alcohol. Wen apparently wants people in general – legislators, regulators, doctors, and everyone else – to become more cautious of cannabis and suggests that they are being unduly influenced by “marijuana users” and “cannabis proponents” and “advocates,” rather than by alternative evidence, including anecdotal, that reaches different conclusions.

Indeed, the comment that indelibly defines the vast contrast between what the article espouses and the experience of people who swear by the medicinal properties of cannabis, is made not by Wen but by David Jernigan, an addiction researcher and professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, who told her, “If we had a prescription drug with this many side effects, people wouldn’t want to use it.”

Think about that for a second. It completely negates the current reality for so many people that cannabis use is a safer alternative to the side effects of prescription drugs they already have been prescribed and do not want to continue using, and not the other way around. It treats these people with an unconscionable disrespect while simultaneously ignoring years of research into the medicinal and/or therapeutic properties of the plant. Oddly, Dr. Wen does not mention the endocannabinoid system once in her article. Is that because it is rarely studied in medical schools, and she was not taught about it and has no firsthand knowledge of it? Is that possible?

Like clockwork, there is always another study on cannabis that either supports or refutes the conclusions of an earlier study. Last week, it was research headlined, “Influence of cannabis use on incidence of psychosis in people at clinical high risk.” The study concluded, “There was no significant association between any measure of cannabis use at baseline and either transition to psychosis, the persistence of symptoms, or functional outcome,” and added, “These findings contrast with epidemiological data that suggest that cannabis use increases the risk of psychotic disorder.” As noted by High Times, other studies have reached similar conclusions, including research conducted as recently as 2022 and 2023.

Dr. Wen also seems oblivious to the profound benefits cannabis already delivers to people around the world, and her editorial does not acknowledge that cannabis use, even if it comes with risks, is already a veritable lifesaver for countless numbers of people. How is this possible? Do the doctors roll their eyes when they hear firsthand accounts of its efficacy? Do they not think anecdotal evidence is valid? When Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd claim that their brother and friend would be alive today if he had stuck with Captain Jack instead of moving on heroin and cocaine, do they interpret that as marketing-speak rather than sincere expressions of what might have been? When veterans who seem to have no trouble getting FDA-approved opioids, continue to commit suicide at a rate that should shame the nation, is their argument that cannabis is a more dangerous alternative? I don’t believe it.

We know the correct answers to these questions. If a substance keeps you from dying or a living hell, it’s more than okay, it’s medicinal. If a substance enables you to sleep instead of lying awake all night due to neurological issues (or stress of life issues), it’s more than okay, it’s therapeutic. And if cannabis use can keep a loved one from the bottomless despair of an alcoholic existence, it’s more than okay, it’s perfect. This is just my opinion, of course, and I remain a Dr. Wen fan, but she hit a sour note with this one. Cannabis may not be perfect all of the time, and one should always approach psychoactive experiences mindfully and cautiously, but even regulated cannabis is perfect for a lot of people a lot of the time, and its use should absolutely be celebrated, including by those who don’t use it.

Tom HymesTom Hymes

Tom Hymes

Tom Hymes, CBE Senior Editor, is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor with over 20 years’ experience covering highly regulated industries. He was born and raised in New York City. He can be reached at [email protected].

This Post Has 3 Comments
  1. This is exactly why I started my Pro Cannabis Media distribution site and company! Tom you did a great job of balancing your “OP-ED” with her spin on what he/she believes. I hope this gets published in the Washington Post.

    We all know this plant isn’t for everybody, and we are probably right in the middle of the worlds largest clinical (although not “controlled”) trial of plant medicine in history. Information gets distorted when used by people who have an agenda. Gone are the days when it was facts that determined the news.
    Anyone can find a research study that spins the negative side of this plant, and the word “recreational” hurts the cause. It’s adult use, and an adults responsibility to learn enough about its medicinal effects to see if might be right for pain, nausea, seizures, PTSD, and so many other therapeutic uses. I mean Robitussin gets people high but we don’t talk about using that “recreationally” right?

    I’ve interviewed many MD’s who agree with me that the wrong substance was banned by the US Government in 1937 (or taxed out of existence). In reality that Marihuana act was really about the inflating the cost of getting cannabis at the time, and keeping the Jim Crow south in place thus allowing the pulp industry to continue to flourish and poison our atmosphere.

    Those same Doctors give me support for my theory that if cannabis hadn’t been “prohibited”, we would have fewer cases of Cancer, Epilepsy, Crohn’s disease or many other diagnoses that could be fought off with a stronger immune system caused by cannabis use.

    Would love to set up a time to talk and perhaps get you on our live business talk show we do every Friday at 4PM EST, Green Rush Live.

  2. Agreed, WaPo is going Full Fox. I wrote about it in the rant part of my blog. Problem is, she’s not the semi-intellectual pseudo-scientist playing politics. There are side effects to cannabis consumption. There are side effects to coffee.

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