Measuring the Harm of Marijuana

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A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (abstract here) looked at lung function in chronic marijuana users.

The research showed that smoking marijuana in a typical pattern, didn’t cause the same type of breathing problems that tobacco smoking does.

In fact, the deep inhalations normally used actually improved lung capacity. This result is at odds with the assumption that inhaling smoke from burning plants is necessarily harmful.

Study being mischaracterized by advocates

The research is sweeping the net with hyped headlines about marijuana smoking being a healthy activity. Cannabis advocates have adopted it as justification for legalization and concluded that smoking weed is not only harmless, but may be beneficial.

Unfortunately, the study didn’t give the entire picture, nor did it mean to. The study examined lung capacity (the amount of air a person takes in when inhaling) other issues weren’t addressed. This is a limit of any scientific enquiry – the focus on one element necessarily leaves out other things we’d like to know. For example, the incidence of asthma and concomitant use with cigarettes wasn’t examined.

Marijuana is not used in the same manner as cigarettes. A typical user may only smoke three or four joints a week. This made it impossible for researchers to look at chronic, frequent smokers (multiple times a day) over the time period they were interested in (20 years). Still, in comparison to cigarette smoking, marijuana smoking does seem to be easier on the lungs.

Those who do not want to see marijuana decriminalized will have to drop the, “harms the lungs” objection in favor of others on their list. The battle is far from over though. It is likely that scientists, as they learn more about just what marijuana does and does not do, will give ammunition to both sides of the conflict. The real benefit of this process is that decisions can be made, not on assumptions, but on tested fact.

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