Touring Boston’s historic Freedom Trail, I heard the quirky story of a notorious American pre-Prohibition-era woman named Carrie Nation, a radical member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the early 1900s. On her anti-alcohol campaign, she entered saloons and smash bottles of liquor with a hatchet.
On October 17, marijuana became legal in Canada. I’ve been thinking about Nation, clutching a bible and a hatchet, trying to impose her religious beliefs and conservative values while employing violent tactics. I decided I don’t want to be like Nation – not that I’d ever run amok with a hatchet. Rather than dwell on the negatives based on my personal opinions (e.g., I think it stinks!), I went on a fact-finding mission to learn about marijuana and its benefits.
Until 1908, alcohol and narcotics were unregulated in Canada. Opium, cocaine and morphine were soon prohibited. Even though marijuana was not a popular drug, in 1923 the Canadian government added it to the schedule of restricted drugs. That decision may have been influenced by the alarmist and racist writings of Canadian women’s rights activist Emily Murphy who claimed that marijuana users would become raving maniacs and engage in interracial sex. Murphy is immortalized in the Famous Five statue on Parliament Hill for helping win the legal status of “persons” for women. She may become the target of posthumous mockery for her anti-drug rants as Nation was for her anti-liquor rampages; marijuana users can now legally smoke up under Murphy’s nose.
The federal government prefers the term cannabis rather than marijuana. The cannabis sativa plant contains hundreds of compounds including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which has a psychoactive effect and cannabidiol (CBD) which does not. One variety of cannabis plant is short and wide and grown for its leaves, flowers and seeds containing large amounts of THC and little CBD. It’s for recreational or medical marijuana (pot, weed). Perhaps less familiar are products made from the variety of cannabis plant called hemp which is taller and more narrow and is grown for its stalks, stems and sterilized seeds high in CBD and low in THC (less than .3 per cent), so there’s no psychoactive effect. Products made from CBD oil, such as creams, capsules and sprays may be more appealing to people seeking the medical benefits without the high. Where and when you can purchase products varies by province. In Ontario, limited THC products are for sale online at the Ontario Cannabis Store and coming to private and government-operated retail outlets next year. Edible products with or without THC won’t be available until next year.
There are many sweeping health claims about cannabis, with or without the psychoactive component. Claims include its ability to reduce nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients, slow the spread of cancer cells, relieve anxiety and PTSD, alleviate spasticity in multiple sclerosis, and help with Type 1 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Many of the scientific studies are preliminary, inconclusive or contradictory. For example, a review of over 10,000 scientific studies concluded that both THC and CBD products are effective in relieving chronic non-cancer pain and reducing opioid dose requirements; however, a four-year study of 1200 participants found no significant difference.
CBD oil is being touted as part of a health and wellness lifestyle. Products are marketed as a hip, more natural alternative to traditional medications, with fewer side effects compared to prescription and over-the-counter pain killers and anti-inflammatory drugs. However, CBD can interfere with some medications, and has side effects including fatigue and diarrhea. Regular use of marijuana (e.g., smoking weed) may be detrimental for people with bipolar disorder, may lead to suicidal thoughts and may increase the risk of schizophrenia and other psychoses especially in young people.
Cannabis is not an approved therapeutic product according to Health Canada. Similarly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not deemed cannabis safe or effective in the treatment of any medical condition, with the exception of one type of CBD as an approved treatment for two rare forms of epilepsy. There’s plenty of anecdotal support contributing to the hype. Now that cannabis is legal, more scientific studies will likely be conducted, perhaps with more conclusive findings.
Editor’s Note: For a different perspective on this issue, see Emma Mallach’s Modern Mishpocha column.