Chronic City: California, Cannabis, and Cancer -- Cause for Concern?

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Cancer cure, or cause?
When the bureaucrats over at the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) classified Marijuana smoke as a carcinogen last Friday, it predictably made headlines worldwide. But how much does the classification really mean, and should medical users and regular old potheads be concerned?

The state of California is required by law to publish a list of chemicals "known to cause cancer" (the Proposition 65 list, which contains hundreds of chemicals). With the addition of Marijuana smoke to the list, medical Marijuana dispensaries employing 10 or more people will be required, starting June 19, 2010, to post warnings regarding smoking pot. Those who don't comply could be fined as much as $2,500 per day per violation.

"Marijuana smoke is a mixture of different chemicals, and a number of them were already on the Prop 65 list," said Allan Hirsch, chief deputy director of the state OEHHA. The panel of scientists made the designation after a review of research findings linking Marijuana smoke and cancer.

But one thing to keep in mind about bureaucrats is their instinctive, reflexive cowardliness. The bureaucrat's biggest fear is to be "caught out," to be held responsible after the fact for unfortunate things that might be described as happening on their watch. Such a mindset, naturally, tends toward excessive caution. A career bureaucrat would much rather sound the alarm prematurely rather than after the shit-storm hits.

Additionally, it's unlikely that the timing of this classification of Marijuana smoke as a carcinogen is unrelated to recent efforts to legalize cannabis in the state. Marijuana advocates, both of the medical and recreational variety, rightly worry that the addition of pot to the list might provide ammunition to those who are against the legalization of the herb.

Despite the intricate politics involved, and despite Friday's ruling by the OEHHA, the fact remains that, when it comes to Marijuana and cancer, so far, the scientific results are a wash. There are just as many studies showing that Marijuana and/or its active ingredients have no effect on cancer rates -- and even some studies indicating it actually retards or even reverses the growth of cancerous tumors -- as there are studies that indicate the presence of carcinogens in Marijuana smoke.

It should also be kept in mind that government grants are generally viewed within the scientific community as much easier to get for studies that have as their stated goal "finding the harm done by Marijuana" as opposed to studies geared to "find if Marijuana does harm." See the difference there?

The panel admitted it did not consider studies demonstrating medical benefits of Marijuana, like reducing nausea, restoring appetite, slowing glaucoma, or, as mentioned above, actually shrinking cancerous or pre-cancerous tumors.

Spokesman Sam Delson said the OEHHA found Marijuana smoke contains 33 of the same harmful chemicals as tobacco smoke. He said the findings came from a review of more than 30 scientific papers.

Viewing tobacco smoke and Marijuana smoke as roughly equivalent, however, could be a big mistake. The largest study ever conducted on Marijuana and lung cancer, overseen by Dr. Donald Tashkin at the University of California, Los Angeles, found no association at all between Marijuana smoke and lung cancer -- and even a suggestion of some protective effect.

The nicotine in tobacco inhibits the destruction of cancer-causing cells, according to the latest research, while the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in Marijuana has the opposite effect: It appears to kill aging or genetically damaged cells and keeps them from becoming cancerous. 

What Does It All Mean?

So does the new finding mean that Marijuana itself is basically equivalent to nasty substances like arsenic, asbestos and DDT, with which it shares the Prop 65 list?

In a word, no.

The Prop 65 listing is for Marijuana smoke, not Marijuana itself. The new labeling restrictions do not apply to pot brownies, candy, lollipops, topical ointments, or other non-smokables.

Marijuana advocates aren't particularly surprised by the new ruling, given California's tendency to document the harmful effects of all kinds of smoke inhalation. But Assemblyman Tom Ammiano who authored a bill to legalize Marijuana in California, told the San Jose Mercury News he believes "singling out Marijuana is gratuitous." "Many, many symptoms of disease can be alleviated through smoking Marijuana," Ammiano added.

Since the warning applies only to conventionally smoked Marijuana, it appears likely that users who use vaporizers or edibles to consume the herb will be unaffected. 



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