Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has lambasted marijuana as “infinitely worse” than tobacco and declared his firm opposition toward a more liberal policy.
Speaking at a campaign stop in Montreal, Harper argued “there’s just overwhelming and growing scientific and medical evidence about the bad long-term effects of marijuana.”
He went on to say that Canada has implemented a successful tobacco control strategy that substantially cut smoking.
But Harper’s claims have already been greeted with deep skepticism, with a substantial body of evidence going contrary to his claims about the harms of cannabis vis a vis tobacco.
So is marijuana more dangerous than tobacco?
In terms of deaths, the answer is a resounding no. In the U.S., cigarettes account for more than 440,000 deaths per year and remains the number one cause of preventable death. There are no recorded deaths from a cannabis overdose.
Researchers examining the mortality of 65,171 people aged 15 through 49 from 1979 to 1991 said “this study showed little, if any, effect of marijuana use on non-AIDS mortality in men and on total mortality in women.” Published in the American Journal of Public Health, the authors added that the “risk of mortality associated with marijuana use was lower than that associated with tobacco cigarettes.”
Not only is tobacco responsible for far more deaths than marijuana it is also more harmful to the lungs and body. A study published in 2012 using data on 5,115 adults collected over 2o years showed that cigarette smoking caused significantly more “lung damage, including respiratory symptoms, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer” than marijuana, when used in low or even moderate amounts.
Marijuana even ranks as less dangerous than alcohol, nicotine and perhaps unsurprisingly cocaine and heroine. A comparative risk assessment conducted in the National Center for Biotechnology Information ranked cannabis as “low risk” and one of the safest recreational drugs being consumed by the public.
While cannabis use has been associated with effects that can trigger life-threatening events like heart attacks, it is important to note that no causal links have been established.
It is very plausible that heavy cannabis may increase the risk of respiratory problems but again, the evidence is not definitive. Summing up the current evidence on the link between marijuana use and respiratory troubles, professor Wayne Hall said the long-term effects are “unclear.” (RELATED: Study: Scientists Bust Marijuana Myths And Tell Politicians To Stop Scaremongering)
The risk of contracting lung cancer from cannabis is murky at best. In a 2006 study, the association between lung cancer and pot wasn’t significant when the researchers took into account the subjects who also smoked tobacco.
Does marijuana harm IQ?
Harper has drawn strength for his anti-marijuana stance from Health Canada, which cites two studies to make the case that marijuana lowers IQ. Both of these studies have been disputed.
The International Centre For Science In Drug Policy (ICSDP) labelled the alleged link between cannabis and falling IQ as “weak.” A popular claim, the negative effects of marijuana IQ gained substantial traction after a paper from Madeline H. Meier and colleagues in 2012 claimed cannabis use could wipe out up to eight IQ points.
The study’s findings have since been questioned and review of the data concluded that the association between cannabis use and IQ decline was better explained by the “socioeconomic status of the participants” rather than marijuana use.
A more recent study by Mokrysz and colleagues cited by ICSDP, found that once both alcohol use and socioeconomic status was taken into account there was little evidence to support a causal link between cannabis use and falling IQ.
Marijuana, schizophrenia and mental health
It is often claimed by opponents of marijuana legalization that it causes mental health problems such as schizophrenia. But again this is a case where the evidence points to an association rather than a causal link.
ICSDP points to a British study that showed even as cannabis use increased fourfold between the 1970s and early 2000s, annual cases of schizophrenia were either stable or declining. According to ICDSP, “these findings strongly suggest that cannabis does not cause schizophrenia.”
A more recent study published by the American Physiological Association concluded that chronic marijuana use as a teenager had no link to mental or physical health problems later in life. (RELATED: Study: Teen Marijuana Use Has No Link To Mental Health Problems)
The researchers found no link between teen marijuana use and lifetime depression, anxiety, allergies, headaches or high blood pressure. The study tracked 408 subjects as they grew up, rather than looking back on marijuana use retrospectively to find a link with current health problems.
Pro-legalization advocates were unmoved by Harper’s claims of the potential harms of a more liberal attitude on cannabis.
It is obvious from these statements that Mr. Harper is wildly misinformed about the comparative harms of drugs. Millions of deaths worldwide every year can be attributed to alcohol and tobacco, and contribute to serious health problems in millions more people.
Marijuana simply does not carry the same long-term health impacts as these other substances, and there has never been a recorded overdose death. In Canada, public health costs associated with alcohol are eight times more than those associated with marijuana. The costs associated with tobacco are 40 times those associated with marijuana.
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