My family and I live in a “crunchy” town, which means people are into all things health-related. It also means that we are seeing a surge in what are essentially snake oil-peddling shops popping up to sell marijuana-derived products.
While the shops are selling CBD (the non-psychoactive component) without THC (which contains the psychoactive properties that get you high), CBD with THC is ending up in the hands of people within our neighborhood. The exact way this is happening isn’t certain, but there are rumors that individuals are bringing products from Colorado and selling them on the black market.
These shops make broad claims about their products, sometimes saying they cure nearly every ailment under the sun, especially things like anxiety. As far as the safety is concerned, the argument goes something like this: God made the marijuana plant, so it is natural and therefore safe.
Sounds a bit to me like the same claims by essential oil peddlers that have landed people in the hospital after ingesting essential oils. Or the claims of many other multi-level marketing companies that sell health-related products. (After all, cyanide is natural, too, but you don’t see people smoking or drinking it!)
Unfortunately for these salesmen, no matter how many times you chant something, assertions don’t make things true. It does not make studies on safety magically appear out of thin air and say exactly what you want them to. Peddling THC and CBD products as a cure-all to everyone is dangerous and medically irresponsible.
The Cult Following of THC and CBD Products
Marijuana products have a cult following, and understandably so. As a result, any opposition to the use of marijuana products is automatically branded as criticism from an outsider. This often ends in a straw man argument about supporting “Big Pharma” and opposing healing, making it difficult to have actual measured conversations about potential risks and studies.
No one who is sick wants to see something that dashes their hope about a new therapy. Those suffering from health problems want something to fix them, and many people are more than happy to make a profit selling hope, without actually making sure their buyers have what they need to make an informed decision.
When I was in college, my classmates had zero conception of how marijuana actually works, let alone its longterm effects. Most of what they knew was from their experience smoking joints in the basement bathroom. One of my classmates actually muttered during a discussion on the subject, “It doesn’t do anything to your brain, it just makes you high!” Never mind the fact that THC is carried from the lungs to the blood to the brain!
Of course, not everyone is ignorant of the way marijuana works. Individuals interested in them for health reasons surely have a vested interested in making sure they are safe and knowing their positive effects. This includes the potential relief it can provide to those with chronic pain and epilepsy. And many recreational users are also informed about what they’re putting into their bodies.
Unfortunately, there is no drug with fully positive side effects for every individual. We cannot gloss over the harmful effects that some individuals experience from CBD and THC products. There is also a certain degree to which it can be said that the dose makes the poison.
A few potential negative side effects of marijuana include a drop in IQ from heavy, long-term exposure over the course of many years, testicular cancer, respiratory issues from smoking the substance, low dopamine levels (not unsurprisingly connected to schizophrenia), and sometimes alteration of sperm count from heavy usage.
This is far from a comprehensive list. Perhaps the last side effect is the most notable and the least understood. One study puts forth a lowered sperm count as a result of the drug, while another claims that it raises sperm count.
My concern, however, is not with the sperm count. Rather, it is with the other effects that marijuana can have on sperm. Namely permanent genetic changes to sperm’s DNA, structural changes, and negative consequences for DNA methylation. This has astounding potential consequences for children conceived by parents who use this drug, especially as many of the products now are more concentrated than those imbibed by previous generations.
The link between schizophrenia and marijuana use is perhaps the most enlightening reason why the drug is not for and should not be recommended to every individual. As Medical News Today puts it: “Recent research suggests that not only are people who are prone to schizophrenia more likely to try cannabis, but that cannabis may also increase the risk of developing symptoms.”
Why would this be? The answer lies in the field of genetics, and in particular, epigenetics.
Epigenetics Is Important to Fully Assess Risk
Epigenetics is a blossoming field of research. While we’ve known about genetics and certain genes for a while, we haven’t completely understood how they work. You have certain genes, but epigenetics determine whether they are actively expressed in your particular body. The field of genetics deals with the basis for what can happen, while epigenetics deals with the possibilities of expression of genes within that predetermined set.
Schizophrenia and marijuana use have been tied to at least two genes: AKT1 and COMT. Schizophrenia genes are not the only ones the compounds in marijuana (not just THC, which is just one of several cannabinoids) act upon, some even having the impact of causing chromosomal breaks and deletions.
While other genes may not put you at higher risk for schizophrenia with marijuana use, they do affect the way you process the drug. For example, a gene known as rs2609997 can put you at risk for dependency upon the drug. Variations of rs806380 can have a wide range of effects on marijuana metabolism, including both lower and higher risk of dependency or addiction based on the genetic allele present. It is also known to influence the risk of schizophrenia in marijuana users.
Science has brought us to a place where we are well beyond excuse for trying to make broad, generalized recommendations on supplements and medications without any forethought to the individual genetics and familial predispositions. While marijuana in its various forms may well be helpful for some individuals, that appears not to be the case for everyone. The individual risks should be considered, and it should not be used recklessly.
Despite what many people may claim, the use of this drug does not just affect the individual. It affects them and their family who may have to deal with the side effects, and the society that may have to institutionalize them if, for example, marijuana brings out schizophrenic qualities. More than that, it could affect the next generation. There are a lot of unknowns worth considering before we all rush to toke up.
And if Pottenger’s cats are any indication, perhaps we should ask ourselves how many generations of the families using this there may be if we continue to turn a blind eye to the consequences.