Sparked anew by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's call for the state to study the legalization of marijuana, both sides in the smoldering pot debate point to research to bolster their positions.
Such recitation of conflicting marijuana studies can be manipulated and selected buffet-style to serve whatever political and health agenda is being touted.
Even governmental findings can be contradictory. In 1999, for instance, the Office of National Drug Control Policy asked the Institute of Medicine to review evidence. The institute found that, "except for the harms associated with smoking, the adverse effects of marijuana use are within the range of effects tolerated for other medications."
Yet in 2006, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that marijuana has no health benefits and has known and proven harms. It is classified a Schedule 1 drug – the highest risk of addiction – in the Controlled Substances Act.
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Wading through the medical literature, though, makes those conclusions less cut and dried.
"When I was a resident in Kaiser in San Francisco in 1978, I gave a lecture to physicians on marijuana, and I remember my conclusion at that time was that you can find in the literature whatever you were looking for," says Dr. Donald Abrams, a University of California, San Francisco, oncologist and leading medical marijuana researcher. " 'Marijuana is good for asthma.' 'Marijuana's bad for asthma.' 'Marijuana causes schizophrenia.' 'Marijuana (decreases) schizophrenia.' And, you know, the evidence is still like that."
There are many factors, of course. As noted by UCLA pulmonologist Dr. Donald Tashkin, who has studied marijuana's effects on the lungs for three decades, "That's just the nature of medical science. You have to deal with variability. The population studied may be different or the methods used to study may differ."
Yet when the arguments for legalization of marijuana, both for medicinal and recreational use, are put forth, solid medical science often gets clouded in an ideological haze.
"Although we like to say we separate politics from science, with medical marijuana, that's really difficult," Abrams says. "It depends on who does the study, where it's published and what their agenda is."
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