Not rocket science

Medicinal cannabis. Beyond the anecdotes.

I have a special hairdresser we will call Bongo Man. He wears a giant woollen beanie over his labyrinthine locks. A professional. Proud of his work. The only person I trust to handle my own dreadlocks.

The stereotype that people like myself and Bongo Man are regular weed smokers could not be further from the truth, in my case. I have a Christian mother who once gave me a good hiding for holding an imaginary cigarette against my mouth.

Bongo Man is proud of his association with the plant and believes strongly in its many benefits, both medical and recreational. In many a session, we’ve discussed the possibility that this drug may soon (hopefully) be legalised in South Africa.

Bongo Man is knowledgeable of an historical injustice that has befallen the sacred plant and how this informs much of the stigma around ganja. The murky middle of the 20th century saw what was then known as “Reefer Madness”, when the idea that “The Killer Weed” is a gateway drug became current.

The home of the idea of “Reefer Madness”, the US, is where the future history of the Holy Herb was decided, and has continued to inform our prejudices regarding the drug to this day. It has taken more than 70 years for science to start piecing together the jigsaw of beneficial – or harmful – effects the plant is purported to dole out of its prickly leaves in its innumerable strains.

In my research for this article, I came across a flurry of “evidence” that makes cannabis out to be the cure-all humanity has been dreaming about for thousands of years. Much of this evidence is anecdotal, beginning with the over-stated idea that cannabis has been with humanity for thousands of years so it must be good.

Many anecdotes and stories from users and patients are quite heart-felt; sufferers from various ailments and their loved ones swear by the miracle remedy that is medicinal cannabis. In the US, parents of children suffering epilepsy have put their faith in Charlotte’s Web, just one of many strains that have specific amounts of cannabinoids.

Cannabis is claimed to dull pain, aid sleep and stimulate appetite. It even apparently fights cancer and is an analgesic, an antiemetic, a bronchodilator, and an anti-inflammatory.

Research conducted by Manuel Guzmán has generated headlines claiming that marijuana can cure brain cancer. However, the scientist himself is not so keen on the publicity his research has garnered. “The problem is, mice are not humans”, he told National Geographic regarding one study in which he and his colleagues found that brain tumours were eradicated in a third of rats that they had treated with cannabis compounds.

“We do not know if this can be extrapolated to humans at all,” he stressed.

A paper in the Journal of American Medical Research (Cannabinoids for Medical Use: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis) looked at 79 trials that studied the medicinal claims made for cannabis.

After looking at all these trials, the authors found the evidence sketchy that cannabis is any better than mainstream medicines. In fact, the researchers found an increased risk of adverse effects associated with the drug.

Specifically, the 79 trials looked at the action of cannabis against chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, appetite stimulation in HIV/Aids, chronic pain, spasticity caused by multiple sclerosis, depression, anxiety disorder, sleep disorder, psychosis, glaucoma, and Tourette’s syndrome.

The quality of evidence around the treatment of these ailments ranged from “moderate quality” to “low quality”. In short, researchers themselves are not convinced about the medical benefits of cannabis – the science remains sketchy.

Research into medicinal cannabis is neither here nor there right now. A big reason for this is because it is difficult for scientists to access a Schedule 1 drug that cranky oldies put in the same category as heroin.

The Department of Health and the Medicines Control Council announced in Parliament in November 2016 its intention to request public comment on the Medical Innovation Bill. This bill would pave the way for South African scientists to legally consider the possible medicinal benefits of cannabis.

Despite many potheads already blazing in celebration, I must stress that this bill does not mean that South Africa is anywhere near legalising cannabis for recreational use. It just means that restrictions on research will be lighter.

Still, to people like Bongo Man, the bill is a step in the right direction. With more research into cannabis, blunt smokers may be ratified in their assertions about what cannabis can do and why it possibly isn’t as bad as it has been made out to be for all these decades. For that reason alone the laws might change sooner than later.

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