The effectiveness of marijuana in suppressing chronic pain, reducing nausea in chemotherapy patients and controlling muscle spasms, among other things, has allowed proponents to label the narcotic as a medicine.
That branding is now paying dividends for drug retailers in Vancouver, where a growing number of pot shops are opening, billing themselves as "medical marijuana dispensaries."
But marijuana is not a medicine, it is not approved by Health Canada and the way research is trending, it will never get that coveted designation.
Across Canada, doctors may prescribe it for cancer patients and others with pain when conventional therapeutic options fail. But medical professional organizations such as the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. are struggling with how to regulate it, because doctors know that marijuana use comes with health risks.
While medical professionals are carefully reflecting on the health implications of more liberal marijuana laws, however, dope retail stores are opening up in Vancouver like saloons in a gold-rush town. A few months ago there were 20; now there are more than 80.
The City of Vancouver is about to hold public hearings into the regulation of medical marijuana dispensaries, but Mayor Gregor Robertson makes it sound as though the big concern is just coming up with a new class of business licence to control where the outlets are located.
"As a city, we just can't let these shops be everywhere all over town," he said recently. "And certainly we don't want them close to schools."
No, we certainly don't, and here's why: Medical research is increasingly indicating marijuana use can be damaging to your health, especially if you are young.
A study published April 16 in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that even moderate use of marijuana can lead to changes in the brain. The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to compare the brains of 18- to 25-year-olds.
"The nucleus accumbens – a brain region known to be involved in reward processing – was larger and altered in its shape and structure in the marijuana users compared [with] non-users," EurekAlert!, an online science news service, reported in describing the study.
In 2013, Northwestern Medicine published a study in Schizophrenia Bulletin stating that teens who were heavy marijuana users (smoking daily for three years) showed brain abnormalities in which structures related to memory shrank and collapsed.
A 2009 study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that being a marijuana smoker was associated with a 70-per-cent increased risk of testicular cancer and "the elevated risk … was associated with marijuana use prior to age 18." It was suspected that boys who smoked during puberty were especially at risk.
In April, a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association reported that marijuana use was associated with "cardiovascular complications" among young and middle-aged adults in France. We're talking here about 34-year-olds having heart attacks.
"The general public thinks marijuana is harmless, but information revealing the potential health dangers of marijuana use needs to be disseminated to the public, policymakers and health-care providers," Dr. Emilie Jouanjus, lead author of the study, said in a statement.
In 2009, the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology published a study that said marijuana smoke caused more damage to cells and DNA than tobacco smoke. And last November, preliminary research presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions stated that breathing second-hand marijuana smoke can be just as damaging to your heart and blood vessels as second-hand cigarette smoke.
Marijuana has beneficial uses, as patients who use it to treat chronic pain can attest, but there are big health risks, too, and that fact shouldn't be obscured by a storefront sign that claims a drug shop is a medical dispensary.