Evidence for and against pot
Standing, from left to right, are panel facilitator Michael Levy, CFHU board member Stav Adler, Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt, Prof. Raphael Mechoulam and Dr. Kathryn Selby. (photo by Michelle Dodek)
It may be a common occurrence in many parts of the city, but it is still a rare thing to pass through marijuana smoke while entering an Orthodox synagogue. But that was the case on June 24, when a panel discussion took place at Schara Tzedeck on the topic Should I Change My Mind About Weed? A small number of attendees, unsatisfied with a merely academic consideration of the topic, opted for a more psychoactive engagement.
The director of the local Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University, Dina Wachtel, was inspired to convene a panel on marijuana after watching Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s CNN documentary on the topic.
Prof. Raphael Mechoulam, a Hebrew University chemist and a leading expert on the subject, said that marijuana has been used in societies from India and China to the Middle East “forever.” Queen Victoria’s doctor, J. Russell Reynolds, used it to treat the queen’s migraines.
Mechoulam said that cannabidiol (CBD), a component in marijuana, may have medical uses “in almost all diseases affecting humans.” Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the component that causes a high, CBD does not deliver a high and has no known side effects. However, there have been almost no clinical trials on humans, probably because pharmaceutical corporations would not be able to patent it and governments, for various reasons, have avoided the matter.
Cannabinoid receptors are abundant in multiple brain regions, he said, including those affecting movement control, learning and memory, stress, cognitive function and links between cerebral hemispheres. Marijuana can impact appetite, blood pressure, cerebral blood flow, the immune system and inflammation.
In tests on mammals, such as mice, marijuana reduced brain trauma and reduced or eliminated cancerous tumors. There was a clinical trial on its use around epilepsy and its effect on patients experiencing 10 to 30 seizures per day. Cannabinoids were tested on people for whom existing drugs do not work and resulted in positive outcomes in large numbers of adult patients. “This is the only clinical trial that has ever been reported – 35 years ago,” he said.
Infants undergoing cancer treatment that causes vomiting were given small amounts of THC. “We saw a complete stop of all vomiting and nausea,” with no side effects, he said.
In treatment of schizophrenia, current drugs have some extremely unpleasant side effects, he noted, while CBD has none. Even so, in most jurisdictions, marijuana is in the same legal category as heroin.
Dr. Kathryn Selby, a clinical professor in the University of British Columbia’s pediatrics department specializing in developmental neurosciences, spoke on marijuana’s effect on the adolescent brain. She spoke of the “enormous plasticity of the teen brain” and said that THC can alter the brain’s structure and function, and that the neurotoxic effects can be lifelong. Maturing of the human brain continues into the 20s, she explained, and the prefrontal cortex, which involves judgment and executive functions, develops last. There are two peaks in brain maturation and cerebral volume, happening in early childhood and then, for boys, at age 14-and-a-half and, for girls, at 11-and-a-half. Trauma, stress, substance abuse and sedentary habits can negatively affect development.
The effects of marijuana use in the short term can be loss of motivation, fatigue and, in about 10 percent of users, addiction. Neuroimaging indicates that the longer-term impact of marijuana use by adolescents is strongly associated with psychoses such as schizophrenia later in life. Selby said there is a 40 percent increase in prevalence of psychosis among users, with a 50 to 200 percent increase in psychoses among heavy users and, among those who use marijuana daily during high school, there is a 600 percent increase in depression and anxiety later in life. Correlations also include lowered IQ, intellectual and emotional issues.
The frontal lobe, which is not completely formed by adolescence, is also the most affected by alcohol and drugs and leaves users vulnerable to the “adverse developmental, cognitive, psychiatric and addictive effects of marijuana.” Selby recommended that, if marijuana is used at all, that it be “as late and as little as possible.”
Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt, Schara Tzedeck Synagogue’s spiritual leader, also has a biochemistry degree. Although the Torah does not say anything specifically about marijuana, Rosenblatt made the comparison to what the Torah and Talmud say about other forms of altered states, particularly drunkenness. If there were any questions about the severity of potential outcomes from inebriation, Rosenblatt said, the drunkenness and castration of Noah is a cautionary tale.
Rosenblatt also mentioned the story of Lot, whose daughters got him drunk and seduced him, resulting in Amnon and Moab, who were both Lot’s sons and grandsons. Rosenblatt cited it as an indication that drunkenness and disinhibition is to be avoided.
The holiday of Purim is of particular interest in this discussion and Rosenblatt said there is a modern interpretation of the old dictum that Jews should become so drunk on Purim that they cannot tell the difference between the names of the villain Haman and the hero Mordechai. The modern view, the rabbi said, is to drink a little, get tired, fall asleep and, when asked who is Haman and who is Mordechai, to roll over and snore.
Rabbis in recent years have overwhelmingly concurred that use of, say, morphine for terminal patients is justified, but the use of untested alternative measures is not.
“Anecdotal evidence is anecdotal evidence,” said Rosenblatt. If studies indicate that marijuana were clinically proven to assist in recovery or treatment for various diseases, he said, it would almost certainly become acceptable.
The panel was moderated by Michael Levy, CKNW radio and Global TV personality. Stav Adler, president of CFHU Vancouver chapter, introduced the evening. Hodie Kahn, president of Schara Tzedeck, invited the audience to stay around for munchies after the event.
Were minds changed? After Mechoulam’s presentation, he received an enthusiastic standing ovation from about half the audience of 200 or so. After her presentation, Selby was greeted with polite applause, while one man jumped to his feet.
Pat Johnson is a Vancouver writer and principal in PRsuasiveMedia.com.