Originally Published June 5, 2013
Weed, pot, mj – whatever you want to call it, marijuana (Cannabis sp.) is in the news a lot these days. Legalization, prohibition, medical use, ethics, and many other facets are brought into the equation of whether or not the US should allow people to use marijuana freely. As a scientist, I oppose legalization of marijuana, but I also realize that due to the relentlessness of activist groups for legalization, marijuana is on its way to free use in the US whether people want it or not. I do, however, still feel the need to inform people of “the other side” of the argument about marijuana so that each person can make an educated choice as to how he/she will react to marijuana in our society.
Note: This article does contain scientific jargon, though I’ve tried to minimize it and confine it to the “Science” section below so that non-scientists can read and understand it. If you don’t wish to read through the research part, I’ve summarized the info in the “Summary” section.
I have argued and debated against legalization of marijuana for several years on the basis of science. And overwhelmingly, the greatest refuting response I’ve received is this:
Well, he’s just one of them!
By “one of them” they mean a big-business pharmaceutical associate bent on usurping my dominance over the American people through perscription-only medications. Since I want readers to actually read the remainder of this article, I wish to defuse this notion at the beginning. I am not, I have never been, and I never plan to be involved with industrial “big-business” pharmaceutical companies. I even acknowledge that these companies are indeed corrupt and are very manipulative with the public. I am an academic researcher, which means I research for the sake of research rather than for the sake of business. Furthermore, I am a pharmacognosist, which is the branch of pharmacology which deals with the discovery and development of natural product medications, such as natural, traditional, and homeopathic remedies. I have no personal issues against marijuana, and my argument is based purely upon the science that it is an unhealthy and dangerous plant when used freely.
The Science of Marijuana
Since marijuana has found a presence in government legislation, there has been an influx of “scientists” (such as here) who are telling the public that there are only “good” effects of marijuana use. Personally, I’ve noticed that every bit of advocating research I’ve found has some connection with the marijuana industry, either from a business or political standpoint, and thus has a “dog in the fight” to act as a motivator for promoting legalization. But what does real science say?
Biochemically speaking, the molecular “man of the hour” is delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ-9 THC), the active component of cannabis plants which gives the “weed high.” It is similar in chemical structure to certain endocannabinoids of the human system, and it targets the cannabinoid receptors (CB1, CB2) of the central nervous system. Through its interference in these receptor pathways, it has effects of altering mood, emotion, and other neural operations in the human body. This is the side of its effects that the proponent scientists always emphasize, stating things like, “Where’s the harm in making people happy and giving them the munchies?” Then they leave the argument here, as if this were the whole story. It isn’t.
Since the early 90’s (for example, see here), Δ-9 THC has been known as a strong inhibitor of the enzyme adenylate cyclase, an enzyme which synthesizes cyclic adenosine 3′,5′-monophosphate (cAMP), an incredibly important messenger molecule in the body. Thus, Δ-9 THC interferes in the production of cAMP.
So what does that mean? Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s a schematic of the cAMP pathway: (Source: Qiagen: SABiosciences)
If you’re having trouble navigating the schematic, look for the green circle near the center, the one that everything is either pointing at or emanating from. That’s cAMP. As shown in this schematic, cAMP is involved in many cellular operations, including cellular proliferation and apoptosis (cell death), genetic expression, and axonal (neural) development. This implies some potentially serious conditions, as stated by Qiagen:
The cAMP signaling is involved in controlling exocytotic events in polarized epithelial cells with implication for Diabetes Insipidus, Hypertension, Gastric ulcers, Thyroid disease, Diabetes Mellitus, and Asthma. Heterologous sensitization of cAMP signaling contributes to fundamental physiological processes such as the timing of circadian rhythms, sexual behavior, and neurotransmitter crosstalk, and also to neurological disorders such as substance abuse and drug-induced Dyskinesias
I would also add cancer (basically, unchecked cellular proliferation) to this list since cellular proliferation and apoptosis are affected. Considering all of this, it’s clear just how important cAMP and it’s synthesizer adenylate cyclase are to the proper function of the human system.
Now that I’ve explained it in scientific terms, let’s simplify it a bit. The active component of marijuana affects the human body by binding and blocking a very important enzyme, an enzyme which also produces a critical messenger molecule that basically has a role in every major function of the cell. So by taking marijuana, you do, in fact, get happy and stress-free. You also critically disrupt pathways that determine whether or not you will develop cancer, diabetes, or schizophrenia, that determine whether you are fertile or sterile, or whether or not you can remember your name in another year. Proponent studies for marijuana use claims that there are no negative side effects associated with use. I’ll be bold and say it straight: They’re wrong. They can get away with saying things like that because there have been no (or few) studies that directly link marijuana use with these illnesses. But we know what marijuana affects in the human body, and we know what happens when that pathway is altered. So have we put mice in a cage, exposed them to marijuana, and observed them for cancer formation? No. Have we verified the pathway of refined Δ-9 THC, how it affects cAMP, and how cAMP affects cellular processes? Absolutely. Nevertheless, this enables proponents to say “We haven’t observed negative effects in marijuana studies.”
I don’t think marijuana is some evil spawn of Satan placed here on earth to corrupt honest men. It’s a plant, pure and simple. Personally, I find it fascinating because I find the study of toxins and poisons fascinating. Cannabis species contain the toxin Δ-9 THC as a defensive measure against potential herbivorous predators, much like many other plants have chemical defenses. The most fascinating part is that, unlike most plants which target their predator via poisoning/harming/killing predatory individuals, cannabis targets its predators as a population, slowly intoxicating the entire population of individual predators while mincing their genetics and cellular processes, weakening, sterilizing, and ultimately driving the entire population into extinction by its narcotic effects. Essentially, it’s like the old demonstration of boiling a frog to death if heat is applied slowly. It poisons slowly, perhaps even over generations.
I’m not against medical use of Δ-9 THC. There are many natural toxins and poisons that are used, albeit in small dosages, as medicines. Δ-9 THC is no different. What I oppose is free use of marijuana, just as I would oppose the free use of ephedrine, epinephrine, atropine, or cyanide. They all have potential to help, but the general population is neither educated nor responsible enough to use them as they should be used. Smoking a joint in your living room is certainly not a medical application, but that’s really what the politics of this is all about – the freedom to get high without fear of being arrested. And no, it’s not that I think I have the moral authority to tell people what they can or cannot put into their own bodies. If they want to shoot rat poison into their veins, more power to them. But the most common form of marijuana use has a huge impact on non-users via second-hand smoke.
Be my guest if you want to put your biological processes through a molecular blender, but don’t ask me, your neighbor, or your child to partake in it with you.
I already have to breath tobacco smoke, with which I also have huge issues. Legalization of marijuana will only add to that problem for me as a person, as well as for every other non-user across the nation.
Responses to a few proponent arguments I’ve seen
“At least it’s natural, unlike chemicals!”
My response: So are lead arsenic and uranium (ground minerals), hydrogen sulfide gas (volcanic emission and biological byproduct), and Bacillus anthraces (bacteria, better known as anthrax), among infinite others. You first.
“Cannabinoids fit perfectly into our receptors, so we were meant to use them!”
My response: Yes. Carbon monoxide fits into hemoglobin better than oxygen, so well, in fact, that you just about can’t get it out. Then you suffocate. Batrachotoxin (from dart frogs, which I study) fits perfectly into the calcium channels of neurons. Of course, you won’t have long to think about it because it’ll shut down your brain and heart while you lie there in complete paralysis. I could list thousands of other “perfect fits.” Essentially, poisons are poisons precisely because they fit into places that were meant for other things.
“Cannabinoids are found naturally in the human body.”
My Response: Certain cannabinoids (such as endocannabinoids, which do not give the “weed high”), yes. Δ-9 THC, not hardly. Δ-9 THC is found only in plants of the Cannabis species, and it is designed to mimic the endocannabinoids as a toxin.
“Even the Founding Fathers of America grew and used marijuana!” (My personal favorite)
My response: That they did. They also used leeches to drain themselves of “bad blood,” used urine to whiten their teeth, and banded their left testicle during sex (yeah, can we all say “OUCH!!!”) so as to prevent a “girl” sperm cell from being produced, insuring male offspring. Political masterminds? Absolutely. Authorities on biochemical processes? Not a chance. Get another source of authority, if you please.
As I stated at the beginning, I hope this has been informative to readers. Whether we support or oppose it, it looks like marijuana is here to stay. My hope is to provide readers with a new angle on its risks rather than simply having to rely on politically biased propaganda.