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Russ Belville

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Top Ten Cannabis Science Stories of 2011

Posted: 12/29/11 04:14 PM ET

Yesterday we revealed The Top Ten "Reefer Madness" Stories of 2011.  Today we continue our Year-End Retrospective with a look at the biggest news stories of scientific research into cannabis, public opinion polls on legalization, and statistical research on cannabis consumers.  We call it The Top Ten Cannabis Science Stories of 2011.  Tomorrow we'll continue with The Top Ten "Stupid Stoner Stories" of 2011 and Friday we conclude with the The Top Ten People in Cannabis of 2011.

The Top Ten Cannabis Science Stories of 2011


10. The Carbon Footprint of Cannabis


Cannabis Karri reported on a study that measured just how much electricity we're using to grow cannabis indoors.
new report conducted and published by Even Mills, PhD, a respected and long time energy analyst along with Staff Scientists at the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory has concluded that Americans spend an amazing 1% of the entire national electricity consumption, or the equivalent of the output of seven large power plants on growing cannabis.

Since medical marijuana use has become so much more popular, and most of those states do not have a dispensary program, many more people are learning to grow marijuana indoors. The 20 terawatt-hours per year that marijuana growers use is due to the bright, often 24 hours a day lighting and an air change rate 60 times higher than a norml home. Even a modest indoor garden can have the same energy consumption rate of an entire data center. Since indoor cultivation of cannabis is a necessity to hide operations from authorities and others the energy bill to growers is about $5 billion each year. That extra energy to produce American cannabis is equal to the energy consumption of an extra 2 million average US homes. It also, unfortunately, produces greenhouse gas pollution equal to 3 million cars according to the new research.



9. Pot smokers are thinner and smarter than average


We have all suffered through jokes about cannabis consumers being fat, stupid couch potatoes.  So it was a joy in 2011 when two international studies found us to be thinner than our non-toking counterparts...
"We found that cannabis users are less likely to be obese than non-users," [researchers said]. "We were so surprised, we thought we had [made] a mistake. Or that our results were due to the sample we studied. So we turned to another completely independent sample and found exactly the same association."

...and smarter, too!
A new British study finds ... men with high childhood IQs were up to two times more likely to use illegal drugs than their lower-scoring counterparts. Girls with high IQs were up to three times more likely to use drugs as adults. A high IQ is defined as a score between 107 and 158. An average IQ is 100. The study appears in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

None of this means taking up pot smoking is going to shed points and boost IQ.  It does mean that some popular stereotypes about us are completely unfounded.

8. Two-thirds of patients surveyed substitute marijuana for prescription medications


Many a medical marijuana activist can tell anecdotes of patients who've reduced or eliminated their need for opiate pain killers by substituting cannabis.  This year, Berkeley Patients Group surveyed their patients and found two-out-of-three had done just that.
In an anonymous survey, 66% of 350 clients at the Berkeley (Calif.) Patients Group, a medical marijuana dispensary, said that they use marijuana as a prescription drug substitute. Their reasons: Cannabis offered better symptom control with fewer side effects than did prescription drugs.

Those with pain symptoms said that marijuana has less addiction potential than do opioids. Others said marijuana helped to reduce the dose of other medications.


Speaking of the addiction potential of opioids...

7. Oxycontin is five times the "gateway drug" as marijuana


Prohibitionists have been using the "Gateway Drug" scare for years to frighten the public about legalization.  Despite every study blowing the concept out of the water, it still resonates with a large segment of the voters.  So I decided to take a look at the data to find out which drug is really the one with the greatest correlation to hard drug use, and it definitely wasn't cannabis!
We cross-referenced the NSDUH numbers based on whether someone had ever tried marijuana. We found that only 1.5% of people who have toked became monthly cocaine users. For ecstasy, crack, meth, heroin, LSD, and PCP, less than 1% of the people who've tried pot are using those drugs regularly. Meanwhile, 2.9% of the people who've ever tried an legal analgesic (pain reliever) are regular cocaine users. For ecstasy, crack, and meth, more than 1% of who tried analgesics are regular users. People who tried analgesics are more than twice as likely as people who tried pot to use heroin regularly and three times more likely to use LSD regularly.

But if opponents want to cling to the idea that we should do everything in our power to stop someone from smoking that first marijuana joint, lest they become illegal drug addicts, then it is time to prohibit Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet, and Oxycontin, those powerful legal opioid pain killers. The first Vicodin/Lortab/Lorcet leads to almost three times the risk of becoming a non-pot illegal drug user than the first joint and almost the same risk as smoking a joint every month. That first Oxycontin is more than five times the risk for drug abuse than the first joint.


6. Drug testing is still unreliable, inaccurate, unnecessary, invasive, and counter-productive


We drug test our citizens when we suspect they're committing a crime, when they're applying for a job, when they're going to school, and when they're in an accident.  Yet drug detection for marijuana is so unreliable and unscientific that its use is an affront to all free people.

First it is the "drug dog" that police and courts believe are akin to infallible scientific instruments instead of animals with instincts to please their human masters.

The accuracy of drug- and explosives-sniffing dogs is affected by human handlers' beliefs, possibly in response to subtle, unintentional cues, UC Davis researchers have found.

The study, published in the January issue of the journal Animal Cognition, found that detection-dog teams erroneously "alerted," or identified a scent, when there was no scent present more than 200 times -- particularly when the handler believed that there was scent present.


Next it is the "drug lab" that may mishandle as many as one in ten tests.
An Indiana state lab wrongly reported 1 in 10 marijuana cases as positive, including some that were deliberately manipulated, an audit report indicated.

The audit's findings showed errors in about 200 of 2,000 marijuana tests reported to law enforcement as having positive results, the Star said. This includes about 50 results the report said were consciously manipulated by lab workers.


Part of the justification for testing us for employment is workplace safety.  Yet, in medical marijuana states where tens or hundreds of thousands of citizens are legally using cannabis, we've seen drastic declines in workplace danger.
Prior to the beginning of the medical marijuana program [in Oregon], workplace injuries and illnesses that contributed to a lost workday stood at 3.4 per 100 full-time workers; in 2009 that rate is 2.3 per 100, a decline of 32%.  No-time-lost injuries and illnesses declined 40%, from 3.5 to 2.1 per 100.  Fatalities are down from 3.3 to 1.9 per 100, a drop of 42%.

These declines occurred while the medical marijuana patient registry grew by an average of a little more than 50% per year.


Another egregious use of drug testing is to make it a requirement of citizens seeking welfare assistance.  Florida's law to do just that has been blocked while its (un-)constitutionality is determined, but in the time it was in effect, it cost Florida more than it saved.  It also found that welfare recipients were less likely to turn up positive than the general public.
The Department of Central Florida's (DCF) region tested 40 applicants and only two tested positive for drugs, officials said. One of the tests is being appealed.

DCF said it has been referring applicants to clinics where drug screenings cost between $30 and $35. The applicant pays for the test out of his or her own pocket and then the state reimburses him if they test comes back negative.

Therefore, the 38 applicants in the Central Florida area, who tested negative, were reimbursed at least $30 each and cost taxpayers $1,140.

Meanwhile, the state is saving less than $240 a month by refusing benefits to those two applicants who tested positive.


Finally, the unintended consequences of drug testing became more apparent.  When marijuana is the drug that is the hardest to conceal on a drug test, people will turn to drugs that are easier to conceal.
As I looked at the data, I noticed that in the span from 2005 to 2011, the positive test rate for marijuana for all workplace drug tests (pre-employment, random, and post-accident) declined 20%, from 2.5% of approximately 2.4 million tests to 2.0%.  That's about 12,000 fewer cannabis consumers who were caught by a pee test.

Meanwhile, oxycodone positives have increased 96% for all urine testing, although these tests are administered about one tenth as often (280,000) for oxycodone as for cannabis (2,400,000).  This despite the facts that while marijuana metabolites may be detected in urine for weeks, oxycodone metabolites are flushed from one's system in two or three days.  Furthermore, random positives for oxycodone (1.20%) are almost twice as great and post-accident positives for oxycodone (1.80%) are nearly three-times greater than pre-employment positives for oxycodone (0.65%), which suggests to me that the pre-employment screens don't work very well at keeping oxycodone users out of the workplace.


5. For past two years, more Americans arrested for marijuana than all other drugs combined despite arrest protection for America's One Million Legal Marijuana Users


When somebody mentions "The War on Drugs", remind them what we're really talking about is a "War on Marijuana".
Nationally, there were 1,638,846 drug arrests reported to the FBI, with 52.1% of those arrests for marijuana charges.  Last year, 51.6% of all drug arrests were for marijuana, showing a slight increase in marijuana as the majority of all drug arrests.  The last time marijuana made up a majority of the "War on Drugs" was 1985, when 55.6% of all drug arrests were for marijuana.

Keep in mind that these annual marijuana arrests continue to climb even as we reduce the number of marijuana users eligible for arrest in the medical marijuana state, users who grow and use the most marijuana.
Between one to one-and-a-half million people are legally authorized by their state to use marijuana in the United States, according to data compiled by NORML from state medical marijuana registries and patient estimates.  Assuming usage of one-half to one gram of cannabis medicine per day per patient and an average retail price of $320 per ounce, these legal consumers represent a $2.3 to $6.2 billion dollar market annually.

4. Drug Czar claims medical marijuana makes more young people smoke pot, despite fewer teens smoking pot


A popular refrain of the Drug Czar is that by calling marijuana "medicine", we lead young people to think it is less dangerous, and therefore, use goes up.
"Emerging research reveals potential links between state laws permitting access to smoked medical marijuana and higher rates of marijuana use," said Gil Kerlikowske, Director of National Drug Control Policy. "In light of what we know regarding the serious harm of illegal drug use, I urge every family - but particularly those in states targeted by pro-drug political campaigns - to redouble their efforts to shield young people from serious harm by educating them about the real health and safety consequences caused by illegal drug use."

Except that medical marijuana's been around on the West Coast for over a dozen years.  Between 2003 and 2009, as more states have adopted medical marijuana, nationally the rate of monthly teen use is on the decline.
In fact, eleven of the thirteen states that had medical marijuana as of 2009 saw declines in teen marijuana use, and the five that added it after 2003 saw double-digit declines.

From 2003 to 2009 in California, monthly teen use is up only 0.26%.  In Colorado, teen use is up 3.77% in that time frame.  Yet Wyoming, a state without medical marijuana, saw the greatest increase of 5.18%.  Furthermore, looking back before 2003, to 1996 and 1998 when the West Coast legalized medical marijuana, teen use is lower now than then.

3. The people really, really want to ask the President about the legalization of marijuana that half of them support


This year, the esteemed Gallup Poll finally recorded half of the US population in support of legalizing marijuana.
Gallup reports that the 50% nationwide support for legalization also represents the first time support has outweighed opposition.  Only 46% of Americans believe marijuana should remain criminalized, with 4% undecided.

Support for marijuana legalization remains greatest in the Western states (55%) and majorities support legalization in the Midwest (54%) and East (51%).  Only voters in the South still oppose marijuana legalization (44%).  Men still support legalization at a much greater rate than women (55% vs. 46%).

Support is also greatest among younger Americans (62%), Democrats (57%), and liberals (69%).  However, support for legalization has increased even in demographics generally opposed to legalization.  Compared to Gallup's poll last year, support increased 4% points in the South, 12% points in the Midwest, and 6% points among 50-64, but fell 1% among 65+.  Support rose 6% points among Republicans, and 4% points among conservatives. Marijuana legalization is becoming more popular with just about everyone.


President Obama, seeking input from the people on policy questions, was stunned once again to find...
On the "We the People" petitions site of Whitehouse.gov, as of this writing, NORML's "Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol" petition is #1 by a long shot.  It has garnered over 42,000 signatures.  It needed 5,000 signatures in 30 days to generate an official response from the administration, a figure it had topped in just over three hours.

And when he asked for videos from citizens on policy issues, another stunning result...
The top question, submitted by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, garnered 13,842 votes - over 1% of all votes cast (people could vote for more than one question).
As a police officer, I saw how waging the war on drugs has cost a trillion dollars and thousands of lives but does nothing to reduce drug use. Should we discuss legalizing marijuana and other drugs, which would eliminate the violent criminal market?

Of the 193,060 people who voted more than 7% voted for the LEAP question.  That's about one in fourteen people who took the time to Ask Obama.

2. National Cancer Institute drama over anti-tumoral effects of cannabis


A very high-profile battle over scientific integrity played itself out on the webpage of Cancer.gov, the government's site for the National Cancer Institute.  It began when the site surprisingly updated its summary page on cannabis and cannabinoids.
The potential benefits of medicinal Cannabis for people living with cancer include antiemetic effects, appetite stimulation, pain relief, and improved sleep. In the practice of integrative oncology, the health care provider may recommend medicinal Cannabis not only for symptom management but also for its possible direct antitumor effect.

Cannabinoids may cause antitumor effects by various mechanisms, including induction of cell death, inhibition of cell growth, and inhibition of tumor angiogenesis and metastasis. [9-11] Cannabinoids appear to kill tumor cells but do not affect their nontransformed counterparts and may even protect them from cell death. These compounds have been shown to induce apoptosis in glioma cells in culture and induce regression of glioma tumors in mice and rats.


Then it appeared that somebody pressured NCI to revise its update to better align with the government's prohibition of cannabis.  The paragraphs above were removed and replaced with:
The potential benefits of medicinal Cannabis for people living with cancer include antiemetic effects, appetite stimulation, pain relief, and improved sleep. Though no relevant surveys of practice patterns exist, it appears that physicians caring for cancer patients who prescribe medicinal Cannabis predominantly do so for symptom management.

Then NCI updated the "clinical studies" portion of the website to again highlight the anti-tumoral effects:
One study in mice and rats suggested that cannabinoids may have a protective effect against the development of certain types of tumors.

Decreased incidences of benign tumors(polyps and adenomas) in other organs(mammary glanduterus, pituitary, testis, and pancreas)were also noted in the rats.

Cannabinoids may cause antitumor effects by various mechanisms, including induction of cell death, inhibition of cell growth, and inhibition of tumorangiogenesis and metastasis.

Cannabinoids appear to kill tumor cells but do not affect their nontransformed counterparts and may even protect them from cell death.


1. Colorado's 5ng/mL per se DUID bill dies again as new research backs higher thresholds for regular users


We tackled drug testing above in #6, but this story takes #1 for showing how science and the scientific method can actually beat back prohibition.  Colorado had proposed a 5ng of THC per milliliter of blood (5ng/mL) per se DUID, meaning: if you test positive on a drug test above 5ng/mL, you're automatically guilty of DUI, whether you were impaired or not.

Naturally, many medical marijuana patients in Colorado complained that they are such frequent and heavy users of cannabis that they would never be under such a threshold.  Furthermore, most of them have developed a tolerance to cannabis' effects that allows them to drive under its influence without impairment, much as we understand an "until you know how [Pill X] affects you, do not drive or operate heavy machinery" warning on a pharmaceutical.

The "pot critic" of Denver's WestWord, William Breathes, decided to become the experiment by abstaining from cannabis use under controlled conditions.  After sixteen hours and a night's sleep, upon awakening, presumably clean and sober, Breathes was tested at 13ng/mL.  This anecdotal report, splashed all over the Denver media, was also backed up by the latest scientific research:

It concludes: "A threshold of 2-3ng/ml THC as an indicator of recent drug use (i.e, smoking within the previous 6 hours) as recommended by Huestis et al appears to be valid only for occasional users. Heavy users might exhibit measurable cannabinoid concentrations in blood, even if the last cannabis use was more than 24 hours ago.... Therefore, cannabinoid concentrations in heavy users' blood from a later elimination phase might not be distinguished from an acute use of an occasional user."

Cross-posted from The NORML Daily Stash Blog

 

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