The debate over the legalization of marijuana has moved to center stage thanks to a local congressional candidate. But the debate on the health effects of long-term marijuana use has been occupying researchers for some time.
The candidate who thinks marijuana laws are unjust, Mark Creamer, is serving a six-month sentence for possession of marijuana.
Creamer, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Jim Slattery in the 2nd District Democratic primary, was arrested in September after smoking marijuana at the Lawrence-Douglas County Law Enforcement Center in what he called a protest against the nation's drug laws. He said earlier this month that the legal system had no right to try to protect him from what he called harmless, recreational use of marijuana. He says marijuana should not be judged the same as so-called hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine.
But, a physician and drug prevention workers interviewed by the Journal-World say several health hazards related to smoking marijuana including damage to chromosomes, delayed emotional development and chronic lung problems are already well-documented.
Countering Creamer's assertion that marijuana is relatively harmless are various clinical studies and research findings, said Harold Voth, a Topeka physician and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Kansas University Medical Center.
"MARIJUANA is not a soft drug. It's a serious toxin," said Voth, a retired Navy rear admiral who in the '70s took part in a campaign to rid the Navy of drugs.
Voth said long-term marijuana use can cause both physical and psychological problems.
Among the physical hazards, Voth said, "Marijuana is a profound irritant to the lungs. The immune system is suppressed, so you don't fight off infection as you normally would. And more abnormal births occur in experimental animals that have been exposed to marijuana."
From his own work with marijuana users, Voth has found that they often suffer long-term psychological problems, especially a lack of drive and ambition.
"Over time, you will see personality deterioration," said Voth. "The users of marijuana don't like to acknowledge this, but I've talked to some users who could tell they'd lost something. They just weren't what they once were."
BECAUSE marijuana affects the brain cells, Voth said, it isn't surprising that the drug also affects a user's personality.
"One's psychology is tied to one's physiology, and that's how it works," he said.
Charles Peterson, substance abuse counselor at DCCCA, a local substance abuse intervention, prevention and treatment agency, said the tar content of marijuana makes it unhealthy. But making the drug even more harmful for the lungs, he said, is that "there's no such thing as filtered marijuana."
"When marijuana is being smoked, it depletes the system of oxygen, and this definitely affects eyesight," Peterson said. "There's less oxygen going to the rods and cones, which affect vision."
That effect, plus marijuana's temporary alteration of some people's perception of space and time, could account for statistics showing that marijuana users have four times as many car accidents as non-users, Peterson said.
THE ACTIVE ingredient in marijuana and one of its most harmful components is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). That drug is believed to reduce fertility in both males and females when marijuana is smoked over a long period of time, he said.
In females, the menstrual cycle can be altered, and eggs can be damaged to the point that they're too weak to survive. In males, THC often makes sperm cells too weak to enter an egg.
Among adolescent males, the regular use of marijuana can prevent the growth of body hair, Peterson said. And research indicates that if males or females become regular marijuana users at a young age, "that's about as far as their emotional development goes," he said.
THC also has been found to cause chromosome damage in cells, and it has been estimated that smoking three marijuana cigarettes a week for a year is equivalent to 2,000 chest X-rays in terms of cell damage.
JIM THRASHER, addictions specialist at DCCCA, said marijuana is perceived as more harmful today than it was in the '60s, in large part because more potent forms of marijuana, containing more THC, are available now.
"People who smoked a lot of that old ditch dope just got a bad cough. That doesn't even stand up to the high-tech dope that's being grown today, especially in this area," he said. "We've got some pretty ingenious botanists who have been developing high strains."
Also, said Voth, THC is a fat-loving drug, so it attaches itself firmly to the brain, the ovaries, the testicles and other parts of the body with fatty tissue.
"The assumption is that the next day everything is cleared out of your system, but that just isn't true. Your body is constantly under the influence of these chemicals," Voth said.
While it takes about an hour for an ounce of alcohol to leave one's system, said Voth, it usually takes 5 to 7 days for only half of ingested marijuana chemicals to leave the body.
MARIJUANA does serve some useful purposes in the medical field. It appears to help glaucoma patients by reducing pressure behind the pupils of the eye, and it reduces nausea for some chemotherapy patients.
However, Voth said, people should not smoke marijuana recreationally, not only because of its physical and psychological effects, but because studies have show the drug to be addictive.
"People who want to legalize marijuana just don't know what they're talking about," Voth said. "Drugs take away freedom of choice because people become addicted."