- - Wednesday, April 22, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

By Kevin P. Hill, M.D.

Hazelden Publishing, $14.95, 209 pages

I long ago gave up one of my quiet pleasures because I got tired of being treated even in my own home as an eco-terrorist. But what a joy it had been, after a dinner of convivial tall-tale telling to kick back, light up one of my precious smuggled Upmann Montecristos and pass the port around.

It was not that hard to give up. I never smoked cigarettes and merely savored the aroma and taste of a cigar without inhaling the smoke. Indeed, I never saw the sense of taking smoke of any kind down my lungs. And the odor of the marijuana on offer at most Washington social events I attended was repellent.

But recently, the Three Stooges impersonators who lead the D.C. city government managed to enact a mishmash of rules to legalize private-use pot smoking in our fair city. One of the happy-chat local television stations promptly showed a scruffy lot of aging delinquents smugly passing a doobie around, and there has been much pious talk of the “medicinal benefits” of being stoned.

So after decades of curiosity, I have finally found a source of impartial, science-based information that answers many of the questions that those of us not deranged by some drug of choice can use to decide whether marijuana is a serious societal menace or whether there might be some genuine benefits to that smelly weed.

Author Kevin P. Hill, M.D., is a credible authority on the psychiatric perils of regular marijuana use and its addiction. He argues, “More people use marijuana than any other illicit drug and more people meet criteria for marijuana addiction than any other illicit drug.” More than the misuse of prescription painkillers that so dominates our media, it turns out weed is indeed a threat.

Dr. Hill is a professor and a consulting psychiatrist at Harvard University’s McLean Hospital, where he treats individual addicts but also conducts research. He also is a consultant on drug abuse with pro sports leagues, including the National Football League and (alarmingly) with the Federal Aviation Administration. He also is an accessibly good writer for lay audiences.

The early chapters of this book are devoted to what Dr. Hill says are the three prevailing myths in public opinion that stand in the way of any reasoned public discussion about the utility and dangers of marijuana use in our society. The most important myth is that marijuana is a harmless herb without the dangers of such illicit substances as heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine. Here, Dr. Hill concedes that addiction mathematics can be tricky.

He notes that most research indicates users of heroin, cocaine, nicotine and alcohol have higher percentages of addiction, but it also is true that those addicted to pot number around 2.7 million Americans — roughly the population of Houston. While most occasionally infrequent smokers do not get addicted, the level of addiction rises when the habit becomes as frequently as daily or, and this is alarming, if the use starts in adolescence.

“Your brain cannot perform the way it is supposed to when you use marijuana,” Dr. Hill states. This is because the main ingredient in pot is known as THC — “delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol” — which plugs into the receptors in the brain that control thinking, concentration, coordination and memory. Prolonged use of marijuana, again, especially among the young, has been linked in some studies to changes in the brain’s structure and even in loss of IQ.

The falsity of the other two myths are easier to understand. Marijuana use does become addictive because it “hijacks the normal circuits of the brain” that trigger physical dependence. And, not surprisingly, addicts who try to get off the weed do suffer from withdrawal pains for the same reason.

But, happily, Dr. Hill does make a good case that like all natural products, herbal marijuana is made up of a host of compounds, some of which can be isolated and used to unlock some of those same brain receptors and alleviate not only intractable pain but also to counteract a wide number of neuro-diseases or symptoms from epilepsy to multiple sclerosis. Trials are underway at universities and pharmaceutical laboratories into separating out compounds from marijuana for use in treating a range of illnesses such as glaucoma, Parkinson’s disease and ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

For those who would rather smoke or munch the weed, he said, they “are taking in many other compounds, some of which may not be beneficial, may be harmful, or may cause undesired side effects.”

“We have used the same model with many other medicines that first were derived from plants: We identify the useful compounds, isolate them, and learn to manufacture and improve upon them. Second, when we manufacture a compound, we can carefully control its dose.” Dr. Hill notes.

Finally, as if we needed reminding, Dr. Hill warns the smirking talking heads on happy-chat television and dopers in basements everywhere that inhaling smoke of any kind is dangerous — and stupid.

This book should be required reading for parents, of course, but also for anyone concerned about the ignoble experiment being foisted off on our community by goofy lawmakers and those who would exploit the vulnerable.

James Srodes’ latest book is “On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World” (Counterpoint).


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