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September 11, 2012

What do we know for sure about marijuana usage and its health effects?

As readers may be aware from a variety of prior posts about marijuana and other (legal but harmful) drugs, I am always interested in hard and dependable data on the various tangible costs and benefits of different government regulatory schemes.  I am generally in favor of moves to legalize and (sin) tax marijuana mostly because it seems American society has decided with alcohol and tobacco that the cost/benefit realities of the legal/regulate/tax/public health regime for these kinds of harmful substances are better than the cost/benefit realities of a prohibition/law enforcement regime.

For these reasons, I am pleased that it seems we are seeing more and more serious research about the potential health effects of marijuana usage, and this latest Reuters headline caught my attention on this front: "Marijuana smoking tied to testicular cancer: study."  But parts of the article got me really wondering what we really know about actual marijuana usage (past and present) and its potential harms (present and future):

Young men who had smoked marijuana recreationally were twice as likely to be diagnosed with testicular cancer than men who have never used marijuana, according to a U.S. study. Researchers whose findings appeared in the journal Cancer said the link appeared to be specific to a type of tumor known as nonseminoma.

"This is the third study consistently demonstrating a greater than doubling of risk of this particularly undesirable subtype of testicular cancer among young men with marijuana use," said Victoria Cortessis of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, who led the study. "I myself feel like we need to take this seriously now," she added, noting that the rates of testicular cancer have been rising inexplicably over the past century.

The research isn't ironclad proof that the marijuana is to blame, and even if it is, the danger isn't overwhelming. According to the American Cancer Society, a man's lifetime risk of getting testicular cancer is about one in 270 -- and because effective treatment is available, the risk of dying from the disease is just one in 5,000.

So far, little is known about what causes it. Cortessis said undescended testicles, in which the testes remain in the abdomen beyond the age of a year, are a risk factor. Both pesticide and hormone exposure have also been associated with the tumors.

Cortessis and her colleagues used data from 163 young men who had been diagnosed with testicular cancer and nearly 300 men in a comparison group without the disease. Both groups had been interviewed about their health and drug use between 1987 and 1994. Among the men with cancer, 81 percent had used marijuana at some point, whereas that was the case for 70 percent of the comparison group. ...

It's not entirely clear how marijuana would influence men's cancer risk, but Cortessis said developing testicles may somehow respond to the drug's main active ingredient.

The new study is "interesting," said Carl van Walraven of the University of Ottawa in Canada, who has studied testicular cancer, but said it has a number of limitations. For instance, it didn't find an increased risk among men with higher marijuana use, and it was relatively small.

Especially because I lack a scientific background to assess this research, I was drawn to the fact that this research reports that roughly 3 out of every 4 young men admitted to having used marijuana (an illegal drug) and that their use came during the very height of the just-say-no, drug war crusade.  I am really surprised marijuana already so very high during that period of pot prohibition, and I suspect the actual use rate may be even higher because of the (justified?) reservations some may have about admitting past illegal drug usage.

One might drawn lots of conclusions from this latest bit of marijuana research, but I am more interested in hearing from commentors about what data or evidence they think is indisputable about past or present marijuana usage and/or the impact of such usage on public health.  I suppose I might ask the same questions about tobacco and alcohol use, though to my knowledge these is not the same on-going robust public and policy debate about whether and how we should make these harmful substances now subject to a prohibition/law enforcement regime of regulation.

Some recent and older related posts:

September 11, 2012 at 11:27 AM | Permalink


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I have heard of studies that indicate that Marijuana prohibition has killed 60,000 Mexicans. The final cause of death was lead poisoning followed by bleeding out. Researchers are not sure why pot prohibition leads to a heightened risk of lead poisoning, in Mexico. But there is a very strong correlation amongst Mexicans. Of course, correlation is not causation.

Some health researchers assert that the heightened level of lead poisoning is caused by the moral depravity of the lead poisonee. Others assert that the poisoning is caused by the unwillingness of the poisonee to obey the law. This second theory flies in the face of evidence that many of the lead poisonees are law abiding

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Sep 11, 2012 11:52:20 AM

Jardinero1:: "there is a very strong correlation amongst Mexicans"

Amongst Mexicans, why don't you encourage legal occupations, abstinence from illegal substances, and moral absolutes such as the 1st Commandment?

Posted by: Adamakis | Sep 11, 2012 12:12:39 PM

Hey Doc...I mean, I know you've been basically hanging around 'in college' for pretty much your whole life - but do you think someday maybe you could step outside for a moment and get some fresh (i.e. non-smoky) real world air?

Posted by: Lou Booga | Sep 11, 2012 3:46:02 PM

Adamakis: "Mexicans are godless heathens."

Good to know!

Posted by: Guy | Sep 11, 2012 4:30:12 PM

What would happen if I get fresh air, Lou Booga? Would I be able to see more people going to bars? More people smoking tobacco in front of buildings? More people driving while texting? More people drinking Big Gulps and eating at Five Guys and Denny's and IHOP? More people going to casinos and race tracks? In other words, would I see more people free to do legal things they enjoy to do even though they know it is likely bad for them and perhaps for society as a whole (save for the large tax revenues these sins can help raise)?

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 11, 2012 4:34:25 PM

Prof Berman,

Lou Booga has never done anything illegal or injurious to his health, ever, never ever, ever. Same with Mr. Otis. Neither have they ever made a mistake not once, not even once.

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Sep 11, 2012 5:07:22 PM

Guy --

Your supposed quotation of Adamakis is fabricated. When you use quotation marks, as you did, you are purporting to recount the quoted person's exact words.

Adamakis never said, "Mexicans are godless heathens." What he actually did was ask Jardeniro1 why he didn't "encourage legal occupations, abstinence from illegal substances, and moral absolutes such as the 1st Commandment."

People can and do deviate from the 1st Commandment (and all the rest) without being either Godless or heathens. Religious people commit sin all the time; indeed, one of the major goals of any given religion is to teach its followers how to cope with and seek forgiveness for their inevitable sin.

But all that's off the point. You weren't purporting to paraphrase, even if your paraphrase were fair or accurate (it was neither). You were purporting to quote directly. And you were making it up.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 11, 2012 5:09:44 PM

Doug --

In this state, at least, driving while texting most certainly is a crime, as well it should be. And you can get salads at IHOP and Denny's.

Just a tip from the faculty lounge.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 11, 2012 5:14:56 PM

religion teaches how to cope ... in other words you can be the biggest hypocritical asshole you want because the basic tenents of religion will teach you to forgive yourself in the end

Posted by: Agnostic at heart | Sep 11, 2012 5:20:34 PM

The point is Bill, should we make everything illegal that one or many studies show is not good for us? If we did most certainly the crime rate would go up. There would be incarceration for eating and selling big macs. We would then have to say that the budget for law enforcement and prosecution should be raised because of the rising criminal element.

Criminals are those that break laws. People who break commandments or live an immoral life are not designated criminals.

Posted by: beth | Sep 11, 2012 7:09:21 PM

The testicular cancer study is a good example of understanding relative risk v. absolute risk. Perhaps marijuana doubles the risk, but the risk is still quite low.

Posted by: Steve Erickson | Sep 11, 2012 7:56:42 PM

beth --

My point was limited. It was simply that a commenter cannot fabricate a quotation from another commenter. I think you and I would agree on that.

If a commenter wants fairly to paraphrase another commenter, fine, but you don't use quotation marks around a paraphrase. Guy should, and I'm quite sure he does, know better.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 11, 2012 8:10:11 PM

I would speculate that occasional pot smoking is less harmful than constant legal prescription use. I have no medical background and I have conducted no informal testing.

Posted by: Stanley Feldman | Sep 11, 2012 11:07:18 PM

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Posted by: Cesar Hild | Sep 12, 2012 3:53:55 AM

The Adult Pleasure License leaves alone people handling adult pleasures, and restricts access to addicts and others not handling them well. It solves the problems of both total licentiousness and prohibition devoid of public support.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 12, 2012 6:59:17 AM


Satire. Otherwise, tl;dr.


Posted by: Guy | Sep 12, 2012 4:31:55 PM

Guy --

Then I take it you won't complain if I quote you as saying something you didn't say in order to make you look idiotic (which is what you did to Adamakis). Is that correct?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 12, 2012 10:30:52 PM

Bill, you put words in other people's mouths all the time and claim they took positions they didn't in order to argue against straw men, especially when your own views have been shown to be short-sighted, bankrupt and generally impossible to rationally defend. You of all people have no standing to make that criticism.

And Adamkis' response didn't need Guy to make him look "idiotic." He accomplished that on his own.

Jardinero's response was the correct one about "indisputable" health risks associated with marijuana. Most other health-risk claims are in fact highly disputable, and certainly much less well-documented than those associated with (legal and regulated) tobacco and alcohol. Adamkis wants to pretend all those deaths result from Mexicans lack of "abstinence from illegal substances" and failure to abide by biblical law, but really the primary cause is US demand despite prohibition, as evidenced by Doug's observation that "roughly 3 out of every 4 young men admitted to having used marijuana (an illegal drug) and that their use came during the very height of the just-say-no, drug war crusade."

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Sep 13, 2012 8:24:47 AM

Grits --

"Bill, you put words in other people's mouths all the time..."

You mean like claiming that DP backers support all state killing as inherently good in all circumstances? Is that what you mean? Do you remember who concocted that ridicuous straw man? Do you need help recalling?

"...and claim they took positions they didn't in order to argue against straw men..."

Show me where I put QUOTATION MARKS around words I attributed to someone else, when in fact that person had not said them and I knew he hadn't said them. Go ahead, let's see it.

You know perfectly well it's dishonest to use quotation marks in that way, don't you?

"...especially when your own views have been shown to be short-sighted, bankrupt and generally impossible to rationally defend."

I'm amazed that you, a liberal extremist by any measure, continue to proclaim yourself the judge of the debate in which you participate.

"You of all people have no standing to make that criticism.

You're not the judge of my standing, hot shot. Or if you think you are, go enforce it.

I'll wait.

And while I'm waiting, should I be looking for more press accounts of your fabricated charges that the police pulled weapons on you? When there are tapes proving that your claim was 100% false?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 13, 2012 12:33:03 PM

Marijuana is really bad for our health.

Posted by: Jerina Tuazon | Sep 14, 2012 7:04:51 AM

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