Why public narrative about cannabis is wrong

Wednesday, February 10th, 2021 00:00 |
Bhang intercepted by detectives. Photo/Courtesy

Charles Onyango

Asked in a 2007 interview published in Addiction magazine why he chose to study cannabis, Prof  Raphael Mechoulam, a biochemist and professor in Weizmann Institute at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said that “on reading the old literature on cannabis, I was surprised to note that, from a modern point of view, the field was ripe for a re-investigation. In the early 1960s it was almost totally neglected.” 

Looking back at older research, Mechoulam was surprised to learn that no one had ever isolated the active constituents of cannabis in pure form. He set out to do just that, even though marijuana was illegal at the time in Israel. 

He went to the administrative director at the institute and asked if he knew anyone with the police.

The director, after realising that Mechoulam “was not trying to settle some minor traffic ticket but was requesting starting material for research,” called the head of the investigative branch at police headquarters.

That’s because the two had served in the Israeli Army together. The administrative director assured the head of investigations that Mechoulam was “reliable.”

Based on that alone, Mechoulam was called to Tel Aviv and given five kilograms of “superb, smuggled Lebanese hashish.”

For 40 years, he received hashish from the Israel Ministry of Health with no difficulties, adding that working in a small country “certainly has its positive aspects.”

What happened next is well-known in the marijuana industry. Mechoulam and other researchers isolated cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in marijuana, leading to more research on its impact on humans. 

By 1990s, there was government-backed research in Israel, decades ahead of most other countries.

In 2017, the School of Pharmacy at Hebrew University founded the Multidisciplinary Centre for cannabinoid research. 

The centre, which employs 27 cannabis researchers, lauds Mechoulam’s early work, which “heralded in a new age with a promising new vision for humankind.”

For five decades, Israel has had the longest running scientific repository on cannabis, and so far there are no signs of it being anything but safe.

A study showed that when the plant is vaporised and not incinerated, as in vaping versus smoking, the safety margin increases many folds.

The issue is not the plant, the negative issues come from the incineration process.

Similar to tobacco smoking or smoking many other things like hashish and the like, the huge danger is the by-products of incineration.  

Remove that risk, but either chemically removing the desired compounds or using them at lower temperatures, and the science suggests that cannabis is quite safe and shows potential value in pain and seizure control.

Besides, it’s compulsive nature, is quite less than that of alcohol and its harmful effects depend entirely upon the dose. 

Meanwhile in Kenya, this growing body of literature on the therapeutic use of cannabis and pieces about the problems associated with its use, often pales in comparison to what public perception is.

The loudest voices in the cannabis debate are people who have political or financial skin in the game, and the two sides are entrenched. 

On one hand, apologists of the plant say it’s the greatest medication ever, and harmless.

On the other hand, critics stigmatise it; saying it is dangerous. The two camps often feel that even a single shred of evidence that runs counter to their narrative hurts them. 

As a consequence, the public narrative about the drug is either incomplete or flat-out wrong, because both sides are promoting polar opposite views of cannabis.  —The writer is a global fellow at Moving Worlds Institute —[email protected]

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