Washington’s smoke signals: Myths and misconceptions

Smoke signals marijuana series

With the passage of I-502 in 2012, development of marijuana legislation and marijuana research has surged to unprecedented levels. In an attempt to clearly translate new laws and research, the Reporter and Courier-Herald will examine these issues in a four-part series.Part two of this series addresses the issue of common, and not so common, myths and misconceptions about marijuana.

Think back to high school health class. You may have seen the old propaganda film “Reefer Madness,” originally released in 1938, though it was revived and brought back to schools in the 1970s. Sparing the plot details of the film, it paints marijuana as “the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers.” The film claims marijuana is a violent and soul destroying narcotic which leads to “acts of shocking violence, ending often in incurable insanity.”

You’ve probably heard the opposite claims, though if you’ve ever been to Seattle’s Hempfest. Stories about marijuana being a “miracle drug” that cures anxiety, depression and even cancer are thrown around like joints from a bucket, which is a common occurrence at 4:20 p.m. While many people are just there for the festival, marijuana advocates occasionally monologue about how being high doesn’t affect their ability to drive or operate heavy machinery and that they shouldn’t have to go to court for their DUI citation.

While most people tend to gravitate towards the center of the marijuana issue and away from the extreme ends, propaganda and misinformation about marijuana is still more easily accessible than trustworthy scientific research. And with I-502 passing into law only two years ago, many questions about the long-term health effects of marijuana go unanswered and are subject to old biases and new assumptions from both sides of the debate.So which facts are solid, and which are just smoke?

Is marijuana smoke more carcinogenic than tobacco smoke?

Exactly how healthy, or unhealthy, smoking marijuana can be is still being debated by scientists and researchers. While medical marijuana has been prescribed for general pain and anxiety, the long-term health effects of the drug are relatively unknown.

However, the chemical makeup of marijuana is less mysterious, and gives researchers a clue as to marijuana can affect the body. According to the American Lung Association, marijuana smoke contains 33 known carcinogens.

In contrast, cigarette smoke contains 70 carcinogens.

While marijuana smoke contain less carcinogens than tobacco smoke, the American Lung Association and the British Lung Foundation have said differences in how marijuana and tobacco are smoked may tip the scales.

According to the American Lung Association, “When equal amounts of marijuana and tobacco are smoked, marijuana deposits four times as much tar into the lungs. This is because marijuana joints are un-filtered and often more deeply inhaled than cigarettes.”

The British Lung Foundation estimates that while people generally smoke marijuana less often than cigarettes, people inhaling marijuana smoke take a two-thirds larger puff volume than when people inhale tobacco smoke.

Additionally, marijuana smokers hold the smoke in their mouth for four times longer than tobacco smokers, “and end up with five times the amount of carboxyhemoglobin in their blood per cigarette smoked,” the British Lung Foundation wrote in a 2012 report.

Carboxyhemoglobin is a mixture of carbon monoxide and hemoglobin, the part of red blood cells that transport oxygen. While carboxyhemoglobin limits the amount of oxygen the blood can deliver to the body, carboxyhemoglobin is not considered a carcinogen.

All in all, the British Lung Foundation wrote the increased puff volume and hold time, “means it’s likely that the body retains much more of the products of cannabis smoke, leading to a greater respiratory burden of carbon monoxide and smoke particles than when smoking a similar quantity of tobacco.” However, exact measurements of how much more carbon monoxide, smoke particles and carcinogens that would be retained in the body were not given.

The Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, run by the University of Washington, is one institution charged with researching marijuana and marijuana smoke by the state. Some proceeds from the state’s 25 percent excise tax on marijuana is given to the institute for research funds.

The Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute has cited research from 19 studies.

The Institute wrote that marijuana smoke contains “about 50 percent more benzopyrene and nearly 75 percent more benzanthracene, both known carcinogens, than a comparable quantity of unfiltered tobacco smoke.”

However, the Institute also wrote several well-designed and large-scale studies “have failed to find any increased risk of lung or upper airway cancer in people who have smoked marijuana,” although studies also haven’t ruled out that marijuana smokers have a higher cancer risk than non-marijuana smokers.

Additionally, the Institute wrote there are other ways to introduce marijuana to the body that may not have the same health risks as smoking.Joints, or hand-rolled and unfiltered marijuana cigarettes, have been the focus of the studies and facts mentioned above.

According to the Institute, smoking devices that use a water filter system, such as bongs, do not reduce the risks associated with marijuana smoke. Vaporizers, which release the psychoactive chemical THC in marijuana without burning the plant, release lower levels of tar than unfiltered marijuana smoke, according to the Institute. However, vaporizers may produce other chemicals that may be harmful to the body, including ammonia. Finally, eating the marijuana naturally negates smoking risks, according to the Institute, although it takes longer for the THC to take effect and may last longer than smoking marijuana.

THC itself has not been identified as a carcinogenic chemical.

The Institute concluded that more research on marijuana smoke and cancer is needed to determine a connection between the two.

Conclusion: Unclear

While marijuana smoke contains less identified carcinogens than tobacco smoke, marijuana smoking practices may make up the difference in cancer risk. Many scientific studies have produced different and even conflicting information, from finding carcinogens in marijuana smoke to claiming THC inhibits those same carcinogens. With the lack of multiple long-term experiments, it is difficult to determine whether or not marijuana smoke is more carcinogenic than tobacco smoke. However, current evidence and studies seem to point toward marijuana smoke being less carcinogenic than tobacco smoke, though not without its risks.

Can a person become addicted to marijuana?

It’s probably a line you heard in high school: “Don’t be stupid, you can’t get addicted to weed.”

According to the National Institute of Drug abuse, though, 9 percent of people who use marijuana, or 1-in-11, will become dependent on the drug.Chances for addiction become higher the earlier marijuana is introduced. About 17 percent of teenage users, or 1-in-6, are estimated to become dependent on the drug.

Additionally, a 25 to 50 percent of people who are heavy users and smoke marijuana every day can become addicted.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse cited the 2013 National Survey of Drug Use and Health, which estimated 4.2 million of the estimated 6.9 million Americans dependent on or abusing illicit drugs use marijuana.

Symptoms of marijuana dependance include sleeplessness, irritability, decreased appetite or cravings and various forms of physical discomfort. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, symptoms can last for up to two weeks.

“Researchers do not yet know the full extent of the consequences when the body and brain (especially the developing brain) are exposed to high concentrations of THC,” the National Institute of Drug Abuse wrote on their website.

Conclusion: Yes

While marijuana can be addictive, dependance and withdrawal symptoms may not be as severe as other substances, both illicit and legal. At the same time, medical marijuana has been prescribed to patients to treat anxiety, sleeplessness and general pain (the same symptoms of addiction), as well as depression, addiction to other substances and other physical and mental ailments.

Can marijuana lower your IQ/make you lose brain cells?

A 2012 New Zealand study, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found frequent marijuana use in teenagers was associated with an average loss of 8 IQ points later in adulthood.

The same study found those who started smoking marijuana in adulthood did not lose IQ points.

However, another study, published in the same year in the same journal, claimed the drop in IQ points could be related socioeconomic status as opposed to marijuana use, and the results were confounded.

Additionally, the new study cited a different Canadian study that found there were no permanent effects of marijuana on IQ.

The new study concluded the New Zealand study’s “estimated effect of adolescent-onset cannabis use on IQ is likely biased, and the true effect could be zero.”

In a Time Magazine article, Carl Hart, an associate professor at Columbia University, also said the New Zealand study was flawed. Hart stated that because only 38 people were used in the original study, the information gathered from the study could not be generalized to the rest of the population.

Conclusion: Insufficient data

Without a larger group of subjects over a long period of time, it would be hard to determine whether marijuana lowers IQ. It is made more difficult by the fact that drops in IQ can be also related to variances in socioeconomic status.

Can cities can make a lot of money off of marijuana retail stores?

While Bonney Lake held many discussions on the dangers and risks of marijuana, little discussion was held over how much money the city could make from allowing a marijuana retail store to open.

“Money shouldn’t be the driver,” Bonney Lake Mayor Johnson said after the city passed the ban on marijuana businesses. “It’s the right thing (to do)…. If money was the driver, I’d be disappointed.”

However, two attorneys told the City Council the city could stand to make big bucks from the one marijuana store allotted to Bonney Lake.

Richard Murphy, who spoke on behalf of several marijuana license holders at the Oct. 28 City Council meeting, said banning marijuana businesses meant “Bonney Lake (would miss) out on a lot of sales tax revenue. There are potentially hundred of thousands of dollars in sales tax revenue that can be collected by allowing this store.”

Chris Crew, an attorney who spoke on behalf of 4Ever Healing, the potential marijuana retailer assigned to Bonney Lake, spoke at the Jan. 6 city council meeting.

Crew estimated the city would receive upwards of $138,000 in annual sales tax revenue from a marijuana retail store. This figure is based off a monthly gross revenue of $500,000.

Crew said he based his figure off of two of his other client’s businesses. One of his clients, based in downtown Tacoma, makes $1 million a month, while another in Gray’s Harbor made $100,000.

According to the Washington State Liquor Control Board, a total of 84 recreational marijuana retail stores opened between June 2014 and December 2014. These stores made more than $40 million during those seven months.

The average marijuana store made $80,000 a month between June 2014 and the end of the year.

In Bonney Lake, where the city takes 2.3 percent in sales tax, the city could expect to see upwards of $22,000 in sales tax revenue from the average marijuana retail store in one year.

According to the Liquor Control Board, Mr. Bills of Buckley, based in the City of Buckley off state Route 410, made $360,000 from when it opened in September to the end of the year.

Averaged out, Mr. Bills made more than $90,000 per month for those four months. If sales remained the same for an entire year, the store could stand to make more than $1 million.

If a Bonney Lake marijuana retailer performed similarly, the city could expect to see around $24,000 in sales tax revenue for the entire year.

Conclusion: Unlikely

With the state taking all proceeds from the 25 percent excise tax on marijuana, smaller city governments would rely solely on sales tax revenue for their budgets.

Based on the performance of average marijuana retail stores in 2014, cities with a comparable 2.3 percent sales tax rate could see around $22,000 in sales tax revenue for an entire year per marijuana retail store.

However, with the implementation of I-502 still recent, sales patterns may rise or fall as legal marijuana becomes more or less popular among the public.