The health of each individual is dependant on his body working appropriately.
Source: Harm Reduction Journal
By: Robert Melamede, University of Colorado
This article examines harm reduction from a novel perspective. Its central thesis is that harm reduction is not only a social concept, but also a biological one. More specifically, evolution does not make moral distinctions in the selection process, but utilizes a cannabis-based approach to harm reduction in order to promote survival of the fittest. Evidence will be provided from peer-reviewed scientific literature that supports the hypothesis that humans, and all animals, make and use internally produced cannabis-like products (endocannabinoids) as part of the evolutionary harm reduction program. More specifically, endocannabinoids homeostatically regulate all body systems (cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, excretory, immune, nervous, musculo-skeletal, reproductive). Therefore, the health of each individual is dependant on this system working appropriately.
The concept of harm reduction is at the heart of conflicting international drug policies. The Dutch pioneered this approach. Today most European countries and Canada have embraced the idea that society benefits most when drug policy is designed to help people with drug problems to live better lives rather than to punish them. In contrast, the United States federal policy demands rigid zero tolerance with overwhelming emphasis on incarceration of offenders (the Drug War). Although, seemingly reasonable arguments can be made to support both sides of the dispute, the recent global trend towards harm reduction has resulted from the acknowledgement that drug use has been a part of all societies throughout history and the realization that repressive policies are expensive, ineffective, and often harmful.
A dramatic example of the benefits that can result from a harm reduction approach to drugs is seen with needle exchange programs. While prohibitionists argue that providing clean injection equipment promotes drug use, the facts do not support this contention. For example, the Australian needle exchange program is credited with keeping the HIV/AIDS infection rate very much lower than what is typically found globally. Commonly cited examples of the failed repressive policies championed by the United States are the now repealed alcohol prohibition and the current drug war. Crime, financial support for terrorism, disrespect for the law, and destruction of families, communities, and ecosystems can all be attributed to drug prohibition. Yet, the staggering cost of the drug war, driven by United States policy and taxpayers’ money, amounts to many billions of dollars a year.
Cannabis is the third most commonly used drug in the world, following tobacco and alcohol. In the United States, much of the drug war is focused on marijuana (over 700,000 people arrested last year alone). Is there justification for this policy? The gateway theory states marijuana use leads to the use of other drugs, and drives the U.S. policy despite evidence that suggests alcohol and tobacco use may foster the gateway effect 1,2]. In contrast, countries that support harm reduction focus their enforcement and social support efforts on “hard drugs.” Consequently, many countries have effectively decriminalized marijuana. Holland, having the most liberalized drug laws, does not have more cannabis users (over age twelve) than do more repressive countries, and the per capita number of heroin users is also lower. [The Dutch Ministry of Justice estimates that 0.16% of cannabis users are heroin users. This figure does not support cannabis being a gateway drug. Data from the 2000 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) also shows that the vast majority of people who try cannabis do not go on to use hard drugs.
A little explored question is what does harm reduction specifically mean with respect to cannabis consumption? This article will address cannabis harm reduction from a biological perspective. Two directions will be examined: what are the biological effects of cannabis use and what are the social effects that emerge from the biological foundation.
Like many substances that are put into the human body, there can be positive or negative consequences that result from cannabis consumption, depending on amount, frequency, quality, and probably most importantly, the idiosyncratic biochemistry of the user. Prohibitionists concentrate their efforts on the negative effects of cannabis use, while anti-prohibitionists tend to focus on the positive effects. If we assume that both sides have valid arguments, the issue to be resolved is one of balance between the negative and positive effects. Would a policy of tolerance, or prohibition, be more likely to reduce harm overall? Which policy would better serve society as a whole, as well as problematic drug users?
Biological science can be more objectively evaluated than social science. The central theme that will be presented in this article is that appropriate cannabis use reduces biological harm caused by biochemical imbalances, particularly those that increase in frequency with age. Proper cannabis use, as distinguished from misuse, may have significant positive health effects associated with the way cannabis mimics natural cannabinoids. In essence, it is proposed that the endocannabinoid system, selected by 600 million years of evolution, is a central mediator of biological harm reduction through its homeostatic activities. The social implications of cannabis use will be viewed as emerging from the biological platform. Herein lies the paradox of cannabis and harm reduction. Is appropriate use of cannabis better than no use?
Cannabis use can be divided into three categories, recreational, medical, and religious. The latter will not be examined in this article. Some, including those who favor or oppose cannabis use, presume recreational and medical use are the same. On the one side, it is often claimed that any cannabis use is justified by some underlying medical need. On the other side, cannabis use is presumed to have no medical value, with the implication that those who use it are simply “getting stoned.” While the former claim may be too extreme, the latter defies current scientific understanding of the biological functions of the endocannabinoids. While many people are reluctant to approve recreational cannabis use, it appears that most people support medical use. The United States Federal Government denies that there is any valid medical use for cannabis, while the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) provides marijuana on a monthly basis to a few medical users through the compassionate Investigatory New Drug (IND) program of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Nevertheless, a number of states, through either legislative action or voter initiative, have approved the use of medical marijuana.