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Health Director: Consider Medical Marijuana With a Clear Head

The widespread use of marijuana for medicinal purposes throughout our state is cause for concern. Smoking or eating herbal marijuana is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a medicine.  Many people are using marijuana to treat conditions for which there is no evidence of effectiveness. In fact, marijuana is harmful to many people’s health, whether it is smoked or eaten.

However, the FDA has approved the prescription of pills containing THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) as one option for just two groups of people: cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy who have severe and persistent nausea and vomiting that does not respond to other treatments, and for people with AIDS wasting syndrome who have no appetite.

Effects of short-term marijuana use can include slowed reaction times, impaired decision-making skills, lack of judgment and impulse control, changed perception and attention, and drowsiness, all of which can create problems when driving or performing tasks that require concentration. It can also cause problems with short-term memory and increased heart rate and blood pressure.

More severe and longer-lasting effects may occur among regular users. These effects can include bronchitis, lung cancer, memory problems, lower sperm count, increased infections and several types of mental health and social problems.  One joint can have the same effect as up to five tobacco cigarettes – users can suffer from chest tightness, wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.

A recent story in the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that more teenagers in California are admitted to inpatient addiction programs for marijuana use than for any other drug, including alcohol, and that teens are becoming more complacent about the risks of the drug because there is so much talk of its health benefits.

And a recent report showed that admission to detoxification and drug-treatment programs for marijuana dependence rose 117 percent in California between 1998 and 2008.

Marijuana is not safe or harmless.  There are good reasons that most local doctors do not provide recommendations for marijuana.  If you or someone you know is considering a recommendation for this drug, please have a candid conversation about marijuana’s short- and long-term effects with your physician before you decide.

Donnell Ewert, MPH, is director of Shasta County Public Health. While at Wheaton College, he participated in the Human Needs and Global Resources program, which included a seven-month internship in Honduras – an experience that sparked his interest in public health. He earned his master’s degree from UCLA after evaluating a program that used goats to increase the nutritional intake of malnourished children. He worked briefly as a health educator with migrant farm workers in Virginia before becoming an epidemiologist for the health departments in Los Angeles and the state of Indiana. Donnell came to Shasta County Public Health as an epidemiologist in 1999, after doing humanitarian health work in Kazakhstan. He has been the department director since 2007. He and his wife, Mary, have two teenage daughters.