The Freundel Stuart administration is being advised by the head of the region’s public health agency against any move to legalize or decriminalize marijuana.
Executive Director of the Trinidad-based Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) Dr James Hospedales today warned Barbados and its fellow CARICOM countries not to rush into either removing the criminal element from the drug or facilitating its use for medicinal purposes.
“Proceed with an abundance of caution, given the significant adverse effects of cannabis smoking on health and social occupational functioning, and especially so among youth,” Dr Hospedales told a panel discussion on decriminalization and legalization of marijuana at the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s (CTO) State of the Industry Conference in St Thomas, USVI.
He drew attention to “some of the significant neurological, cognitive, behavioural and physical consequences of short and long-term marijuana use, which are well known”.
These, the public health specialist pointed out, include negative effects on short-term memory, concentration, attention span, motivation and problem solving, which interfere with learning.
“Legalization or medical use of smoked cannabis is likely to impose significant public health risks, including an increased risk of schizophrenia, psychosis, and other forms of substance use disorders . . . We already have two major legal substances of abuse – alcohol and tobacco – which cause a tremendous amount of harm,” Dr Hospedales said.
“I can also see the negative societal effects being caused by jailing thousands of young people, especially young men, for using marijuana, from which they get a criminal record, and can face longer term employment difficulties. But the health consequences are such that any decision to decriminalize possession would be a political one; we can only put forward the medical and public health evidence,” he added.
The CARPHA head said several public health and scientific studies “clearly” demonstrated the significant adverse effects of cannabis smoking on physical and mental health, as well as its interference with social and occupational functioning.
“These negative data far outweigh a few documented benefits for a limited set of medical indications, for which safe and effective alternative treatments are readily available,” Dr Hospedales asserted.
“If there is any medical role for cannabinoid drugs, it lies with chemically defined compounds, not with the unprocessed cannabis plant.”
To support his position, the CARPHA head pointed to recent studies that demonstrate an association between marijuana use and the subsequent development of mental health problems.
One study done by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and another by the American Medical Association acknowledged the lack of rigorous data to support the use of smoked marijuana as medicine, while calling for additional research into the medical use of cannabinoids, especially those that could be delivered rapidly in a smoke-free manner.
“There is very little future in smoked marijuana as a medically approved medication. If there is any future in cannabinoid development, it lies with agents of more certain, not less certain, composition,” the IOM study concluded.