There are a few strange things about living in the Netherlands; or, at least for me. For one, it’s one of the only countries in which I’m of an average height. Number two, I know barely any Dutch people and even fewer Dutch words. Though most of all, it’s the relaxed attitudes to the drug known as marijuana, cannabis, weed, grass, reefa and the devil’s lettuce, among other names. Where I come from, it’s certainly seen as something which is a much bigger deal, and as someone who grew up with the idea that it’s a bad thing, it was certainly a surprise to find out you could buy something considered so dangerous in a shop. With recent worldwide changes in the legal status of the drug – such as the use of medical marijuana in the USA – it really got me thinking about the links between the scientific evidence and law, and was this plant really as bad as it is portrayed?
Obviously the Dutch are a great case study here, given that they’re a population with ready access to the drug. One of the key arguments I hear against the legalisation of cannabis is that it will increase the use of the drug, which seems strange since usage in the Netherlands was rated lower than some European countries where the drug remains illegal, including Ireland (Republic and Northern), Scotland and Italy. However this data is self reported, perhaps implying that the actual difference would even be greater: the Dutch would be unlikely to lie about consuming cannabis due to its legal status, whereas those in other countries may do so.
Time flies when… you do too
So what’s all the fuss about anyway? In a medical sense, marijuana was shown to increase appetite, which is useful alongside chemotherapy as, “maintaining weight during chemotherapy greatly improves patient survival rates during cancer treatment”, though the drug itself is not a potent anti-cancer treatment i.e not exactly the healing herb it’s cracked up to be. It was also “successfully used to treat other conditions characterised by nerve pain”.
In a recreational sense, people use it to get high. This is the experience of feeling “a pleasant euphoria and sense of relaxation”, with some other effects being „heightened sensory perception (e.g., brighter colors), laughter, altered perception of time, and increased appetite“. I also often hear people say they smoke it for creative reasons, however one study found that “cannabis with low potency does not have any impact on creativity, while highly potent cannabis actually impairs divergent thinking”, implying that this could in fact be a myth. Of course there are also negative effects associated with marijuana use, and these include impaired short term memory, impaired motor skills, altered judgment (akin to “I’m sorry, I was drunk”) and in high doses there is the potential for paranoia or psychosis.
A ticking time bong?
All of the above effects are related to short term use of the drug, which leads to an important question: do the effects change over a longer period of time? The evidence suggests so: “chronic and long-term cannabis exposure may exert significant effects in brain areas enriched with cannabinoid receptors, such as the hippocampus”. Although this sounds quite severe, it was also found that “ongoing cannabis use is associated with harms to brain health, underpinned by chronic exposure to THC. However, such harms are minimised by CBD, and can be recovered with extended periods of abstinence”. Supposedly, if you stop smoking cannabis – or smoke with a higher CBD content – then this atrophic effect can be reversed or slowed down, with one added caveat: this only applies to those who started their habit in adulthood. For those who start smoking extensively during adolescence, the evidence suggests that there is a long-term neurotoxic effect on the brain of the individual. Of course, if you use tobacco in your marijuana cigarettes, then you have the added dangers associated with smoking that too.
Should you really keep rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ rollin’?
So while there are certainly long term irreversible negative effects associated with cannabis intake, this occurs only in chronic or regular users, and mainly those who started smoking while in adolescence. A potential counterargument could be that we should protect our young and therefore keep cannabis illegal. However, as mentioned above, a country in which the purchase is completely legal has lower overall usage than other surrounding countries. Given that we accept that adults have a choice to do what they will with their bodies in regard to things such as alcohol and tobacco – which have been shown to be dangerous in all stages of life – should cannabis really be excluded from that? At the same, cannabis is certainly not this magical herb it’s made out to be by some people, and abuse clearly has its consequences. As to my original question, it seems like the links between the scientific evidence and law are quite weak and for that reason, the Dutch system makes a lot of sense to me.
Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.