Perhaps the biggest cannabis story of 2019 was the emergence of counterfeit vape cartridges, bringing illness and even death. These events started a necessary conversation around the use of electronic smoking devices across the United States; expect many more laws on both the federal and state level to come into effect in 2020. The aforementioned lung injuries came to light in August 2019, and to this date, it has caused the deaths of 52 consumers across the 50 states.
This outbreak baffled many health officials, who were mostly unable to provide a reason for the outbreak. It did eventually become apparent that additives such as Vitamin E or the re-added terpenes were the culprits. Thankfully though, the supply line was traced from the suppliers in the underground market all the way to the Chinese counterfeiters.
Apart from this somewhat negative highlight of cannabis, there was a large amount of positive research that took place in 2019.
Childhood Autism & CBD
Cannabis is more openly being looked at as a treatment for numerous health conditions. One of them is autism in children, and studies conducted in 2019 produced relevant data showing the benefits of cannabis as a potential treatment.
Although this study flew under the radar, the findings are promising and more deserving of front page presence. The study was published in Frontiers in Pharmacology and included 53 patients averaging 11 years old. Observations were made on improvements or reductions of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) symptoms after consuming daily doses of THC and/or CBD.
Significant improvements were noted in hyperactivity symptoms, a reduction in self-injury and rage attacks, issues with sleep, and anxiety. A staggering 74.5% of patients reported an overall improvement, with only 4% reporting the opposite.
Cannabis & the Brain
Reports over the years have shown a common trend – that cannabis shrinks your brain. This received plenty of attention as some small studies made the suggestion that heavy cannabis use by adolescents tends to lead to a decreased brain size.
However, very little attention was given to a study disproving this theory. In February 2019, a study was published in the journal Nature. Using a large sample size of 781 subjects ages 14-22, their brains were examined with MRIs. The sample size included: non-smokers, occasional smokers and those deemed to be “heavy smokers”.
To summarise the findings, neither group exhibited a significant brain structural difference to those who don’t consume cannabis. This doesn’t mean cannabis consumption is completely harmless to developing minds, but shows how misleading news can be when research is not conducted properly.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, sets out a definition for cannabis use disorder as “continued use of cannabis despite clinically significant impairment”. There is a fair bit more to this definition, but the focus is on ‘clinically significant impairment’ and what this means.
When cannabis is compared to the abuse of substances such as cocaine, alcohol or heroin, the problems associated with dependence on the plant are quite mild. Cannabis tends to be a lot less harmful than real hard drugs. However, this doesn’t mean that cannabis dependency is not a serious issue.
It would seem that diagnosis is largely subjective though, which can be seen in a study published in the journal International Journal of Drug Policy. States in America with functioning medical cannabis programmes were compared to those with little to no access to medical cannabis. As to be expected, those with legal access exhibited much higher reported consumption. However, these states also showed a lower prevalence of the recently defined ‘cannabis use disorder’.
It’s weird to think that areas with more people consuming cannabis actually have lower levels of problematic use and dependence. The assumption is that once cannabis achieves greater social acceptance and legality, the definition of “clinically significant impairment” changes accordingly. Thus fewer people are perceived to have a problem and help is more readily available for those who need it.
Under the Knife
A side note – always disclose your use of cannabis when it comes to medical operations. If you are going under the knife in the near future, let your anesthesiologist know you toke it up occasionally! It would appear, as a Colorado based study found, that the more you smoke – the more resistant you are to being sedated.
You might need more than twice the anaesthetic than a non-consumer. This is enough to potentially cause some problems on the operating table if you aren’t open about it. This is another reason to destigmatize the plant, to allow for more honesty in these sorts of situations. Withholding this information is a big deal if something were to go wrong, it can result in a couple of nights stay in ICU (Intensive Care Unit) or even reliance on a ventilator. So don’t lie to your doctors, they most probably smoke too!
All in all, cannabis had a great year in 2019. As more research is conducted and studies continue their journey, we learn more and more about this plant. Luckily enough, it is just about all positive but our thoughts and prayers do go out to those families who lost loved ones due to negligence. Let’s see what 2020 has in store for this plant.