The Perils of Pot?

A THC Molecule Speaks For Itself

A hand holds a cannabis cigarette also known as a marijuana joint in 1969 Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, known to friends as THC, has enjoyed more than a bit of notoriety since its isolation as the primary psychoactive ingredient in all cannabis preparations. In the past two years, according to the Index Medicus, THC has been the subject of an average of three or four medical papers a week—most of them trivial, some of them clearly biased and alarmist. Some of the latter have made headlines this year, and in a few cases have been used as altogether specious arguments against the legalization of marijuana. No one is about to suggest that marijuana is harmless, but at this point the occasional smoker must have begun to wonder: Hysteria aside, exactly how harmful is the stuff?

Clearly, it's time to go to the source. The following interview was taped over the course of several hours with an anonymous delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol molecule, in the author's prefrontal lobes in San Francisco. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol is a striking appearing organic molecule, with an intricately double-bonded hydrocarbon formation that may remind one, at first blush, of similar isomers—serotonin, say, or psilocybin. But THC speaks with a voice all its own.

MR: I imagine you know why I've asked you here.

THC: "The Perils of Pot," as U.S. News & World Report called it?

MR: Precisely. You've run into some bad press lately. As Science—not a notably hysterical journal—put it: "Marihuana: The Grass May No Longer Be Greener."

THC: I saw the piece. I wish they'd learn to spell.

MR: It accused you of "at least six different types of potential hazard"—possible chromosome damage, possible disruption of cellular metabolism, possible disruption of hormone systems, severe debilitation of the bronchial tract and lungs, sharp personality changes and the possibility of potentially irreversible brain damage.

THC: Goodness. It does sound awful when you put it that way.

MR: Let's take it step by step. Did you really give those 14 young men in Massachusetts breasts?

THC: Gynecomastia?

MR: That's what they call it. The doctors speculated it was due to your molecular similarity to estradiol, a feminizing hormone. When three of the young men abstained from smoking, their breasts shrank. And the same doctors enlarged the breasts of male rats with THC injections.

THC: Let me go on the record right now. In terms of clinical data, I think the evidence is overwhelming: Rats, rhesus monkeys and chickens simply should not be smoking dope. Even under laboratory conditions.

MR: But what about the guys in Massachusetts?

THC: Have you seen the paper "The Effect of Prenatal Cannabis Sativa on Maze-Learning Ability in the Rat"? Or the one that described "abstinence signs" during THC withdrawal in rhesus monkeys? Or "Tolerance to the Hypothermic Effects of Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol as a Function of Age in the Chicken"? Chilling.

MR: You're straying. About the enlarged breasts ...

THC: I'm sorry. Sometimes my mind wanders ...

MR: Don't apologize.

THC: All I can say is that absolutely no one else has found gynecomastia. Not even those doctors who found ... oh ...

MR: The impotence and sterility?

THC: You've heard about that?

MR: Even Newsweek heard about that. Twenty heterosexual men, 18 to 28 years of age, who smoked an average of ten joints a week, showed a significantly lower level of male sex hormone—testosterone—than a similar control group which didn't smoke. A third of the smokers showed a decreased sperm count and two of them were impotent.

THC: I read the paper. Everyone has their troubles in bed.

MR: One of the subjects regained his potency when he gave up dope.

THC: And the other one refused to give up dope. To each his own.

MR: The researchers—one of them the William Masters of Masters and Johnson reknown—noted that if testosterone levels are in fact reduced by THC, then "the avoidance of marihuana use particularly during the first trimester of pregnancy appears judicious," since THC can cross the placental barrier from mother to fetus, and little male fetuses need all the testosterone they can get. There is also the possibility that marijuana use by preadolescent males might delay the onset of puberty.

THC: Let me revise my earlier statement: Rats, rhesus monkeys, chickens, pregnant women and little boys shouldn't be smoking dope. Although, to be absolutely fair about this thing, a team of doctors at Harvard have just reported they found no depression of testosterone in the blood of cannabis users under controlled conditions. Other factors can reduce testosterone also—including alcohol—and the Harvard researchers suggest that something else may have been involved in the earlier study.

MR: The Leuchtenbergers in Switzerland found a marked disturbance of sperm production in mice that inhaled the smoke from one hundred cannabis cigarettes over a three-month period.

THC: Mice shouldn't be smoking that much dope.

MR: So you won't take a stand on the sex-and-smoking question?

THC: Not enough data either way. But it's worth keeping in mind. All I'd say is, if you can't get it up, put it out.

MR: What about the chromosome breakages?

THC: [Low groan]

MR: This disturbs you?

THC: It's a can of worms.

MR: I beg your pardon?

THC: A can of worms. Stenchever at Salt Lake City found double the number of chromosome breaks in users than in nonusers. Gilmore in New York found roughly the same. Morishima at Columbia found chromosomal abnormalities in 30% of the white blood cells taken from users, as opposed to only seven percent in nonusers. But three other studies completed recently under controlled conditions have shown just the opposite: no evidence at all of increased chromosome breakage.

MR: Who's right?

THC: At this point, depending on your politics, take your pick. But note first that in these six studies, the three that found chromosome breakage used as their sample a user population—freaks off the street who smoked their own dope at home. The three that found no damage administered controlled doses of THC either to the subjects in the laboratories, or directly to cultured cells in test tubes. The distinction between methods arises again and again in this rat's nest. If you take regular dope smokers off the street for your sample—even if, as intelligent researchers do, you screen them and try to keep out the ones who are also doing amyl nitrite or Freon or something—you're still bound, just by the nature of heavy dope smokers, to end up with a population somewhere off the main sequence; living on Twinkies, maybe, or snorting brewer's yeast. On the other hand, if you bring in some nice cleancut kids and give them little cups of THC to drink, or standard joints to smoke in the lab, you're missing out on observing long-term usage. Since the safety of cannabis is not established, researchers aren't inclined to dose their subjects for months at a time. Even though a lot of the subjects would probably be perfectly happy with the arrangement. So what's a fellow to do?

MR: That's still not answering the question. What about the chromosomes?

THC: [Sigh] Number one: The evidence on chromosome breakage is exceedingly contradictory at this point. Stenchever—the researcher most quoted in the popular press as finding double the number of breaks in users—himself published an earlier paper that found no evidence of chromosome damage when human cells were exposed to THC in test tubes. Number two: Many of the so-called ethical drugs—aspirin and caffeine among them—cause as much chromosome abnormality as the most pessimistic studies attribute to THC. And number three: The most comprehensive look at long-term cannabis use yet—an NIMH study of 30 chronic users in Jamaica—found no difference in the rate of chromosomal abnormality between users and nonusers. And the user sample there consisted of individuals who, on the average, had smoked seven joints of ganja a day for 17-1/2 years.

MR: So you don't think cannabis damages chromosomes?

THC: I think for now it's probably safest to forbid your chromosomes to smoke by themselves.

MR: What about the charge that THC impedes the operation of the immune system in human beings, thereby rendering them more susceptible to infection?

THC: Sickly dopers?

MR: That's the implication. Nahas at Columbia University examined the response of certain immunity-producing cells from 51 marijuana users and found it distinctly impaired.

THC: That's the same Nahas who wrote Marihuana: the Deceptive Weed, about which even the Journal of the American Medical Association said,"... biased selections and interpretations of studies, and omissions of fact, abound in every chapter." And the same Nahas who testified before the Texas legislature against easing pot laws.

MR: Let's stick to the science.

THC: As should scientists. Six months after Science published Nahas's paper, they published a challenge by two other researchers who suggested, for a variety of reasons, that Nahas's work was inconclusive.

MR: A more detailed paper in the New England Journal of Medicine last October also found evidence of reduction in cell-mediated immunity in a population of 23 dope smokers.

THC: That was, of course, in test tubes. Most recently, Lessin and Silverstein at UCLA found no impairment in the actual immune reactions of users. And in the NIMH Jamaican study, there was no difference in the incidence of disease between the smokers and the nonsmokers.

MR: So?

THC: Until the question is settled, dope smokers who are worried about reduced resistance should eat well and get plenty of sleep, which is easy if you smoke enough.

MR: What about the Big C?

THC: Cocaine? A close competitor but also a good friend.

MR: I mean cancer. Cannabis and cancer.

THC: That's sensitive.

MR: So I understand. But at this point there's absolutely no evidence linking cannabis with lung or any other cancer. Yet the Leuchtenbergers, who seem to have it in for you, found that smoke from marijuana causes the same precancerous alterations in human lung cells as does tobacco smoke. And another recent paper described biopsies on six young soldiers who were steady hashish smokers; all showed the cellular abnormalities seen in long-term tobacco smokers. Even those healthy Jamaicans showed mildly reduced lung capacity.

THC: The soldiers smoked an average of over 50 grams a month. Two grams of hash per day is a lot.

MR: It's cheaper in Europe.

THC: That's not what I mean. Smoke enough of anything and you're going to damage your lungs. So what else is new?

MR: What do you recommend?

THC: Brownies.

MR: What about that "potentially irreversible brain damage"?

THC: Majoun is nice, too. And in spaghetti, you get a little nutrition.

MR: I could have you metabolized, you know.

THC: Brain damage. The question is, how do you measure subtle brain damage?

MR: Oh, several ways. Intelligence tests, obviously. Electrical measurements, to some extent. Even X-rays.

THC: And?

MR: Kolansky and Moore at Philadelphia found, in a study of 13 chronic users, a condition they called "amotivational syndrome" — apathy, sluggishness, goallessness; a "flattening of affect" that gave a false impression of calm and well-being. They were physically thin, showed symptoms of mental confusion, slowed time sense, difficulty with recent memory and an incapability of completing thoughts during verbal communication. It was primarily that study that led Senator James Eastland's Internal Security Subcommittee to conclude, early last year, that "if the cannabis epidemic continues to spread ... we may find ourselves saddled with a large population of semizombies ..."

THC: That's okay. We can send them to Congress.

MR: I beg your pardon?

THC: All this chicken-and-egg reasoning sounds like primary mental confusion to me.

MR: I thought we'd already agreed about chickens.

THC: I mean, inherently passive people may be drawn to dope smoking, or the dope culture may induce passivity; a study like that is simply not enough to pin blame on the drug itself. As for mental confusion, slowed time sense, recent memory loss, etc., that's what you'll probably find in most any sample of steady dopers. That's really sort of the point. Nobody's going to deny that the drug gets you stoned. But the rest is pretty subjective—"amotivational syndrome." The subjects in Jamaica indicated that they smoked ganja in part to relieve fatigue while working in the cane fields.

MR: What about the air encephalograms done in London? It's a kind of X-ray wherein air is injected into the brain cavity. The X-rayed brains of ten young cannabis users were described as apparently atrophied as compared to the brains of ten nonusers. THC: Not a good study. The researcher failed to specify whether his subjects were using other drugs—particularly the vasoconstrictive ones like amphetamines. And the process of air encephalography is itself sufficiently painful and hazardous that no one has tried to duplicate the experiment. Sounds to me like the fellow was out to prove a point. MR: So you're not impressed with the brain damage evidence?

THC: Some of it, frankly, makes one wonder about the researchers's brains.

MR: Don't be snide.

THC: I'm trying to be honest.

MR: So what's your honest opinion of the hazards of dope?

THC: In all, I'd say the evidence simply isn't sufficient to make any occasional smoker stop for fear of his health. The cannabis smoker who's up to a pack-and-a-half per day should probably consider cutting down. If he can remember, by now.

Cannabis is not mother's milk. But then neither are aspirin, birth control pills, Jack Daniel's are and, among certain allergic infants, mother's milk. No drug is without side effects. One accepts the risks when the benefits outweigh the dangers. It's a relatively easy decision to make in the case, say, of an antibiotic. It's far harder when it comes to a recreational drug, and then it's ultimately a personal value judgment. Clearly, whether marijuana had anything to do with his condition or not, the impotent subject in the testosterone study—the one who refused to stop smoking—knew what he wanted. Would that we all had our priorities so well established.

MR: Would that we did. You've been very helpful.

THC: My pleasure.

MR: Thanks for your time.

THC: My time is your time. Just one question: Is there a way I can get out of here without going through the liver?