Dr. Oz Brings Reefer Madness Back to Daytime Television

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December 6, 2013 - By Amanda Reiman

This week, Dr. Oz had a segment on his show about cannabis, asking the question, is it addictive?

However, in an effort to get to the answer, the doctor created a circus of images and animations, and very little actual talk about science and outcomes. But, what else can we expect from daytime TV? Dr. Oz showed his allegiance to propaganda by continuing to ask questions that we have answers to: Is long term cannabis use harmful? Is cannabis addictive? Is cannabis a gateway drug? Is long-term cannabis use harmful?

To illustrate this point, Dr. Oz presented animated pictures of the lungs and brain as proof of long term harms, however, a 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined a sample of over 5000 adults over 20 years and assessed the impact of smoking cannabis on lung functioning.

The authors concluded, “Occasional and low cumulative cannabis use was not associated with adverse effects on pulmonary function.” Furthermore, Dr. Oz failed to mention the many alternatives to smoking cannabis, alternatives that will become more widely available under regulation rather than prohibition.

Is cannabis addictive? According to Dr. Paula Riggs, who appeared on the Dr. Oz show as the voice of warning around cannabis, about 1 in 11 regular cannabis users will experience symptoms of addiction, namely, withdrawals and a persistent desire to use despite negatives life outcomes.

The other guest was neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart who astutely asked the audience, “How many of you do caffeine?” Indeed, most of the audience applauded. He then asked, what would happen if you did not use it? You would get a headache. The point is, physical dependence on a substance is common in our society, and we accept it.

Physical dependence on sugar, caffeine, nicotine, Ambien, Vicodin is considered part of life for adults who choose to or need to consume these substances. We accept the chance of addiction as a risk we are willing to take to enjoy coffee, or find pain relief from Vicodin. Dr. Hart framed it perfectly when he said that ANY activity that prevents someone from living their life to its fullest can be of concern, chemical or not.

Is cannabis a gateway drug? Here is what we know: yes, most people who try heroin have tried cannabis previously. This is NOT because cannabis use makes you want to try heroin. It’s because cannabis is more readily available and socially acceptable. Most people who try heroin have also tried alcohol, caffeine and nicotine.

And, as Dr. Oz himself stated, there are 19 million Americans who use cannabis on a regular basis, so why is the number of those who use heroin so much lower? In 2012, about 335,000 people reported heroin use in the past month.

Dr. Oz seemed to think that cannabis use inevitably leads to harder drug use, and, his attempt to present the brain of an older person with a history of harder drug use as a certainty for “young innocent” cannabis users was just plain bizarre.

Dr. Oz presented this information in usual dramatic style and then closed with the argument that pervades rational discussion of cannabis regulation: the children. Framing cannabis as a neurotoxic agent destroying adolescent brains is a common framework for prohibitionists to rail against cannabis regulation.

But, here’s the rub. No one in the movement to end cannabis prohibition supports use by young people, unless under the close care of a doctor. And, most of us in this movement believe that heavy cannabis use by minors is an indicator of deeper issues.

We also know that, under prohibition, cannabis is easily obtained by young people with little oversight. Under cannabis regulation, young people must show proof of age to obtain it, and money from tax revenue goes to youth education and prevention. Quite plainly Dr. Oz, if you want to keep cannabis out of the hands of young people, as most of us do, the answer is regulation, NOT prohibition.

As society continues to evolve on this issue, we will likely see more mainstream characters examine these changing policies. As an public much more informed than those in the 1930’s, it is up to us to prevent the propaganda from stalling progress and to share our experiences and voices, and if you read the comments on the Dr. Oz web page on this issue, you will see that we have found the antidote for reefer madness: truth, experience, science and platform.

Amanda Reiman is the California policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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