The gradual legalisation of cannabis products has led to a massive alternative ‘health’ scam industry.

The movement to legalise marijuana has internalised some classic tropes that, though misleading or false, are very popular.

It is often cast as the fight for the right to use something that is not only harmless, but actually good for you, against powerful moneyed interests represented by controlling governments, who want to suppress that thing for ulterior motives (usually money).

Alternative medicine

The entire alternative medicine industry is based on such tropes.

No matter what quackery you look at, you’ll always come across conspiracy theories claiming that governments and the pharmaceutical industry, which are functionally indistinguishable in these scenarios, actively suppress the people’s knowledge because they have a vested interest in keeping people sick and in need of buying the overpriced products of conventional medicine.

The great irony is that to keep healthy and not in need of buying the medical industry’s overpriced products, you are then told to buy the alternative health industry’s overpriced products, instead. Not just once, or for a short course, as with real medicine, but daily, as a ‘health supplement’.

If the profit motive corrupts, as the alternative quacks claim about conventional medicine, then why doesn’t it corrupt the alternative medicine industry?

They’ll often argue that the pharmaceutical industry shuns this or that herbal remedy because ‘they can’t profit from it’, or ‘they can’t patent it’.

This same supposedly greedy pharmaceutical industry sells you non-patented paracetamol for about 5 South African cents per dose, or the herbal remedy aspirin for a similarly low price.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, to see a close alignment between those who seek to legalise marijuana, and the alternative health types who claim it has great curative properties.

Libertarian boomers

The original cannabis legalisation crowd were libertarian boomers.

The smarter sort shied away from controversial scientific claims and simply said that the government has no business legislating what people put into their bodies, provided they do not harm anyone else by doing so.

This would be a stand on libertarian principle. It’s certainly a stand on which I can agree.

They might argue that the war on drugs has achieved little other than to enrich criminal cartels and create a vast new underclass of incarcerated people, and that this is inexcusable for a drug as mild as weed.

They would have pointed out that prohibition, as a policy, hardly ever succeeds but does create black markets that enrich organised crime syndicates, endanger the safety of consumers, and raise the prices of the product.

This is a more utilitarian stand, but it also has merit.

Soon, however, people began to argue that pot didn’t harm the hippy generation (which is debatable), is less harmful than alcohol (which is likely true), and has great medical benefits (which is highly questionable).

Marijuana smoking

Smoking weed certainly is not harmless.

For a start, smoking any vegetable matter is a major cause of lung and cardiovascular disease. Marijuana is no better than tobacco in this regard.

In fact, it is worse. Smoking marijuana is associated with a nearly five times the blood level of carbon monoxide, a three-fold increase in the amount of tar inhaled, and retention in the respiratory tract of one third more inhaled tar.

Tobacco is typically smoked more frequently and in larger quantities, and could be proportionally more harmful as a result, but the smoke of any plant matter can cause cancer and other serious diseases.

As a psychoactive substance, marijuana is also not harmless. Over 90% of the reviews in this 2018 overview found evidence of harm for several mental health disorders, brain changes, cognitive outcomes, pregnancy outcomes and testicular cancer. Not to mention impaired coordination while driving or operating machinery.

Some of these harms would also accrue if the substance is ingested instead of inhaled.

Being a pot-head – slow and dull-witted – is a thing. So are the symptoms of anxiety, paranoia and even psychosis that marijuana can cause.

That doesn’t mean that it ought to be banned, of course. Alcohol also has significant risks, especially when used regularly and in larger quantities. A lot of things that are enjoyable to eat, drink or do, have risks. We trade off danger against pleasure all the time.

That also doesn’t mean that the occasional joint is a terrible thing. For many people, it is quite pleasant, and in moderation, not particularly dangerous.

But marijuana is certainly not without risks. Claiming otherwise is straight-up dishonest.

Untested drug

Yet not only do many enthusiastic legalisation advocates minimise the risks of cannabis, they also use so-called ‘medical marijuana’ as a wedge to pry open the doors to full legalisation.

The notion of medical marijuana is controversial, at best. There is very limited data to support the use of marijuana for the indications for which it is usually prescribed or recommended.

The only conditions for which randomised placebo-controlled clinical trials have shown a modest effect are for wasting in HIV/Aids patients, and for nausea associated with chemotherapy. In both cases, the cannabis acts as an appetite stimulant. The FDA has approved two drugs (Dronabinol and Nabilone) for these purposes.

High-quality literature reviews have found insufficient evidence for the efficacy of marijuana for any other condition, including chronic pain, rheumatoid arthritis, dementia, ataxia, or tremor in multiple sclerosis.

What’s worse is that marijuana is produced and consumed unlike any other drug. There is no other drug that is routinely smoked because, well, smoking is a particularly hazardous means of administering anything.

The active ingredients of ‘medical’ marijuana are rarely isolated, which means it usually contains many other chemical compounds that can cause unwanted effects.

There are no protocols for determining an appropriate dose: sufficient to be effective, and not so much that the side-effects overwhelm the desired therapeutic benefits.

Marijuana doesn’t undergo the sort of rigorous clinical trials to establish efficacy and safety that all other drug are required to undergo. There have been no attempts to evaluate whether the side-effects merit the claimed therapeutic effects.

Marijuana is a largely untested drug, taken by the kind of people who in most other circumstances would express horror at the idea of insufficiently rigorous testing of commercially available medicines.

The biggest scam

The biggest scam associated with cannabis legalisation, however, is the rise of the cannabidiol (CBD) industry.

CBD is one of 113 identified cannabinoids in the marijuana plant, of which tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the one that causes psychoactive effects.

There is only one registered drug based on CBD, called Epidiolex, which is indicated for the treatment of seizures in three specific types of epilepsy.

Yet a bewildering array of CBD tinctures, tonics, pills, drops, oils, spritzes, creams, lotions, vaping liquids, beverages, gummies, and ointments have been produced, all with the promise – often quite literally – that it is a magical healing potion for pain, insomnia and a wide assortment of other conditions.

Since THC is typically the compound that is prohibited by anti-marijuana laws, CBD products have proliferated around the world. The global market was estimated at $3 billion in 2021 and is anticipated to reach $60 billion by 2030.

CBD products command premium prices. While a typical acqueous cream might cost R10 per 100ml, and a typical body lotion might cost R20 for the same amount, an equivalent product containing CBD can retail for R500 or more per 100ml.

Given that CBD can be extracted very cheaply from the discards of marijuana plants, after the psychoactive THC bits have been sold, its high price makes it extraordinarily profitable to sell.

CBD is usually recommended for the treatment of chronic pain, but there is no evidence that it works, at all. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that it doesn’t work.

To make matters worse, just like with marijuana products in general, you rarely know what you get. CBD products tend to contain very little actual CBD. Dosages are rarely indicated, and if they are, are often not accurate.

CBD products are frequently contaminated with other chemicals, some of which may be harmful or have unwanted side-effects. CBD has also been linked to an increased risk of liver toxicity.

But mostly, CBD is just a placebo. It is a con, widely used to part the gullible from their money.

Legalise it

Marijuana and cannabis-related products should absolutely be legal. One doesn’t need to make extraordinary claims about ‘magical’ (or even just ordinary) healing properties, to make the case for legalisation.

However, if you’re going to buy medicine, it would be prudent to buy products that have been tested and regulated like medicines. That is the only way to know whether a drug is effective and safe, and to judge whether the therapeutic benefit is worth the anticipated side-effects.

When there is evidence for efficacy, the pharmaceutical industry will happily produce drugs like Dronabinol, Nabilone and Epidiolex. There’s no conspiracy to keep ‘magical healing herbs’ from the long-suffering public.

There is, however, a widespread scheme to exploit the public by selling them expensive ‘magical healing herbs’ that don’t actually heal anything.

Don’t be fooled by the innocent hippy-friendly packaging of CBD products. They’re a scam.

[Photo: CBD.webp – A variety of CBD products. Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich. Used under Creative Commons licence.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR.

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Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.