Going to pot

Light is Right Joe Campbell

Light is Right Joe Campbell

Oh, I know it can be addictive, especially if you start using it in your teens. But it’s also medicinal. Among other benefits, a compound it contains may reduce anxiety, ease symptoms of schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease, and prevent weight gain. Nevertheless, it’s still under a stigma.

I’m not talking about marijuana. I’m talking about tobacco. After learning of its healing properties from indigenous Americans, many Europeans considered tobacco a panacea. They or the Amerindians used it to treat conditions ranging from hemorrhoids to head lice.

Little wonder some called tobacco the holy herb. Not only did they treat diseases with it, they tried to ward them off with the smoke it produces. Why, during London’s bubonic plague, they instructed children to light up in school.

Even in the 20th century, tobacco’s therapeutic use did not entirely cease. In 1924, for example, burned tobacco leaves were part of an antiseptic for ringworm and athlete’s foot. Nevertheless, despite Canada’s early 20th century polio plagues, our teachers refused to let us smoke in school. They didn’t even let us light up in the playground.

If I’d had an inkling of tobacco’s medicinal history, I might have concluded that they were more worried about smoking stunting our growth than polio shortening our lives. Stunting the growth of minors was the only risk that adults mentioned when they caught me smoking. Wasn’t that clever of them? Already full grown, they were obviously exempt from the warning. Without putting themselves at risk or giving me bad example, they could smoke as much as they liked.

And they did. Although waning medicinally, tobacco waxed recreationally. Not only was smoking enjoyable, it was also debonair, suave and sophisticated.

But what doctors giveth, doctors taketh away. Without their early enthusiasm for new herbal remedies, smoking might never have caught on in Europe and elsewhere. Without their later dedication to controlling disease, the World Health Organization might not have condemned tobacco as the single greatest cause of preventable death.

From panacea to major risk factor for cancer, emphysema, heart attacks and strokes is a 180-degree turn. But we’re getting used to U-turns in the medical and other sciences. Why, we barely questioned the rehabilitation of saturated fats in the foods we eat, the denigration of red wine in the beverages we drink, and the switch from cooling to warming in the global climate predictions we endure.

Thanks to American researchers, tobacco may even make a full-circle turn, though not via smoking. The researchers found that its leaves contain cembranoids, which act against cancer. I wonder what the World Health Organization makes of that.

But nicotine, the best-known ingredient in tobacco, is also therapeutic. Nicotine is the compound that I earlier noted may successfully treat weight gain, anxiety and symptoms of neurological disorders. It may also reduce post-surgical pain and the risk of ulcerative colitis.

Whereas tobacco has gone from panacea to pariah, marijuana appears to be going from pariah to panacea. Well, at least in the minds of some cannabis enthusiasts. The low point for marijuana was the early twentieth century, when governments criminalized it, not for scientific, but for political, reasons. Before that, doctors prescribed cannabis extracts for medicinal purposes and druggists filled the prescriptions.

Like nicotine, chemicals that cannabis produces may successfully treat weight gain, anxiety, and symptoms of neurological disorders. They may also relieve eye pressure in patients with glaucoma, help control epileptic seizures, reduce inflammation, and counteract nausea.

Like tobacco, though, cannabis contains chemicals that are risky. They may impair concentration, reaction time and coordination, and cause paranoia. Just as different compounds in tobacco may be pro-or anti-cancer, different ingredients in cannabis may be pro-or anti-schizophrenia.

What’s more, cannabis may be especially toxic to our developing brains, which current research indicates don’t reach maturity until around age 25. This is of major concern to the Canadian Pediatric Society. Among the potential effects of cannabis on children and youth, a CPS position paper cites impaired neurological development, cognitive decline, and diminished school performance and lifetime achievement. Oh, and cannabis may increase the risk of young people taking up more serious drugs, like tobacco.

Tobacco and marijuana are herbal paradoxes. But if they can harm as well as heal, it makes no sense to use their chemically ambiguous herbal parts for medicinal purposes. Rather, it makes sense to use their chemically focused herbal extracts. That is, where possible, it makes sense to isolate and use the healing chemicals and leave the harmful ones behind.

True, some compounds are themselves medicinally ambiguous and, depending on the dosage, may heal or harm. But that’s how it is with most drugs and why we administer them cautiously.

Medicinal use is one thing. Recreational use is something else. Before we smoke, ingest or otherwise use them for fun, maybe we should consider plants guilty until proven innocent. Unless, with other herbs, we want to risk what we’re going through with tobacco.

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