The latest research has turned the “daily dose of aspirin” mantra on its head. It’s like fat is bad, now fat is good. Who are we supposed to believe?
Three new studies cast serious doubt on an established medical truism: a daily low dose of aspirin decreases the risk of heart attacks in adults. It’s something we’ve all heard from doctors, so much so that it practically became rote. But, the newest findings suggest aspirin doesn’t offer any cardiovascular benefit to healthy, older adults. And daily intake may even increase the risk of death. Death to cancer, that is. Why? We don’t know.
But doesn’t aspirin prevent cancer? It’s true that studies have shown that it can. Colorectal cancer, specifically. Why? Again, we don’t know. So, why should we listen to doctors or scientists when new research seems to always prove them wrong?
What’s This Got to Do with Cannabis?
After years of pushing aspirin on us only to discover aspirin could be killing us, it’s natural to lose trust in scientific institutions. How many people prematurely died because they put their faith in doctors – and in medical science – which told them to take aspirin every day?
And are we doing this with cannabis now, too?
I would caution that our zealousness for legalization could undermine our movement’s credibility. Cannabis activists say things like, “Cannabis cures cancer” or “Cannabis can replace any pharmaceutical” when those claims are wholly inaccurate.
Cannabis advocates have always had a love-hate relationship with the sciences. The hate part stems from the abuse of institutional science, which spread lies about cannabis for decades. But we love science, too, because solid research can refute our opponents’ prohibitionist claims.
However, science works both ways. Sometimes research will discover things about cannabis we don’t want to hear. We can’t cherry-pick the findings. We must take the bad with the good. All evidence must be accounted for if we’re going to make the best decisions. Even then, we may still get it wrong.
When folks talk about cannabis, they tend to discuss the same health topics: Cancer. HIV. Pain management. Mood stabilization. Sedation. We rarely discuss cardiovascular issues, even though it’s one of the leading causes of death in the U.S.
The science here is still new, but components of cannabis may protect our cardiovascular systems. This year, the American Heart Association Journals published a review that investigated how cannabinoids, both those from the plant and those produced by our own bodies, could treat cardiovascular disease.
But rat studies suffer an inherent flaw: we aren’t rats. What may work for rats may not translate to humans. So, let’s look at a real-world, human-based study.
In July, a paper in The American Journal of Cardiology analyzed the rate of atrial fibrillation (chronically irregular heartbeat) in cannabis users and non-users. Atrial fibrillation is an indicator for a heart attack later in life. It found that cannabis users were less likely to have atrial fibrillation than non-users. The percent difference? 2.3 percent.
We might conclude that cannabis, indeed, helps our cardiovascular health. Just ask movie director and pot aficionado Kevin Smith, who claims smoking a joint saved his life during a heart attack.
But don’t get too excited.
One way we study the effects of cannabis on populations is by following trends in medical cannabis states. When a state “goes medical,” we can track all kinds of data by comparing the medical states to prohibition states. One of the more well-known state-by-state trends: as states adopt medical cannabis, those states experience a 14 percent reduction in opioid use. Conclusion? Many patients prefer cannabis to opioids and will reduce or cease taking prescription painkillers if weed is a legal option. Potentially, cannabis could help curb the opioid epidemic.
Now what if I told you that same research approach – following trends in states that go medical – tells us that cannabis increases the rate of cardiovascular-linked deaths? Hogwash, you say!
I hate to break it to you, but a March study in the International Journal of Drug Policy found just that. On average, once states go medical, they see a 2.3 percent increase in the cardiac death rate for men. Women have it a little better, with a 1.3 percent increase, if that could be called “better.”
I know what you’re probably thinking. “A 2.3 percent increase isn’t that much,” right? Recall The American Journal of Cardiology study above, the one that said cannabis users have a lower risk of atrial fibrillation. The difference there was 2.3 percent there, too.
Did you find yourself embracing the results of the cannabis-is-good-for-us study while immediately questioning the results from the one that said cannabis increased our chances of having heart attacks?
That’s the cherry-picking, confirmation-bias stuff I was talking about earlier.
To Err is to Be Human
Don’t fret too much. Scientists, being human, also tend to cherry-pick. They’re not immune from confirmation bias.
The point I’m getting at isn’t that cannabis is bad for our hearts or that cannabis can cure heart disease. What I’m getting at is that science is a process. It takes time for studies to be designed, executed, and assessed. Once a study is completed, it can take years for researchers to come up with a new way to improve on the older studies, to account for previously unaccounted variables or to implement tighter controls. Along the way, our technology advances, giving us more insight into the physical world. Sometimes those insights overturn old ideas or perceptions.
Too often we’re quick to place our faith in scientists or doctors when, honestly, they’re still figuring it all out as well.
Aspirin has been with us since 1899, and we just learned that it’s probably not good for healthy, older adults to take it every day. Cannabis, on the other hand, has been with us since the first civilizations were born. But restrictions on research imposed by prohibitionist governments have crippled our understanding of this plant.
It’s going to take decades before we really begin forming solid scientific consensuses around cannabis. Anecdotes, case studies, and personal testimonies regarding medical cannabis have gotten us incredibly far, but not far enough. Only rigorous research can tell us how cannabis may be good or bad for us.
Until then, we should remain skeptical. We should question everything, whether it agrees with our beliefs or challenges them.
We should feel comfortable telling our allies and our opponents, “We don’t know.”