By Ellen Wilfley
Anxiety in the United States is on the rise. In the last several decades, study after study has shown dramatic increases in both the number of Americans with anxiety disorders and the number of anti-anxiety prescriptions being filled.
According to a national epidemiological survey of alcohol and related conditions published in 2011, a stunning 27 million people in the United States may suffer from some form of anxiety disorder. That makes me anxious!
You know who’s not as anxious? Stoners.
Recent research has shown why. By isolating and testing the various compounds in cannabis that trigger different receptors in the body, scientists at Arizona State University have determined that one particular cannabinoid (a type of organic molecule found in cannabis) causes rodents to be resistant to anxiety.
This cannabinoid, once isolated from the others in the plant, exhibits none of the psychoactive and potentially habit-forming properties for which marijuana is known and exploited, according to a report by the ASU and Barrow Neurological Institute researchers.
This is indeed promising research with the potential to yield safe and effective pharmaceutical alternatives to the current line of anti-anxiety drug therapies, which are largely ineffective, addictive or intolerable due to their side effects.
Unfortunately, researchers cannot proceed with trials because marijuana—a naturally occurring plant, mind you—is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States and is therefore illegal to cultivate or possess for any purpose.
“Controversy surrounding this plant in the United States has been the largest factor limiting the scope of research surrounding botanical cannabinoids,” write Harrison Stratton and Jie Wu in their study.
Just last month, a majority of California voters said in a Field Poll that they felt marijuana should be legalized. In the Bay Area, seven of ten people backed legalization. I agree.
Opponents of legalization fear that legalizing marijuana will lead to an increase in abuse of or dependence on the substance.
At first this appears a legitimate concern, since studies such as the National Survey of Drug Use and Health show an increase in use of marijuana in states where it has been decriminalized or legalized.
However, a closer look at these same statistics reveals these fears to be unsubstantiated. Use did go up, but researchers found no relative increase in abuse or dependence.
Many other arguments in favor of marijuana legalization have been made: renewable hemp resources, taxation revenue for our indebted nation, increased consumer safety from regulation of the drug, savings from decrease in criminal prosecution and incarceration costs, as well as a potential decrease in violent crime associated with the illegal drug trade.
These are all good reasons to consider legalizing marijuana, but isn’t the mental health of our country a better one? What about our physical health?
Anxiety is a risk factor for many life-threatening diseases. The 2002 national epidemiological survey reported that people with anxiety disorders exhibited, as compared to individuals not experiencing anxiety, statistically significant higher rates of hypertension, heart disease, stomach ulcers, gastritis and arthritis – and other psychiatric disorders.
Equally concerning are the survey’s findings regarding overall quality of life. People living with anxiety scored appreciably lower in all areas of a quality-of-life interview that included both physical and mental components. And yet our ability to treat these insidious disorders remains woefully inadequate.
While schizophrenics make news for violent crimes, and suicides call deserved attention to those enduring major depression and bipolar disorder, it seems tragic that such a large group of people—indeed, a growing group of people—could be left to suffer in silent shame.
With “Obamacare” promising an age of improved equality in healthcare, it seems an opportune time to examine the threat of anxiety disorders and our inadequate support for the development of new treatments.
As a country we should ask ourselves if fear or acceptance is the way to advancement. The answer should be clear, as should our course of action. Legalize, regulate, tax, and let science flourish!
Ellen Wilfley is a senior at Santa Clara University studying biochemistry. SCU sophomore Sarah Ebbott contributed editing to this story.