Science is hard. It takes can often years, tens of thousands of working hours and millions of dollars to research an issue thoroughly. Sometimes, the results are multifaceted, contradictory or difficult to interpret, and research goes on. Thus, it is no wonder that misinformation is incredibly potent. It plays on hopes and fears and offers easy and emotionally comforting answers to complex issues.
One such issue is the health and harms of cannabis, which outside the scientific community involves a struggle between two opposing ideological groups. On one side are the drug war zealots who refuses to listen to any constructive suggestions on how prevent people from abusing drugs, have very little interest in helping those who need it and better combat the networks that supply them. On the other side are the cannabis apologists who claim cannabis is more or less harmless, works as a fantastic miracle cure for almost anything and promote various batshit conspiracy theories about pharmaceutical companies. Both of these groups are profoundly mistaken and are really just two different manifestations of the same underlying problem: refusing to take evidence seriously, especially when it contradicts their beliefs.
What did Danny Saucedo claim about cannabis?
The Swedish left-wing tabloid Aftonbladet published a large interview with Saucedo on February 14 that touched on many issues from his successful floor show, his participation in a celebrity reality show, taking flight lessons and his dreams of becoming a father. In other words, in many ways a standard celebrity interview (Jung, 2017).
However, the issue of cannabis also came up after new court cases letting two individuals use cannabis for medical purposes. Here is what he said about cannabis (my translation):
If Saucedo wants to argue for political policy such as cannabis legalization, he is free to do so. However, when he falsely claim that cannabis can treat or cure depression, anorexia and cancer, he crosses the line.
What does the science say?
Recently, a report on the benefits and harms of cannabis was published by the National Academy Press. The title of the report was “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research” and it was written by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. It is over 400 pages long and therefore is probably one the largest and most thorough review of the scientific evidence for the benefits and harms on cannabis ever put together (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017).
Let us go over each claim and see what the review says about it. The easiest way to get a good overview is to read the report conclusions starting on page S-10.
Pain: there is substantial or conclusive evidence that cannabis is effective against chronic pain in adults (p. S-10). However, this does not mean that it can heal or cure chronic pain. It is a pain management strategy.
Depression: the report states that there is limited evidence available that show that cannabis drugs are not effective for treating depressive symptoms associated with MS or chronic pain (p. S-10). The report also points out that there is a statistical association for a small increased risk of developing depression, suicidal thoughts and suicide as well as more mania and hypomania in people who are bipolar (p. S-14). Saucedo is therefore completely wrong in his claim that cannabis can “heal” depression. These negative statistical associations cannot be naively interpreted as causal, but they do contradict the opposing claim that it is effective.
Cancer: on the issue of cannabis as an alleged treatment for cancer, the report clearly states that there is no credible evidence that cannabinoids can cure or treat cancer (p. S-10). Saucedo has bought into the propaganda spread by cannabis apologists hook, line and sinker.
Anorexia nervosa: first of all, people with anorexia nervosa does not primarily have a problem with loss of appetite, it is an eating disorder that involves starving yourself to lose weight. The report states that there is no evidence that cannabinoids are effective against anorexia nervosa (p. S-10). Before fanatical fans of Saucedo tell me that there is a difference between anorexia as a general loss of appetite and anorexia nervosa as an eating disorder, you should know that he used the Swedish word “anorexia” and not “anorexi”. The former is the eating disorder. He clearly mean that he thinks cannabis effectively treats the eating disorder.
The intellectual responsibility of celebrities
As a beloved celebrity, Danny Saucedo has ability to use his influential powers for good or for evil. He can use them to call attention to important injustices in the world and spread valuable knowledge. However, he also has to ability to use his powers for great evil: exploiting vulnerable people and spreading factually false claims to millions of people. Saucedo should be free to advocate for cannabis legalization if he wants to, but it is not acceptable to spread dangerous myths about cannabis as a miracle cure. In particular, it is not remotely defensible to try to convince people with severe mental health problems that cannabis will cure or treat them when the evidence is either non-existent or contradicts the claim.
The intellectual responsibility of tabloids
We have in many ways become accustomed to tabloids spewing pseudoscientific garbage for sales and clicks. However, I do not think we should accept this as an unchangeable thing that is set in stone. We, as consumers, should demand more of our newspapers. They should stop publishing nonsense, stop using journalistic false balance on scientific issues that are sufficiently clear, reject clickbait “journalism” and demand high-quality content.
However, we must also grudgingly accept that there are differences of degrees in hell, even among tabloids. Aftonbladet did at least not let the nonsense pushed by Saucedo stand completely unopposed. In a separate article, they asked a clinical investigator named Karl-Mikael Kälkner at the Swedish Medical Products Agency to comment. Kälkner said that “to claim that anorexia nervosa can be treated with cannabis sounds very lacking in nuance” and “but to draw conclusions from [studies showing that cannabis can help cancer patients get improved appetite]” to discuss a mental illness is not relevant. It sounds like one has read or seen some study and referenced it, but have not critically reviewed how the study was done.”
Mainstream media, including tabloids, must realize that they have a vital role to play in enabling misinformation. It is time for that enabling to stop and for mainstream media to become an ally, not an enemy, in the fight against nonsense.
References and further reading
Meijer, J. (2017). Experten om Danny Saucedos cannabis-uttalande: “Onyanserat” (cache | cache). Aftonbladet. Accessed: 2017-02-14.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.