Earlier this month, two Australian researchers experienced their fifteen minutes of fame. They did so with some eye-catching headlines, linking cannabis to heritable DNA changes. But, are these claims actually true? Leading cannabis researcher Dr. Ethan Russo has some thoughts. Here’s how the ‘cannabis damages DNA; claims have been debunked.
The ‘cannabis damages DNA’ claims
Last week, some scary headlines were making their way around the internet. The claims? Cannabis causes DNA changes that can be passed onto children. The research behind these statements came from the University of Western Australia.
Two scientists, Albert Stewart Reece, and Gary Kenneth Hulse, reviewed a collection of articles on cannabis and addiction-related cancers. Their published research is a literature review. They did not actually perform any study to put their claims to the test. Rather, their argument attempted to draw connections between research done in the past.
Reece and Hulse came out with some shocking claims. The two linked these DNA changes to cancers in children. One of them even went as far as saying:
The worst cancers are reported in the first few years of life in children exposed in utero to cannabis effects. – Reece
Fortunately, neuroscientist and psychopharmacology researcher Dr. Ethan Russo put this study in its place. Russo is the former Senior Medical Advisor for GW Pharmaceuticals, the founding editor of the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics, and is now the medical director for Phytecs. His CV is an impressive 17 pages long.
Russo’s research has changed the cannabis landscape for generations to come. Needless to say, he had a very wise response to Reece and Hulse’s newly published “research”.
DNA damage debunked
After the Reese-Hulse article came out, the Eastbay Express decided to do a little investigating. They contacted Dr. Russo for comment. Perhaps needless to say, he dropped a huge education-bomb on the article in question. Russo explains:
This report is based on a foundation of falsehoods. Cannabis is not mutagenic (productive of mutations in DNA), nor is it teratogenic (productive of birth defects) or carcinogenic (causative of cancer). Countless animal studies and human epidemiological studies support its relative safety in this regard. – Russo
Coming from someone who has been studying cannabis and medicinal plants for over 20 years, this is pretty damning. Yet, he had more to say:
It is high time to move beyond reefer madness and acknowledge the utility and safety of cannabis-based for the advancement of the public health. – Russo
Russo also mentions that the literature review failed to distinguish between those who are prone to drug abuse and those using a low-dose substance for the therapeutic treatment of a medical condition. Reece and Hulse also fail to point out how they evaluated other factors which may have influenced the results of their research.
Other factors to be wary of include diet, exposure to environmental pollutants, stress, socioeconomic status, and additional drug use.
There’s something else we need to look at when evaluating this research. The conclusions from the Reese-Hulse literature review drew significantly from epigenetics. Epigenetics is an emerging field of science that has linked non-genetic, environmental and experiential factors to changes in DNA.
Prior to epigenetics, it was often thought that DNA was influenced by genetics over environment and experience. Epigenetics has debunked this idea. Epigenetic changes are real and important, but this kind of research has a major flaw. Pretty much everything has an influence on DNA.
Diet, stress, exercise, and other environmental factors can cause DNA changes. For example, if you experience a lot of stress during pregnancy, your baby is more likely to be sensitive to stress and anxiety.
If either men or women eat too much junk food prior to conception, there is research that shows that your baby has a high chance of developing obesity and metabolic disorders. Sun damage and other free radicals floating around in the air also influence DNA.
What else is to blame?
Here’s an even more disturbing idea. Additional research has found that fairly large quantities of environmental pollutants and chemicals are passed along to infants via breastmilk. All of those harsh household cleaners, industrial chemicals, and carcinogens in car exhaust? Turns out, components of these types of substances are stored in the fatty tissue in breasts.
Studies which have actually conducted scientific research on the subject have found that these carcinogens build up in newborn infants.
Dr. Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard explains that a particular class of cancer-causing and immune-dysregulating industrial chemicals build up in babies at a rate of 20 to 30 percent for every month that it is breastfed. The chemicals he measured are known as perfluorinated alkylate substances (PFASs).
There is no reason to discourage breastfeeding, but we are concerned that these pollutants are transferred to the next generation at a very vulnerable age. Unfortunately, the current U.S. legislation does not require any testing of chemical substances like PFASs for their transfer to babies and any related adverse effects. – Grandjean
A little perspective
The reason for bringing this all up? It’s time to put things into perspective. We live in a world where we’re bombarded with toxins, unnatural medications, and chemicals on a daily basis. It’s absurd to pick out one plant and use it as a scapegoat for our most mysterious and devastating illnesses.
Why aren’t studies linking the excessive use of household chemical cleaners and asthma taking the limelight? Where is the research on DNA changes caused by constant exposure to industrial chemicals or the hormone-like molecules secreted by plastics?
Eliminating the damage caused by free-radicals is one of the reasons cannabis is so awesome. The herb is a powerful antioxidant, meaning that it reduces the harms of negative environmental factors. We’re living a life dominated by a boom in chemical production.
We need resources that can help ease some of the consequences of modern life. Cannabis is one of them.
What do you think about the Reese-Hulse study? Share your ideas with us on social media or in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!