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Like at most typical college campuses, here at Penn there are few students who haven’t heard of Cheech and Chong. So it came as no surprise that the majority of students I asked said they were in favor of legalizing pot. When the discussion moved toward the use of medicinal marijuana, the same students said they were pro-that, too.

But it frustrates me that students are backing the use of medicinal marijuana without a basic understanding of the science behind the drug.

Students think that being pro-marijuana also means being pro-medicinal marijuana, when it doesn’t. They don’t seem to understand that the legalization of pot and approving the drug for medicinal use really aren’t part of the same discussion at all.

Evelyn Wiener, director of Student Health Service, agreed and encouraged students “to try to separate the medical versus the recreational aspects of this” debate before backing either side.

With a topic as controversial as this one, it is always tempting to stray from evidence-based science — centered on fact, experimentation and scientific analysis — and focus on belief-based science — centered around personal judgment and intuitions.

But unless you’re willing to take a blind leap of faith (maybe it’ll help to pray to a cross-joint), belief-based science will get you nowhere.

So, let’s get down to this. What’s the “true science” behind pot?

Well the facts are in, circa the early 1990s. The active ingredient in marijuana, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), mimics the action of endocannabinoids, a chemical naturally found in the brain and body. Both THC and endocannabinoids bind to abundant receptors found all over the body — and modify tons of different processes.

Researchers want to harness what you may experience as the munchies, comfort and euphoria in order to help people in need.

Since the 1990s, there have been tons of studies that have shown pot can have therapeutic benefits in certain populations of patients. Wiener explains that “there are some patients where it is specifically seen to provide relief where other ‘conventional’ remedies are ineffective.”

Look at the most recent randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled research studies (really the only kind of study I have much trust in) and you see some strong support that marijuana works in treating chronic pain, nausea and wasting when other medicines fail.

Even today’s doctors are receptive, albeit wary, of the possibilities of medicinal marijuana.

According to Wiener, medicinal marijuana “is becoming more and more accepted,” in the medical community. “It has the same degree of acceptance as many other treatments that can be viewed as alternative or complimentary,” like acupuncture and homeopathic remedies, she said.

Wiener herself said, “for right now, it has its place” — although she hopes for further research on the drug.

But this doesn’t mean that you should throw your support behind medicinal-marijuana entirely. Other data has shown that pot is completely ineffective at treating various cognitive disorders and may actually intensify acute pain.

Take a recent study from British Columbia, Canada found in this month’s issue of Current Alzheimer’s Research. The study hoped to confirm previous data suggesting positive effects of pot on Alzheimer’s disease. But the study’s lead author, University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine psychiatry professor Weihong Song, admitted they “didn’t see any benefit at all. Instead, [the] study pointed to some detrimental effects.”

With limited data that’s pointing us in all directions, it’s hard to know what to support.

I’m not saying don’t support medicinal marijuana, I’m just saying do so based on fact, and don’t let any personal love for the stuff color your decision.

Maybe pot does have a place in the future of medicine, but for now, let’s remain skeptical and not make any hash — I mean rash — decisions.

Sally Engelhart is a College sophomore from Toronto. Her e-mail address is Scientifically Blonde appears on alternate Fridays.

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