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Regular Pot Smoking Won't Kill, Kaiser Researchers Determine

David Perlman, San Francisco Chronicle, May 15, 1997

In one of the largest marijuana studies ever conducted, researchers have concluded that regular pot smoking does not cause death, but that branding its use a crime may itself pose a health hazard by exposing users to criminals and violence.

And because marijuana use is so widespread in America today, the researchers called for medical guidelines warning that pot smoking can lead to risky sexual behavior, impaired driving ability and ultimately to a strong dependence akin to drug addiction.

The researchers tracked the records of more than 65,000 Bay Area members of the Kaiser Permanente health plan for an average of 10 years. Compared to the members who had never used marijuana, they found no increase in deaths among more than 14,000 of the patients who had said they were marijuana users between 1979 and 1985.

People with AIDS were the only group of pot smokers found to have significantly higher death rates than the other nonsmokers. But their mortality was virtually the same as it was for AIDS patients who didn't smoke marijuana. So although the association between marijuana and AIDS deaths is clear, ``we really don't think it's a cause,'' said Dr. Stephen Sidney, who headed the research group.

The report on marijuana use and mortality was published yesterday in the April issue of the American Journal of Public Health. The researchers were from Kaiser Permanente in Oakland and the University of California School of Public Health in Berkeley.

An estimated 10 million Americans now use marijuana, and because at least one- quarter of them are teenagers, Sidney said it is crucial for doctors and parents to recognize the need for credible advice about pot smoking.

``Our primary message should be `Don't use it, but if -- God forbid -- you do use it, then don't drive or let anyone who smokes it drive, and remember that marijuana can easily lead you into situations of risky sex,' '' said Sidney, who has three children, ages 15, 12 and 7.

The report noted that while marijuana smoking does not cause death, pot smokers make significantly more clinic visits for respiratory infections like coughs, colds and flu than nonsmokers.

In one part of the study, the researchers compared the risk of death among the marijuana users to deaths among cigarette smokers and those who consumed three or more alcoholic drinks a day.

Mortality was highest of all for the cigarette smokers, but the mortality risk among marijuana smokers and drinkers varied by gender.

Among women, those who smoked marijuana had a lower risk of death than drinkers, while mortality was higher among men who smoked pot than it was among those who drank regularly.

The researchers stressed throughout their report that the links they found between pot use and deaths were associations but not an indication that marijuana was a cause of death.

The report also touched on several politically charged political issues. It said:

-- ``While reducing the prevalence of drug abuse is a laudable goal, we must recognize that marijuana use is widespread despite the long-term, multibillion dollar War on Drugs.''

-- ``The criminalization of marijuana use may itself be a health hazard, since it may expose the consumer to violence and criminal activity.''

-- ``Medical guidelines regarding its prudent use should be established, akin to the commonsense guidelines that apply to alcohol use...''