Debunking Scary Marijuana Headlines

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Opinion-editorial By Brit Smith, host of Blunt Talk

BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) -- We’ve all seen them: headlines that unnecessarily stoke fear, but when you read the actual article, it turns out to be a misleading click-bait title.

But the ones that really get to me are patently false articles on cannabis and hemp. This juicy new subject is causing much of the media to drool, and it’s prompting some of them to cherry-pick scientific studies done in petri dishes or on mice, and turn them into sensationalized headlines about humans. All of this, purely to get views.

So Blunt Talk is starting a debunking series where we can look a little closer into the “scary-stuff” headlines. With each new feature, we'll analyze cannabis-related claims that range anywhere from slightly misleading to total BS.

1.Forbes’ Headline: “Marijuana Study Finds CBD Can Cause Liver Damage.”

BS Rating: 4.5/5 

What the article is about: The writer of this Forbes gem used a recent study from the University of Arkansas to conclude that cannabidiol, better known as CBD, causes liver damage in humans. In the study, mice being were given astronomically high doses of CBD, and started to show signs of liver damage within 24 hours.

The article cites the study’s introductory abstract, which says 75 percent of the mice were dead, or on death’s doorstep, within 3-4 days. From that, the writer concludes that CBD “may actually be just as harmful” to human livers. He goes on to explicitly say that “people that use CBD are at an elevated risk for liver toxicity.”

Rebuttal:

The Headline

The headline starts misleading readers by conclusively saying that “CBD Can Cause Liver Damage.” It doesn’t mention that those damaged livers were in mice, not humans. And according to Harvard’s cannabis specialist physician, Dr. Jordan Tishler, somewhere close to 90% of studies in mice do not translate to human models.

The Results

It's not only the headline that misleads. The article itself is based on a study that has a multitude of problems in its own right. Let’s start with the fact that only six mice were used in this study, which is an incredibly small sample size.

Still, researchers concluded that “75 percent” of those six mice were dead, or close to death, after taking CBD. It gives no specific numbers, but we can do the math. So, CBD killed four and a half mice? Straight off the bat, the study’s results seem fairly questionable.

The Methods

If we take a look at the study's methods, we can see the researchers gave the mice up to 2,460mg of CBD per kilogram of body weight. As a reference, the FDA-approved CBD-based drug, Epidiolex, recommends 20mg/kg.

So the amount the researchers gave the mice was over 100 times the maximum dose recommended for human consumption. Nevertheless, the authors of the study still claim it accurately represents the human experience.

There’s also the fact that the CBD they used was formulated from cannabis supplied by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That means the cannabis plant came from the government farm at the University of Mississippi, which is noted to have low quality and even moldy samples.

The CBD they used in the study is also a hexane extract, which is most commonly produced by using a solvent like CO2, alcohol, or butane. Something to note- hexane is a neurotoxin, and in humans, the EPA says acute inhalation can cause “dizziness, slight nausea, and headache.” Long term exposure causes “numbness in the extremities, muscular weakness, blurred vision.”

And the EPA says “neurotoxic effects” from hexane exposure “have also been exhibited in rats.” But that is not mentioned at all in the Arkansas study, which could have been another factor contributing to their 4.5 dead mice.

The References

The study also has a serious citation problem. The authors claim “numerous” other reports demonstrate “neurological, cardiovascular, and reproductive toxicities subsequent to CBD use.” But they fail to mention that out of their nine sources, eight do not involve humans.

The only one that is based on human research didn’t actually show any toxicity. Instead, it found a decrease in blood pressure after humans took 10mg/kg of CBD (i.e. within the recommended dose.)

The Publisher

Next, let’s talk about the journal that published this flawed study, which led to this misleading article. MDPI is the publisher of 213 journals, one of which is Molecules, which featured the study out of Arkansas. While it can produce some solid peer-reviewed research, MDPI has been criticized for being a “predatory publisher.”

Jeffrey Beal of the University of Colorado kept a list of deceptive publishers, which means they had a business model that involved charging fees for publication without checking the quality or legitimacy of the study first.

MDPI appealed that designation and was eventually removed from Beall’s list, but the company has had multiple other instances of being criticized as pseudo-scientific. The Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association investigated MDPI for other misleading and controversial publications around taboo topics like pornography.

And a review by the Committee on Publication Ethics has forced MDPI to correct articles before, but it never retracted those articles. Also worth noting; the turnaround time between submission and acceptance of the Arkansas article was 18 days. While that’s not unheard of, the relatively short time period raises some concerns as to how thoroughly the CBD article was reviewed.

Our Conclusion

All of this is not to say that CBD is harmless. Everything has its harms at some dose. But it seems the researchers at the University of Arkansas went on a quest to find out how much CBD you’d have to give a mouse in order to kill it, and that doesn’t mean much for humans. And then the Forbes writer ran with it, producing this inaccurate and far reaching headline. But oh, the number of clicks!

Better designed studies would be useful for figuring out whether or not human consumption of CBD really impacts the liver. However, since Forbes based its fear-mongering headline on that flawed article to draw shady conclusions, I’d give their claim that “CBD can cause liver damage” a 4.5/5 on the BS scale. (You know, in honor of the 4.5 mice that gave their lives.)

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Blunt Talk is a podcast about cannabis hosted by Brit Smith every Monday. You can listen to all previous podcasts on iHeartRadio.

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