myth and reality word cloudIn our local weekly: A full page ad by a Colorado company touting the benefits of its products.

“The Power of Marijuana”, the ad trumpets; it “RELIEVES chronic pain, depression, migraines, anxiety, nausea, cancer, PTSD, insomnia.” That’s odd because the ad doesn’t mention medical marijuana, and the company does bill itself as a producer of cannabis for recreational use. Maybe they’re just covering all the bases. The message is clear enough: Whoever you are, you need our products.

I was reminded of those ads for so-called ‘patent’ medicines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including products made from ‘actual snake oil’ that claimed miraculous success with everything from rheumatism and headache to swellings, dislocations, cuts and bruises. The methods used to convince people to buy these bogus remedies helped form the basis for modern advertising. Those methods still work. That’s why legit meds are required to present evidence to support their claims. The patent medicines were not. Some of them weren’t just ineffective, they were toxic.

One magazine called them “palatable poison for the poor.” Still, the ads were adapted for use with other products, like cigarettes, at one time heavily promoted as energy boosters to improve your performance in competitive sports. It’s all nonsense, of course. But like they say: Buyer beware.  

So is there any real basis for the claims made in the marijuana ad I described here? More importantly, does the advertiser care? Probably not. It’s mainly recreational marijuana they’re selling– the fun sort, with pipes and bongs and decorative roach clips.

This being the 21st Century, however, there will no doubt be research studies on offer in support of the notion that their products are ‘effective’ remedies for some or all of the conditions mentioned in the ad. In practice, that means that some researcher somewhere found some evidence, no matter how fragile, that it might be. And for some of us, that appears to be enough.

That links us to a larger problem in research. One that comedian John Oliver addressed in an extended rant on his HBO program. This being John Oliver, the segment was profane, fast-moving, often hilarious, and pretty much right on target.  A link, in case you missed it: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Scientific Studies

To pick one aspect of the problem: Replication. It requires other scientists to conduct their own independent experiments. Turns out that besides being costly and unrewarding, replication experiments often fail to confirm initial findings. That can lead to vigorous disputes among scientists. Even when confirmation is there, it’s often with conditions and reservations that severely limit the conclusions. They’re quite unexciting to anyone but another expert.

Which as Oliver notes, makes for bad TV. It’s not the sort of thing that gets ratings for Dr. Oz-style talk shows. It doesn’t generate hits for science websites. In an effort to make them sexier, research findings may be misstated or misinterpreted. Ultimately, they mislead rather than inform.

I imagine cannabis will get the full force of the patent medicine treatment. That’ll be in part because companies and their investors hope to make as much revenue as they can before, as predicted, the price begins to fall. Once it does, many of them will be looking for an exit.


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