Let’s Change the Public Discussion about Marijuana 

Since 4/20 is right around the corner and I claim to have some sort of expertise in marijuana as a drug of abuse, I feel compelled to weigh in on the conversation about legalization.  I've spent the last 5 years as the addictions counselor who works primarily with adolescents and young adults who are referred to our agency for abuse of marijuana.  I’ve studied as much about the science of what marijuana does to the brain and body as I have been able to get my hands on and I teach a monthly class about the effects of marijuana on the brain. As National Marijuana Week approaches we will be seeing a greater-than-usual volume of posts on the Internet about marijuana and, to be honest, most of the opinion pieces that have been posted in the last few weeks have been unimpressive to me and I am constantly reminded of one of my favorite movie quotes from Hairspray, “brace yourselves for a whole lotta ugly comin' at you from a never ending parade of stupid.” 

I can probably write a book about this subject at this point, but I want to keep this short and interesting so I will just touch on a few points that I rarely see discussed in the media. The first is the label “gateway drug” for marijuana. This label drives me crazy because it implies that there is nothing actually dangerous about marijuana itself, but marijuana will lead to the use of more dangerous drugs. That’s just misleading.  Most 6th graders who hear this in their DARE classes realize that this is a scare tactic based on a logical fallacy. Sure, if you interview 1000 heroin addicts, 1000 of them will probably say they used marijuana first, but that doesn’t mean a marijuana user is destined to use heroin. While some recent studies do show that the use of marijuana reduces one’s inhibitions and, therefore, might make use of other drugs less scary, it hasn’t been proven that marijuana leads to other drug use.  The other problem with implying that there is nothing wrong with marijuana itself is that that is also not true. There is plenty of science that shows that marijuana has both short term and long term effects on the developing brain. We should drop the term “gateway drug” and just call it what it is: a drug.  

I also wonder why there isn’t more discussion about the fact that the active ingredients in marijuana, THC and CBD, mimic the Endocannabinoid neurotransmitters that are a natural part of every person’s physiology.  In layman’s terms, we are born with Endocannabinoids in our bodies, which are chemicals that control various functions in our brains. When a person smokes marijuana, they essentially increase the amount of this particular neurotransmitter that is floating around in the brain, thus modifying various brain activities. In the class I teach I walk the students through many of the areas of the brain that have Endocannabinoid receptors and we talk about what happens when someone overstimulates these receptors by smoking.  The one that gets immediate recognition is the role endocannabinoids play on the hypothalamus in controlling appetite. Guess what happens when we overstimulate that part of the brain? We get the munchies!

Endocannabinoids play a role in our ability to regurgitate (thus the medical use to prevent nausea), they cause changes in our abilities to strategize, and they are a key player in our short-term memory function. The science of the Endocannabinoid system is fascinating and my message to students is that when someone smokes marijuana they change the balance of these naturally-occurring chemicals in the brain.  I want this to be the message of DARE because I think when kids are presented with science, rather than scare tactics, they are more likely to make good decisions for themselves. I want them to understand that choosing to smoke is going to have direct negative impacts on their developing brains. 

This leads to a question/frustration I have that directly relates to the consideration of whether or not marijuana should be legalized for medical applications. In our society, we have come to accept that some people have imbalances of certain neurotransmitters which cause certain psychological disorders. We have accepted that Serotonin, for example, is related to mood disorders, and our society has been supportive of medications which help maintain the correct balance of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain. The entire anti-depressant industry is built on this concept. So why can’t we accept that some people have an imbalance of Endocannabanoids and then develop (and/or legalize) medications based on marijuana that help maintain the proper balance of this neurotransmitter? If the basic science were better understood, I think the question of legalization of medical marijuana would be easily settled.  

Finally, on the topic of recreational use of marijuana, the current science is falling on the side of proving that for the developing brain, marijuana is detrimental. I don’t have room to provide the details here, but marijuana is more likely to cause permanent deficits in memory, IQ, attention span, and motivation when it is consumed by adolescents than when it is consumed by those over age 25. Addiction to marijuana is also more likely when the user’s brain is still developing.  We already accept that alcohol and cigarettes should be kept out of the hands of children for similar reasons.  In my opinion, marijuana for recreational use should be legalized for people over age 25 and it should be illegal to smoke and drive. Stay tuned for future blog posts on this topic. For more information about this and other topics relevant to the health of adolescents and young adults visit my website at www.youngadulttherapy.com.
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