Question: There is a new study about marijuana in the news. What is all of that about? Is there anything dangerous about marijuana, really? I only use it occasionally – may be three or four times a month at parties.
When we look at research, we should consider the preponderance of evidence that it offers and temper that with common sense. Sadly, common sense is sometimes trumped by political considerations when it comes to this particular drug. I cannot imagine, for example, protracted political fights over personal use of Zantac or Amoxicillin.
There seems to be a tsunami of acceptance for the use of marijuana. As you know from the news, some states have made it legal, or at least less illegal, despite federal laws that supposedly supersede state laws. Apparently, those federal laws only apply when the Attorney General and Department of Justice agree with them.
Recently, findings of another study were released (April issue of the Journal of Neuroscience) that suggest that marijuana use with a frequency of one or more exposures per week in young people will change the shape and function of areas of the brain which deal with emotion and motivation. MRI studies comparing regular pot users with people who do not smoke marijuana found that the nucleus accumbens, a brain region known to be involved in reward processing, and the amygdala nuclei, which are connected to emotion centers, were larger and had a different shape and structure in the marijuana users compared to non-users. There were also changes in the density of gray matter in these areas of the brain, which is composed of nerve cell bodies. These findings are consistent with animal studies (How about a poodle smoking pot for science?) that have shown the same brain changes.
Many of the studies on marijuana users have concentrated on those with heavy usage, not light or moderate users as this study did. This study potentially enlightening if we assume that most users fall into the casual/light or moderate category. Brain damage with casual marijuana use might correspond to a social drinker who shows measurable liver damage with even light exposure, which does not happen with small amounts of alcohol once per week, by the way, for those who want to compare marijuana to alcohol.
Marijuana, though illegal, is everywhere. About 19 million people in United States admit using marijuana, according to the National Survey on Drug Abuse and Mental Health, leaving open the possibility that there are millions more who do not admit it. Because the supply is large, the price has even come down over the years. Unfortunately, most teenagers can direct you to a corner within minutes of your house where it can be bought.
Marijuana use is known to be associated with problems in motivation, attention span, learning ability, and memory impairments. It changes mental acuity, reaction times, sensory input, behavior, judgment, and social relationships. Perhaps this study in the Journal of Neuroscience gives us some insight into the reasons for these observations. As we chiropractors say, structure and function are strongly linked. A change in brain structure, size, or density of gray matter (nerve cells) will change brain function.
Marijuana stimulates receptors in the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thinking ability, concentration, sensory and time perception, and coordination of movement. It alters perceptions and mood, impairs the ability to walk or perform functions that involve fine motor control, interferes with thinking and problem solving, and disrupts learning and memory.
This study in the Journal of Neuroscience focused on young adults. We know that marijuana affects brain development when used heavily by young people, and its effects on thinking and memory may be long-lasting or permanent. Another study showed serious learning impairment among people who began marijuana use in their teenage years. A long-term study from New Zealand showed that people who began smoking marijuana heavily as teenagers lost an average of eight points and their IQ between the ages of 13 and 38. The lost cognitive abilities were not restored in those who stopped smoking marijuana as adults.
This study will spark debate on both sides of the marijuana issue. Right now in the state of Georgia, possession and use our illegal. If you drive under its influence, you are risking everyone around you. You are also asking for a DUI conviction. Chances are excellent that you will not be able to hold a job. If you are looking for a job, you know that most employers now are doing pre-employment drug screens, and when you fail, you will not be considered. If you hold a professional license of any kind, and are caught using marijuana, your livelihood hangs in the balance. Even light exposure stays in your blood (and urine) for about 30 days. Heavier exposure will cause you to test positive for up to four months after you quit. If an employer does hair analysis, it may be found farther back than that.
I return at this point to the combination of research and common sense mentioned in the first paragraph. If you are a pot user now, or considering trying it, just weigh the evidence as you make your decision. Look at what you think it does for you versus what it actually does to you. Hopefully, research and common sense will guide you to a better decision.