Scientific Evidence Against Smoking Pot: Teens and Brain Damage

January 3, 2013

The new Illinois General Assembly will be sworn in on January 9th. Before then a final and shortened lame duck session will be held. While fixing the state’s pension systems should head the list, other issues such as gay marriage, gambling, expansion, and another attempt to legalize medical marijuana could topple any pension reform efforts.

It was in 1970 when the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) supported extensive research on marijuana which proved marijuana highly dangerous. Through the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marijuana was classified as a Drug with “No Accepted Medical Use.”

Although the Schafer Commission report in 1972 recommended removing marijuana from the the scheduling system and decriminalizing it, President Nixon rejected its recommendation noting in a televised news conference on May 1, 1971, with these words:

“I am against legalizing marijuana. Even if the Commission does recommend that it be legalized, I will not follow that recommendation…I can see no social or moral justification whatever for legalizing marijuana. It think it wold be exactly the wrong step. It would simply encourage more and more of our young people to start down the long, dismal road that leads to hard drugs and eventually self-destruction.”

Increased teen marijuana use coincides with perception of drug

A downward trend in youth marijuana use seen in the late 1990’s is no more. Gaping holes opened up where once education resources were provided with the removal of The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, which focused on educating youth about the dangers of teen marijuana use, and the elimination of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program. A survey released on May 2, 2012 by The Partnership at and MetLife Foundation, found an dramatic upward trend in teen marijuana use over a three year period from 2008-2011.

Not surprisingly, the increase in teen marijuana use coincides with a softening of youth attitudes about the regular risk of marijuana use. PATS (Partnership Attitude Tracking Study) data found that only about half of teens (51 percent) say they see “great risk” in using marijuana. This is down significantly from 61% in 2005.

The fact that perceived risk is still falling portends a further increase in marijuana use among teens. It doesn’t help that the push continues here in IL to legalize medical marijuana under the guise that marijuana use poses no danger to youthful pot smokers, nor are there likely consequences from legalization.

In high schools nationwide, as more teens conclude that marijuana is not a bad idea, a heavier burden must be placed on the shoulders of parents to play a more active role in protecting their kids from the health risks. While it may be difficult for teens to clearly understand just how dangerous marijuana use can be for them, it becomes all the more imperative that those in contact with teens pay close attention to the warning signs and intervene, as early intervention is critical to helping prevent teens from drug abuse and addiction. Of great concern is when parents see no harm in pot smoking and perhaps do so themselves.

In past articles about marijuana, many comments were received as to why marijuana was given a bad rap and not alcohol. Admittedly, alcohol which is legal, is not without its own consequences, but the THC found in marijuana stays in the system so much longer and in time through regular use produces damaging effects that super cede alcohol consumption.

THC substance in marijuana related to long-term neurocognitive effects

Neuroscience has shown that the human brain continues to develop into the mid to late twenties. During the first decade of life, brain growth occurs mainly in the gray matter (neurons and dendrites) and during the second and third decades, it occurs primarily in the white matter (connectivity).

The main psychoactive substance in cannabis is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which can disrupt the development of neural pathways in the brain, especially in adolescents who are chronic marijuana users. When connectivity is interfered with, there will be changes in higher order thinking and memory. Even though some adolescents report being able to use marijuana without a major negative impact, they are not always aware of the deficits in learning and memory that are slowly taking place related to their use.

According to John Knight, MD, Senior Associate in Medicine and Associate in Psychiatry, Children’s Hospital Boston and Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, “The earlier an adolescent starts smoking, the earlier the potential changes to brain structure and function.”

While there is conflicting information related to cannabis’ long-term neurocognitive effects, there is no debate that adolescence is a very vulnerable time to put extraneous substances into the brain. Daily use of cannabis in high school is associated with a six-fold increase in depression and anxiety later in life. It can also lead to muddled brains and short term acute psychosis with symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, and the loss of the sense of personal identity. And contrary to popular belief, marijuana is addictive!

What happens when smoking a joint?

As explained in “How does Marijuana Affect the Brain?”:

“When someone smokes marijuana, THC rapidly passes from the lungs into the bloodstream, which carries the chemical to the brain and other organs throughout the body.

Specific sites in the brain are acted upon by THC, called cannabinoid receptors, which kick off a series of cellular reactions that ultimately lead to the “high” that user experience when they smoke marijuana. Some brain areas have many cannabinoid receptors; others have few or none. The highest density of cannabinoid receptors are found in parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thinking, concentrating, sensory, and time perception, and coordinated movement.”

At the time of the “high,” little of the THC absorbed into the blood of the lungs reaches the brain. The rest is stored in body fat and is gradually released back into the blood over many weeks. When pot is smoked regularly a large supply of the THC accumulates in the fat, which produces a high steady level of THC in the blood causing continual sedation.

Because primary brain damage from THC occurs in the limbic portion (or emotional center) of the brain, a teen smoking only two joints of pot per week could suffer severe emotional harm before damage to the intellectual functions becomes apparent. These behavioral, rather than physical traits, include losing interest in school and extracurricular activities and withdrawal from family members. Their friends are mostly other drug users. Nearly 60 percent of regular marijuana users have at least one co-occurring disorder such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), depression, anxiety, or PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Taking stock of the above confirms why the harm caused by smoking marijuana is highly deceptive. As each joint smoked affects the body for over a month. Its slow action often masks the harm that is taking place.

Regarding marijuana and cancer patients, cancer patients receiving chemotherapy often die from infection because chemotherapy weakens the body’s immune defenses. Although THC is known to reduce the nausea experienced by chemotherapy patients, it can be dangerous to these patients because THC damages the immune system.

In regard to teen marijuana use when coupled with alcohol, THC allows a regular teen pot smoker to hold down a deadly dose of alcohol without getting sick, making marijuana the basic cause of teenage alcohol overdose deaths.

Legalization of medical marijuana would lead to greater use, without benefits

Drug lords know that marijuana is the stepping stone to cocaine and heroin, often triggered when teen “highs” from marijuana diminish in intensity, as they gradually do, leading teens to experiment with other drugs for a bigger kick.

As long as kids are deceived into thinking that smoking pot is harmless, they will innocently insure a steady supply of new recruits to replace the cocaine and heroin addicts who have destroyed their own lives through drug addiction. Drug lords want to legalize pot to increase their supply of cocaine and heroin addicts.

Legalization of medical marijuana would do little, if anything, to curb drug violence. When states impose high taxes on marijuana, violent drug cartels simply undercut legal prices to keep their market share. As with alcohol and tobacco, which are legal and taxed, the cost to society, should medical marijuana follow suit, would far out pace the tax revenue.

Negative effects of hashish on Arab culture observed 700 years ago

In studying historical Arab literature relating to marijuana, Franz Lowenthall, Professor of near Eastern Literature at Yale University, observed how the Arabs 700 years ago recognized the very slow action of marijuana on the body when Arabs turned to hashish when Mohammed outlawed alcohol.

Lowenthall shares the advice given by a thirteenth century religious leader, Sheikh Ali al-Hariri, to a hashish user:

“He must give it up for 40 days, until his body is free of it, and for 40 more days until he has rested from it after becoming free.”

Shouldn’t it be obvious to us today that pot smoking, as did the Arabs 700 years ago, blunts personal and developmental growth before more teens are lured by false rhetoric that smoking week is hip and safe to do?

First posted at Illinois Review on Janary 3, 2013.


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