- Published on 27 April 2014
- Written by Paul Armentano,
Why do prohibitionists keep pushing lies about legal weed?
Those opposed to the legalization and regulation of marijuana for any purpose, including the plant’s therapeutic use when authorized by a physician, often allege that the adoption of such laws will result in a significant increase in pot use by young people.
“The damage of marijuana—and these laws—is clear,” claims David Evans, executive director of the Drug Free Schools Coalition, in a recent open letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder and DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart. “Legalization of marijuana for ‘medical’ use and recreational use in those states has resulted in more marijuana use, particularly among young people.”
Adds Kevin Sabet, co-founder of Project SAM and a former senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (aka the Drug Czar’s office), “Research shows that residents of states with medical marijuana laws have abuse and dependence rates almost twice as high as states with no such laws, and teen use rates are significantly higher in states with medical marijuana laws compared to other states. Moreover, youth perception rates of the harmful effects of marijuana have significantly decreased in states that have legalized medical marijuana.”
Sounds scary, doesn’t it? It's supposed to. But here’s the reality check: virtually every study to evaluate the potential impact of these laws on teen use rates proves these claims to be woefully false.
The most recent peer-reviewed smackdown of this stock prohibitionist claim appears online this month in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Researchers at Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University assessed the impact of medical cannabis laws over a 20-year period by examining trends in self-reported drug use by high schoolers in a cohort of states before and after legalization. Investigators compared these trends to geographically matched states that had not adopted medical marijuana access laws during this time.
Here’s what they found. “[O]ur study of self-reported marijuana use by adolescents in states with a medical marijuana policy compared with a sample of geographically similar states without a policy does not demonstrate increases in marijuana use among high school students that may be attributed to the policies.” In fact, researchers determined that in some regions of the country, the adoption of medical cannabis laws was associated with decreased cannabis use by young people, a finding that led the authors to acknowledge, “[C]oncerns about ‘sending the wrong message’ may have been overblown.”
They concluded, “Our study suggests that… the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes has not increased adolescent marijuana use, a finding supported by a growing body of literature.”
- Published on 20 April 2014
- Written by Paul Armentano
Photo Credit: Darren J. Bradley / Shutterstock.com
The mainstream media launched into a reefer mad frenzy this week after researchers from Harvard University in Boston and Northwestern University in Chicago published the results of a neuroimaging study assessing the brains of a small cohort of regular marijuana smokers and non-users. The brain scans identified various differences between the two groups in three aspects of brain morphometry: gray matter density, volume, and shape. These differences triggered dozens of high-profile media outlets to lose their collective minds. Here’s just a sample of the screaming headlines:
CNN: Casual marijuana use may damage your brain; Science Daily: More joints equal more damage; Financial Post: Study proves occasional marijuana use is mind altering; Time: Recreational pot use harmful to young people’s brains; Smoking cannabis will change you. That’s not a risk, its a certainty.
Just imagine how the media would have responded if the study in question had included more than 20 actual cases — or if the authors had actually bothered to assess its subjects for demonstrable deficits in cognitive performance. Yes, that’s right. Despite the sky-is-falling rhetoric and the shock claims of permanent brain damage, a careful review of the study and its findings reveals little, if any, cause for alarm.
So what did the study find? In truth, not a whole lot.
Using high–resolution MRI imaging, scientists identified specific changes in particular regions of the brain that they inferred were likely due to marijuana exposure. (Since researchers only performed a single MRI session, they could not say definitively whether these changes were, in fact, caused by cannabis or whether they existed prior to subjects’ use of the plant.) Notably, however, these changes did not appear to be associated with any overt adverse effects in subjects’ actual cognition or behavior. (Separate studies assessing youth use of legal intoxicants, such as nicotine and alcohol,have also been associated with documented changes in brain structure. Ditto for caffeine intake in preclinical models. These findings have received far less media attention.)
Both the cases (20 marijuana users) and controls (20 nonusers) in the study were recruited from local universities, undermining the notion that the alleged ‘ brain damaged potheads’ were any more academically challenged than their non-using peers. Further, as summarized by HealthDay: “Psychiatric interviews revealed that the pot smokers did not meet criteria for drug dependence. For example, marijuana use did not interfere with their studies, work or other activities, and they had not needed to increase the amount they used to get the same high.”
In other words, case subjects and controls appeared to function similarly in their professional and academic endeavors.
That finding should hardly come as a surprise. Dozens of separate neurocognitive studies consisting of far larger sample sizes find no substantial, systematic effect of long-term, regular cannabis consumption on brain functioning once the users have abstained from the drug. As concluded in one recent meta-analysis of 33 such studies, published in the journal Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology: “As hypothesized, the meta-analysis conducted on studies evaluating users after at least 25 days of abstention found no residual effects on cognitive performance. ... These results fail to support the idea that heavy cannabis use may result in long-term, persistent effects on neuropsychological functioning.”
A separate review of nearly a dozen studies (involving a total of 623 cannabis users and 409 non- or minimal users) published in the Journal of the International Psychological Society similarly reported, “The results of our meta-analytic study failed to reveal a substantial, systematic effect of long-term, regular cannabis consumption on the neurocognitive functioning of users who were not acutely intoxicated.”
Moreover, other studies, though admittedly comprised of small sample sizes, have indicated that in some instances cannabis may actually protect the brain, particularly against the potentially damaging effects of alcohol.
This is not to say that consuming marijuana, particularly in heavy quantities, is not without potential risk to learning retention, short-term memory, and other potential cognitive skills—especially when it is consumed by young people whose brains are still developing. However, after decades of marijuana use by significant portions of the public (despite the plant’s prohibition), it is apparent that these associated potential risks are not so great as to warrant the continued arrest of some 700,000 Americans annually for possessing the plant. Nor do these potential risks justify marijuana’s present status as a schedule I controlled substance, a classification that equates the purported dangers of pot to be equal to those of heroin.
Such fear-mongering and sensationalism by the mainstream media in regards to the supposed harms of pot upon the brain are nothing new. It wasn’t long ago that the mainstream media was boldly claiming that cannabis use permanently lowered IQ, a finding that marijuana prohibitionists and anti-drug bureaucrats were happy to repeat ad nauseam.
- Published on 04 April 2014
- Written by Allen St. Pierre
Washington, DC: Marijuana-related initiatives are likely to increase voter turnout, according to polling datareleased by George Washington University.
Nearly four out of ten participants in the nationwide survey said that they would be "much more likely" to go to the polls if an initiative seeking to legalize marijuana appeared on the ballot. An additional 30 percent of respondents said that they would be "somewhat" more likely to participate in an election that also included a marijuana-specific ballot measure.
Presently, two statewide cannabis reform measures have qualified to appear on the 2014 ballot. Alaska voters will decide whether to allow for the commercial production, retail sale, and use of cannabis by those over age 21. The measure will appear on the August 19 primary ballot. According to the results of a February Public Policy Polling survey, 55 percent of registered Alaska voters "think (that) marijuana should be legally allowed for recreational use, that stores should be allowed to sell it, and that its sales should be taxed and regulated similarly to alcohol."
Florida voters in November will decide on a measure to allow for the use and dispensing of marijuana by those who are authorized by their physician to engage in cannabis therapy. Survey data released in November by Quinnipiac University reported that 82 percent of Florida voters support reforming state law to allow for the medicinal use of marijuana.
Several proposed ballot measures to regulate the production and sale of marijuana for adults also are pending in Oregon. All of these measures are still in the signature-gathering phase.
For more information, please contact Allen St. Pierre, NORML Executive Director, or Erik Altieri, NORML Communications Director, at (202) 483-5500.