The first time I smoked pot, I put a huge nug of weed into my sisters’ bowl and lit it on fire. I sucked the smoke in as hard as I could, and spent the next thirty minutes coughing and laying spinning on my bed in a very smokey room. I was 15 years old, and had no idea what marijuana was, besides that kids in high school had to smoke it in secret and DARE said it was bad. Between thoughts of marijuana as harmless, troubles with anxiety and depression that seemed to be alleviated by pot, and the ease with which I could get it, I would spend ages 15-16 smoking weekly– sometimes even daily.
But eventually, getting high started to feel bad for me: paranoid thoughts and general anxiety became the norm when I was high. I knew marijuana didn’t work on me the way my friends said it was supposed to, but even so, I summed the discrepancy up to individual variability.
Fast forward six years, and here I am working on a substance abuse and HIV prevention grant.
LOL, right? That’s what I thought, too.
However, my time at CCPE has proven to be a turning point in my perspective on marijuana. I’ve had to confront my ideas on marijuana with the public health community’s perspective, which are generally at odds with each other. No one ever explained to me why marijuana is detrimental to one’s health in a way that I could understand or get behind, which has made it that much more difficult to understand the anti-marijuana advocate’s point of view. So that’s exactly what I set out to do this week: to dig into the research and to be able to understand why people think marijuana is harmful.
This blog post isn’t about policy. I’m not making an argument for or against legalization. This blog post is about looking at the effects of marijuana on our brains which has been researched by really smart people.
Here’s what I’ve found.
To start with, a peer reviewed article in the Neuropsychology Review noted that “persistent cannabis use is associated with neurocognitive decline across [various] domains of functioning.”
Just think about that.
And this was mentioned in article after article. It was conclusive that there are clear differences in the brains of persistent cannabis users and non-users, such as differing ways the brain is activated by stimuli and potential attention/concentration and information encoding, storage, and retrieval deficits. All this means is that your attention and concentration will be affected negatively, as well as your memory.
It gets more interesting.
The authors found that differences in brain imaging between cannabis users and non cannabis users could mean that the brains of cannabis users had adapted to chronic marijuana exposure in the attention network of the brain. More areas of their brains were needed to work properly on a task than non cannabis users. Thus, more activation, meaning more energy, is needed to perform at a normal level.
So basically, if you smoke pot a lot, your brain isn’t able to function at its normal level in its normal way – it has to overcompensate a little.
Aaaand if that isn’t scary enough, researchers aren’t exactly sure if these damages are reversible or not. There is some evidence that the activation patterns change during an abstinence period, but there is also evidence that the effects linger even after weeks. So we don’t completely know- which means there is a moderate risk that you might be permanently damaging your most important organ.
Marijuana also turns out to be worse for developing brains, meaning those under 25ish years old. The brain during this time is still forming and pruning connections, the ones that you’ll eventually be left with for the rest of your life. One article noted that during the time before symptoms of a disease show themselves, this development could be potentially modified by exposure to marijuana. Some studies have shown a 2-6 year advance in the first episode of a mental illness with heavier use, greater drug potency, and exposure at a young age.
While alcohol is often thought as the most dangerous drug to drive on, a study showed that those testing positive for THC were 3-7x more likely to be responsible for a motor-vehicle accident as persons who had not used anything.
So yes, driving while high is really, really not good. And don’t let people tell you it’s ok, because the numbers say it’s not.
Another interesting article I found by a toxicologist explained the harmful effects of not only marijuana as a toxin in your body, but also the metals that cannabis readily soaks up from the soil (not to mention the metals purposefully saturated into the marijuana to make it heavier, thereby increasing the price).
Additionally, “dabs” can be made by using solvents such as butane, which is a type of gas that can be used for blow torches. I know we all go out of our way to drink lighter fluid, don’t we?
Another thing that people don’t think about is the types of pesticides, fungicides, growth regulators, and mosquito repellants being used to grow the marijuana they eventually smoke. There aren’t very many checks on marijuana growth since it isn’t regulated—meaning that growers have discretion over which pesticides they can use. In fact, traces of DEET, an ingredient found in many insect repellents that has been found to have negative health consequences, have been found on samples of marijuana.
The fact is that most of us don’t know where our marijuana is coming from. We don’t know where it’s from, who grew it, or what chemicals they used during the growth process.
According to Beau Kilmer, the co-director of the Drug Policy Research Center at the Rand Corporation, a public policy think tank, 80% of marijuana smokers in the US smoke commercial grade marijuana, which is largely imported from Mexico. This is to say that it’s not the stuff grown in California that’s supposedly “the good stuff.”
That being said, there is also a moral component to smoking marijuana.
The illegal drug trade is widely known to be a dangerous and often exploitative market. With Mexico being the gateway between Central America and the US, immigrants passing through Mexico to America often find themselves in the hands of drug cartels and forced into sexual or labor work, becoming child soldiers to fight drug wars, as well as maybe becoming mules for the traffickers.
There is a large chance that you are supporting these drug cartels by purchasing their goods, and thereby you are a piece of the puzzle that is exploiting children and other innocent people. Just a thought.
To finish this blog post, I wanted to mention some of the knowledge gaps that the research community has regarding the health effects of marijuana.
We don’t know how pesticides affect consumers of marijuana in terms of health effects. It’s also unclear if marijuana smoke can cause lung cancer, although we do know that there are carcinogenic compounds in cannabis.
We also need more research on the long term effects of cannabis use using more people in the studies. In addition, there are limitations for how we can understand the effects of marijuana on the brain because of the high rate of inter-substance use; meaning that many cannabis users also drink alcohol, or use other drugs, which affect the ability to study marijuana effects by themselves. In fact, some of these drugs may protect against neurocognitive effects of marijuana. For example, cannabidiol, which is an active ingredient in cannabis with significant health benefits without making one feel “stoned,” may moderate adverse effects of cannabis on mental health.
As I mentioned earlier, we also don’t know if the effects of marijuana on the brain are reversible during a period of abstinence, and if it is, we don’t know how long one would have to be abstinent to see the full return of cognitive functioning.
It’s not that I think marijuana is an evil drug- it’s that I think marijuana is a toxin that impacts one’s brain negatively, especially adolescent and young adult brains.
Although when I was 15, I couldn’t think about my long term goals, let alone dream of finishing high school, I wish someone had given me this kind of unbiased information so that I could have made the decision to value my brain’s development over a high.
We don’t choose to be born, but we do get to decide how we use our body and our brains to create a life that we enjoy and value.
Using marijuana, especially at a young age will affect how your brain works, how it develops, and how it expresses potential mental illness.
Going to school and learning also affects most of these things, but in a potentially much less harmful way. Stay in school, kids. Learn, use your brain, and one day… Take over the world with it.
photo: gianni testore|freeimages.com