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Will New Findings on Marijuana Dangers Hurt Legalization Efforts?

Monday, April 21, 2014


There is now evidence that marijuana use may be more harmful than originally thought, especially in the adolescent brain.

Researchers from Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital conducted a study where they took 40 adolescents aged 18-25 and performed brain scans to determine whether or not marijuana usage was affecting their brain.

Results show that the group that reportedly smoked pot at least once a week – the average use for this group was 11 joints per week – had more brain abnormalities in areas of the brain that affect functions like emotion, motivation, and decision making than the group that reportedly smoked marijuana less than five times in their lives.

“The brain abnormalities are an association between two variables,” said Dr. Ruben Baler, a neuroscientist with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which is one of the organizations that helped to fund the study. “It isn’t very surprising that something that you do would have an effect on your brain. This correlation shows that marijuana and THC can have an effect on the brain. What we have to do now is more research so that we can determine whether or not these abnormalities were a direct result of marijuana usage or if they were preexisting.”

Effects on the Young Mind

The pilot study may not have offered conclusive evidence as to whether or not marijuana usage has an effect on the adolescent brain, but it did mirror previous scientific thought and support the notions of other studies.

Dr. Baler pointed to a previous study conducted in New Zealand where over 1,000 individuals were administered IQ tests at the age of 13 who were born in 1972 and 1973. Researchers assessed the individuals throughout their lives in terms of their marijuana habits and then retested their IQs at the age of 38.

Research found that individuals who used marijuana heavily throughout their teens and then continued to use into adulthood showed a significant drop in their IQ; marijuana users that could be described as having marijuana dependence noticed an average drop of eight IQ points.

“With this new study, there aren’t any concerns that we didn’t already have with the adolescent use of marijuana,” said Dr. Baler. “The young mind develops learning habits, motor habits, creation of new memories and a host of other things. These are all things that have the potential to be hijacked by the use of marijuana at an early age.”

Doctors who study brain function fully admit that this most recent marijuana study does not offer conclusive evidence that marijuana has an effect on the young mind, but they admit that people should be concerned with the results presented by the study. Even if the results are only associations and not full blown conclusions, there are still red flags that are raised.

“Many people will be quick to point out that this study only offers associations, which is definitely true,” said Dr. Sharon Levy, director of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program at Boston Children's Hospital. “An association never proves cause, but this study is particularly concerning because while it doesn’t prove that marijuana has an effect on the young mind, it certainly does nothing to disprove these effects.”

Dr. Levy says that the facts presented in the study warrant more attention and research because all of the marijuana studies are building on an underlying hypothesis that marijuana isn’t as benign as originally thought. And with THC levels rising in marijuana, there should be a raised awareness in finding out whether these effects are real or not.

“THC is a neuroactive chemical and the amount that is currently in marijuana is more than the brain was designed to handle,” said Dr. Levy. “Just like marijuana, people used to think that tobacco was a benign substance. Tobacco was once considered a good tool for stress relief and it took a long time to get the message out that it was harmful to the body. I hope that people pay attention to studies like this because maybe marijuana isn’t as benign a substance as we had originally thought.” 

Medical Marijuana for Children

Medical marijuana dispensaries have become a much talked about subject as of late, with the state currently accepting and processing applications. The law passed in 2012 allows for 35 dispensaries throughout the state, requiring one in each district.

But with the recently released study potentially linking brain abnormalities to adolescents who smoke marijuana, can the drug still be a tangible treatment option for youth illnesses?

“It goes without saying that adolescents should not be smoking marijuana and we do not support recreational marijuana usage for minors,” said Matthew Allen, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Group. “What you do have to keep in mind however, is that pediatric patients who have terminal diseases can have access to marijuana, but they need additional sign offs.”

Additional screening for pediatric patients requires not only for the parent to sign off on the use of medical marijuana, but also for two doctors to do so. In an adult case, only one doctor is required to make the decision. 

And although Allen and his organization in no way advocate for recreational use of marijuana in minors, but they still do see a place for medical marijuana to be an effective treatment option. Although research is now pointing to potential harmful side effects, Allen points out that many of these terminal pediatric patients are already on pharmaceuticals that have harmful side effects. 

“In a lot of these terminal cases, pediatric patients may already be on other pharmaceuticals with potentially damaging side effects. In medical cases like fatal seizure disorders where medical marijuana may be helpful, it is definitely an option for the patient.”

Many doctors, like Kevin Hill who is an addition psychiatrist who specializes in substance use disorders at Mclean Hospital, confirm that medical marijuana can be a good treatment, provided that certain criteria is met. 

“Scientific evidence does not support the use of cannabinoids like marijuana aside from the two indications for which the cannabinoids dronabinol and nabilone already have FDA approval,” said Dr. Hill. “If have a patients suffers from a debilitating condition like cancer or HIV, however, then they should have a thoughtful conversation with their doctor about whether medical marijuana is an option.”

Dr. Hill says that a big problem with medical marijuana is that it is something that can be overprescribed to patients who don’t fit the FDA approved conditions or symptoms that would qualify them for a medical marijuana license. 

Medical marijuana could even be helpful in treating these symptoms among pediatric cases, but Dr. Hill is against all recreational use in minors because of the potential harm that it could cause.

“The unfortunate reality is that far too many people using medical marijuana do not have one of the specified debilitating conditions,” said Dr. Hill. “And if you are referring to recreational marijuana use then let's be clear: Marijuana is harmful and addictive and young people should not use it.”


Related Slideshow: Marijuana Use in the New England States

Prev Next

6. Maine

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 12.45%

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (2.5 ounces or less)

Prev Next

5. Connecticut

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 12.50%

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (less than 0.5 ounce)

Prev Next

4. Massachusetts

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 14.19%

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (1.0 ounce or less)

Prev Next

3. New Hampshire

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 14.60%

Possession Laws: Medical Use Only

Prev Next

2. Rhode Island

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 14.85%

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (1.0 ounce or less)

Prev Next

1. Vermont

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 14.9 %

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (1.0 ounce or less)


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