It is no secret that several states in the U.S. have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. It still violates federal law, and federal law trumps state law when there is a conflict…but that’s not what I really want to write about today so I won’t go down that path. What I want to write about is that the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana is an excellent example of what can happen when laws are changed to allow people to do what they want whether doing so is a good idea or not…especially when the long-term effects are either not known or indicate that allowing it is not a good idea.
There have long been those who argue that marijuana is not addictive even though you can find plenty of people who will you from first hand experience that it is. There have long been those who argue that there are no serious side effects or marijuana use even though there is plenty of anecdotal and scientific evidence to say otherwise. It has long been known that marijuana functions as a gateway drug, often paving the way for users to move on to harder drugs.
Additionally, there are a number of scientific studies suggesting that the regular use of marijuana does indeed have serious and lasting consequences. In the April issue of The Journal of Neuroscience contains a study conducted by researches from Northwestern University in Illinois, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital on the effects of marijuana use on the brain. The researchers used MRI to measure “the volume, shape and density of the amygdala and nucleus accumbens, two brain structures related to emotion, reward and motivation” according to an article by Daniel James Devine. What did the MRI scans reveal? That smoking marijuana at least weekly produces abnormalities in these parts of the brain.
In the words of Hans Breiter, one of the co-authors of the study, “People think a little recreational use shouldn’t cause a problem, if someone is doing OK with work or school. Our data directly says this is not the case.”
This study is but one of several scientific studies showing the damage that marijuana can do to the brain. There is one study that indicates that people who begin smoking marijuana heavily as teenagers will lost an average of eight IQ points by age 38. Other studies indicate that there are fewer brain connections in the regions of the brain responsible for memory and learning among marijuana users.
Despite this evidence, Washington and Colorado are now allowing the legal use of marijuana for recreational purposes and the trend is likely to continue. It saddens me to say that I know a young man who moved from the east cost to Colorado specifically because he could use marijuana legally there. There are twenty-one states that allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes but none of us are naive enough to believe that it is used only for medicinal purposes and only by those with legitimate medical need for it.
One of the problems with the legalization of marijuana is that teenagers in particular will see that as proof that using it is perfectly safe, even harmless. The same article by Daniel James Devine reports a December 2013 study by the Department of Health and Human Services indicates that only 40% of high school seniors believe regular marijuana use is harmful and 25% of seniors have smoked marijuana in the past month (with 7% reportedly smoking it daily).
I can recall sitting in a seminar a number of years ago in which one of the nation’s leading experts on working with youth who had stabbed or shot an adult described the reality that most of the medications being prescribed for behavioral disorders (including, but certainly not limited to, ADD/ADHD) were developed for and tested on adults and there was absolutely no indication of what the long-term effects of the use of these drugs by children would be. I think in many ways we are still waiting to find out. In this instance–the recreational use of marijuana–it seems that we do know what the long-term effects will be: lower IQ and brain damage.
Are we being responsible as a society when we allow the legalization of something known to cause these results? Should the will of the people be followed even when what they want is not in their own best interest? Interesting questions which could yield a healthy and vigorous debate, no doubt.
Of course, one might argue–somewhat tongue in cheek–that those who use, or want to use, marijuana regularly already have brain damage and/or low IQs. Perhaps that’s all the more reason to “just say no”–they don’t have any brain cells to spare.