NIDA capitulates to science

I just visited the National Institute on Drug Abuse's web site for Drug Fact Awareness Week in order to find out what "facts" they are citing about marijuana. I have to say I'm fairly impressed that, unlike the vast bulk of the prohibitionist activists and institutions, NIDA has incorporated some of the undeniable science into its presentation. Gone are the warnings of lung cancer and emphysema as well as the dire warnings about brain damage and other degenerative maladies. This is big news, for years the agency has promulgated to notion that using marijuana triggers a sort of chain reaction of physical and mental degeneration, but now science has shown that in fact, the opposite is true. Ingesting marijuana actually triggers a chain reaction of health enhancement--physical and mental by supplementing our natural health-building compounds, the endocannabinoids. In terms of steering teens away from marijuana (which is a good idea for reasons I discuss in Chapter 19 of Marijuana Gateway to Health) NIDA now " Emphasizes three essential messages about smoking marijuana: it is addictive, it can lead to school failure, and it impairs driving." I agree with the last two and take issue with the claim that marijuana is "addictive." This depends on how one defines addiction. If one looks at how cocaine, alcohol and heroin addict users, marijuana does not conform to this model. In fact what are cited as symptoms of marijuana withdrawal in some chronic users who cease ingesting cannabis sound suspiciously like the adverse symptoms experienced by subjects in a clinical trial of a CB1 cannabinoid receptor-blocking drug--rimonabant. When this cannabinoid receptor antagonist (blocking agent) was administered to the test subjects, they experienced significant increases in anxiety, insomnia, depression, panic attacks, anorexia, suicides, accidents and other problems. So if you have a person who has an endocannabinoid deficiency, due to a lack of production of endocannabinoids or due to their too rapid deterioration and they are benefiting from supplemental cannabinoids through smoking or otherwise ingesting the plant or its extracts and they are suddenly deprived of those supplemental compounds, are they addicted in what has unfortunately become the criminal nature of the term? The physical symptoms cited as marijuana withdrawal sound very much like subtle versions of the ailments caused by blocking the CB1 endocannabinoid receptor. Is it possible that the body is therefore reacting negatively to a decrease in healthful levels of a beneficial compound?Certainly in teens, marijuana use can result in undesirable habituation. I earlier discussed how the wonderful effects of marijuana on relieving the sense of the mundane and heightening novelty can create a harmful, limiting obsession with using it in teens whose brains are intensely primed to seek out novelty and how these effects can interfere with the evolutionary/cultural goals of continuing to seek novelty which is part of the maturation and developmental process. In other words, since marijuana so easily provides novelty, it can thus short circuit novelty-seeking behavior which expands social circles and moves the teen away from the family home. Prohibition amplifies this stunting effect by pushing teen users into outlaw cliques which tend to attenuate broader social contacts. This is a psychological habituation rather than the type of gripping physical addiction one finds with tobacco, coffee, cocaine and opiates. The effects of marijuana can indeed impair learning and lead to school failure. Of course being arrested for marijuana and taken to juvenile hall or jail could also create an impediment to learning and achievement, one far more harmful than using cannabis. And as far as driving impaired is concerned, it is definitely more dangerous for teens because: a) they have had less time to become skilled users of marijuana (regular users of marijuana show little to no impairment on most tasks while high) b) their driving skills are still inadequate for the same reason, not enough time behind the wheel to be effective in challenging and unexpected situations. Combine these two deficits and there could be trouble. The amplified risk-taking behavior can encourage a teen to drive while too high whereas an adult would know when to say "no." This is one principal way in which driving high differs from driving drunk. Marijuana smokers tend to know when they are too impaired to drive and refuse to take the wheel or they drive with far more caution than normal, where as drunks suffer from a serious impairment in judgement that masks their self-awareness of impairment. This is not the case with teens whose brains are geared toward the emotional and exciting rather than the rational and sensible. It is good to see the death throws of official reefer madness policy, now as more science is generated, perhaps NIDA will continue to edit its message to reflect reality and realize that it is no longer necessary to preserve the inhumane policy of destroying the lives of those who enjoy using and or growing marijuana. A logical question an opponent might pose is: But isn't there an opiate receptor system and does that mean that junkies have an opiate deficiency such as you mention for marijuana? The difference is that the endocannabinoid system has a much broader scope of activity than does the opiate receptor system and I am unaware of any data indicating that supplemental opiates help to discourage the rise of numerous degenerative illnesses as cannabinoids do. It seems that opiate addiction results from an overloading of the system with these compounds, which recall can ultimately result in death. Excess cannabinoids just seem to make most things better in terms of health.

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Dr. Wenk discusses the effects cannabis use has on the youthful, developing brain and why something that is not harmful to adults can harm teens. This is a good companion piece to the study recently released that showed that regular teen use of marijuana can lower IQ points later in life. In my chapter "Who Should Not Use Marijuana" I suggest that teens not use cannabis. People should wait until they are over 18 y.o. to seek the protective benefits that marijuana offers.  

How chemicals control your thoughts and feelings.

by Gary Wenk, Ph.D. Does it matter when you start smoking marijuana?

Does it matters whether you're a boy or a girl?

Multiple studies during the past few years have shown that adolescence is a period of particular vulnerability for the brain to the effects of many different chemicals and nutrients.  The question that parents often ask is "when is the most vulnerable period?" A recently published study measured the effects of marijuana use upon the cognitive performance of a very large group children who started smoking marijuana daily during their early adolescence, i.e. prior to age 15, as compared to those adolescents who started smoking marijuana after age 15.

Sadly, the researchers were able to recruit an impressive number of young children (104!) who fell into one of these categories. About half of these children had started using marijuana prior to age 15.  They were all tested using a sophisticated set of behavioral tasks that can determine executive functioning abilities.  Executive functioning includes those abilities that we tend to associate most often with complex thought processes. We use executive functioning to perform activities such as organizing our behaviors, planning our next action and controlling our current action (some might call this impulse control), forming strategies, paying attention to important cues in the environment, and remembering details related to what's going in our current environment. The performance of these subjects was compared with the performance of children who had never used marijuana.

The scientists carefully designed their study.  For example, subjects who were diagnosed with a significant mental disorder, were currently using psychoactive medications or had a history of head trauma with loss of consciousness, or were somehow intellectually disabled, were excluded from the study.  The patients in the three groups were carefully matched for the age they started daily marijuana use, their pattern of use, the number of years of daily use and their estimation of lifetime consumption. Finally, they were also matched for their age, years of education and IQ at the time of the testing.

The results were quite interesting.  Those children who started using marijuana prior to age 15 performed more poorly on all aspects of executive function tasks as compared to people who starting using marijuana after age 15 or those who had never used marijuana. Thus, chronic marijuana use prior to age 15 will have far more deleterious effects on complex brain functioning than if one begins using marijuana after age 15. In addition, both males and females who started regular marijuana use prior to age 15 were physically smaller in height and weight; this effect was most dramatic in the males. The effects of marijuana use prior to age 15 were still evident in people who were age 55 at the time of behavioral testing!  Why?

Prior to age 15 the brain is still developing in many substantial ways.  Indeed, that's why these scientists chose this cut-off point for their investigation. Humans have complicated brains that continue to develop and make new connections long after birth. Humans finish developing the most recently evolved brain regions last: that would include the most complex regions of our cortex, particularly the frontal lobes where executive functioning and impulse control is managed.  Overall, these few brain regions are far more vulnerable to any toxin, drug or chemical in our diet. Some regions of the frontal cortex do not finish wiring themselves for service until the early twenties for females and late twenties for males. If you ever wondered why females are charged much lower car insurance rates than males at comparable ages, this is it: the frontal lobes of females are simply "on line" many years before they are in males.

Anything that impairs the normal development of these vulnerable brain regions will impair impulse control, verbal fluency, and complex problem solving.  Furthermore, any impairment in the maturation of these abilities might continue to play a central role in the development of addictive behaviors later in life.  Taken together, these findings suggest that exposure to marijuana during critical periods of brain development will have a long term effect upon higher cognitive functions.

What was also quite surprising was that the scientists did not find differences in executive functioning abilities of people who started smoking marijuana after age 15 as compared to people who had never smoke marijuana!  Therefore, starting marijuana use after age 15 is apparently not as offensive to normal cognitive development.

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D. Author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford University Press, 2010)

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Dr. Wenk discusses the effects cannabis use has on the youthful, developing brain and why something that is not harmful to adults can harm teens. This is a good companion piece to the study recently released that showed that regular teen use of marijuana can lower IQ points later in life. In my chapter "Who Should Not Use Marijuana" I suggest that teens not use cannabis. People should wait until they are over 18 y.o. to seek the protective benefits that marijuana offers.  

How chemicals control your thoughts and feelings.

by Gary Wenk, Ph.D. Does it matter when you start smoking marijuana?

Does it matters whether you're a boy or a girl?

Multiple studies during the past few years have shown that adolescence is a period of particular vulnerability for the brain to the effects of many different chemicals and nutrients.  The question that parents often ask is "when is the most vulnerable period?" A recently published study measured the effects of marijuana use upon the cognitive performance of a very large group children who started smoking marijuana daily during their early adolescence, i.e. prior to age 15, as compared to those adolescents who started smoking marijuana after age 15.

Sadly, the researchers were able to recruit an impressive number of young children (104!) who fell into one of these categories. About half of these children had started using marijuana prior to age 15.  They were all tested using a sophisticated set of behavioral tasks that can determine executive functioning abilities.  Executive functioning includes those abilities that we tend to associate most often with complex thought processes. We use executive functioning to perform activities such as organizing our behaviors, planning our next action and controlling our current action (some might call this impulse control), forming strategies, paying attention to important cues in the environment, and remembering details related to what's going in our current environment. The performance of these subjects was compared with the performance of children who had never used marijuana.

The scientists carefully designed their study.  For example, subjects who were diagnosed with a significant mental disorder, were currently using psychoactive medications or had a history of head trauma with loss of consciousness, or were somehow intellectually disabled, were excluded from the study.  The patients in the three groups were carefully matched for the age they started daily marijuana use, their pattern of use, the number of years of daily use and their estimation of lifetime consumption. Finally, they were also matched for their age, years of education and IQ at the time of the testing.

The results were quite interesting.  Those children who started using marijuana prior to age 15 performed more poorly on all aspects of executive function tasks as compared to people who starting using marijuana after age 15 or those who had never used marijuana. Thus, chronic marijuana use prior to age 15 will have far more deleterious effects on complex brain functioning than if one begins using marijuana after age 15. In addition, both males and females who started regular marijuana use prior to age 15 were physically smaller in height and weight; this effect was most dramatic in the males. The effects of marijuana use prior to age 15 were still evident in people who were age 55 at the time of behavioral testing!  Why?

Prior to age 15 the brain is still developing in many substantial ways.  Indeed, that's why these scientists chose this cut-off point for their investigation. Humans have complicated brains that continue to develop and make new connections long after birth. Humans finish developing the most recently evolved brain regions last: that would include the most complex regions of our cortex, particularly the frontal lobes where executive functioning and impulse control is managed.  Overall, these few brain regions are far more vulnerable to any toxin, drug or chemical in our diet. Some regions of the frontal cortex do not finish wiring themselves for service until the early twenties for females and late twenties for males. If you ever wondered why females are charged much lower car insurance rates than males at comparable ages, this is it: the frontal lobes of females are simply "on line" many years before they are in males.

Anything that impairs the normal development of these vulnerable brain regions will impair impulse control, verbal fluency, and complex problem solving.  Furthermore, any impairment in the maturation of these abilities might continue to play a central role in the development of addictive behaviors later in life.  Taken together, these findings suggest that exposure to marijuana during critical periods of brain development will have a long term effect upon higher cognitive functions.

What was also quite surprising was that the scientists did not find differences in executive functioning abilities of people who started smoking marijuana after age 15 as compared to people who had never smoke marijuana!  Therefore, starting marijuana use after age 15 is apparently not as offensive to normal cognitive development.

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D. Author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford University Press, 2010)