08 Jul Casual Marijuana Use Causes Brain Alterations, Researchers Say
Widespread legalization of marijuana appears to be a given. But up until recently, precious little research had been done into the true effects of recreational marijuana use. Unfortunately, this has left a vacuum of information that has largely been filled by propaganda rather than science.
Establishment medicine and the government have been harping about the dangers of pot for decades, to the point where, in the minds of some, their credibility has been damaged. But pro-marijuana forces often seem afraid to concede that there might be any risk associated with mild-to-moderate pot consumption. Consequently, public debate over the issue of marijuana legalization has been less honest and fact-based than it should have been, and most people are not certain just how hazardous the use of this drug really is.
But things may finally be starting to change; in recent years, a number of studies investigating the biological effects of marijuana use have been carried out, and meaningful data is now starting to accumulate.
This Is Your Brain, and This Is Your Brain on Drugs
The results of one such study were published April 15 in the Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers from Harvard and Northwestern universities examined the brains of 40 college students, half of whom were light recreational marijuana smokers and half of whom never used the drug. These researchers found measurable neurological changes in the pot-consuming group exclusively, specifically in two parts of the brain (the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala) connected to motivation, emotion and mental illness. The volume, density and shape in each brain section showed variation from the norm, and higher levels of marijuana consumption were associated with more significant amounts of change. Although nothing detected could be classified as a clear sign of disease or disorder, in the words of the study’s lead author, Northwestern psychiatrist Hans Breiter, “This is a part of the brain you do not want to mess around with.”
In addition to the findings of this research project, several other studies have linked casual marijuana smoking to alterations in brain structure and cognitive functioning.
While the honesty of the researchers directly responsible for these projects is not being questioned, some worry that an unbalanced profile of pot’s true effects is inevitably being created. The government is unlikely to fund marijuana research projects unless it knows ahead of time that the results will reinforce the conventional anti-drug rhetoric, the thinking goes. Some believe a selection bias may be tainting the research process.
There Is Nothing Casual About Marijuana Use
But while the reasoning behind such skepticism is valid, it does not negate the value of the studies that are finding negative health effects connected to casual marijuana use. The real problem is that well-designed research into the question has been lacking, and that situation has only now begun to be addressed. More research is needed and more data must be collected before an accurate and authentic picture of marijuana’s real effects can be obtained.
A tradition of exaggeration and fear mongering has distorted people’s perceptions about marijuana. Fortunately, the public has become smart enough to see through the propaganda, and the old “reefer madness”-style hysteria is being replaced with reason and objective analysis. But while it may not be the devil incarnate, marijuana is still a powerful chemical intoxicant. It would be naïve to expect that its consumption would not have negative effects on users, up to and including the possibility of addiction.
Somewhere between the two extremes of demonization and apology, the truth about marijuana lies. We can only hope that every aspect of the drug’s use and impact will be explored and studied carefully as we move full steam ahead into this new era of expanded legalization.
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