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My Turn: Marijuana and the developing human brain

Posted: April 3, 2014 - 11:02pm

Editor’s note: This is the second and final installment on the initiative to legalize marijuana in Alaska. Part one ran Thursday, April 3.

We know teenage brains continue developing into the late teens and even early twenties. Higher functions like reasoning and judgment are strengthened, and the brain actually changes its structure. When the Legislature held hearings on marijuana in 2006, even pro-marijuana experts testified about its danger during this critical period of development.

In 2006, scientists knew the active ingredient in marijuana (a long chemical name with the initials THC) works by binding with receptors in the brain, shutting out natural substances in the body. They knew marijuana affected adolescent brains, but didn’t yet know precisely what the changes were.

Scientists now know marijuana alters the proportion of gray and white cells in young brains. As one pro-marijuana expert put it, the ratio of brain cells gets “out of whack.”

And just recently, scientists have found a big IQ drop from early marijuana use. In a study that took 25 years, they measured IQ in children and again later when they became adults.

Those who used marijuana regularly before age 18 and continued as adults saw an average IQ loss of eight points, even if they later stopped using, IQ was still several points lower in their 30s. In contrast, IQ rose a fraction of a point in people who never used.

How bad is an eight-point decrease? An IQ of 100 is the 50th percentile, or average. An IQ of 92 is the 29th percentile, well below average. Don’t our public schools have enough challenges?

The researchers noted that “all kinds of functions were impaired, across the board ... memory, processing speed, executive functions, verbal skills, attention.” This is a burden carried your whole life — and it’s preventable.

What do pro-marijuana people say about IQ loss? I participated in a panel discussion about marijuana legalization at UAA in early March. When I brought up the point, the main speaker (a national marijuana advocate from the East Coast) responded that this same study showed if you wait to begin using until you’re an adult, there’s no IQ loss. Fair enough, but that sidesteps the concern about starting earlier. Another marijuana supporter on the panel asked me: If there are so many Alaska teenagers using already, what’s the harm in legalizing it? Again, they avoided the issue.

There’s just no getting around the danger to young people, unless you deny that more kids would use if it’s legal. And that’s exactly what the main speaker at UAA did. He said he thought more adults would use, but he didn’t believe more kids would. Wishful thinking, or blowing smoke? You decide.

Technology enters the picture, too. Electronic cigarettes — you’ve seen the cool blue glow in ads — let you inhale pure nicotine vapor, and you can get them with cherry or vanilla flavoring that kids love. Marijuana advocates are already touting vaporized THC. What flavors do your teens like?

Colorado chemists have invented ways to concentrate THC into edible products with potency off the charts compared to smoking marijuana. They warn you in Colorado to only eat one-quarter of a marijuana cookie because it’s so strong. Tell that to the Colorado two year old who ended up in the emergency room after nibbling a cookie.

Colorado has advertising, billboards and coupons for marijuana. Lobbyists and Madison Avenue consultants are promoting the industry. Is that what we want in Alaska?

After decades studying alcohol and tobacco, we only recently have proof of the dangers of binge drinking and second-hand smoke — and now IQ loss from marijuana. Many more studies are underway. Why rush to legalize?

Let’s not make our state an experiment in commercialized drugs. We can learn from Colorado and Washington by waiting. Just vote no.

• Dean Guaneli worked for the Alaska Attorney General’s Office from 1976-2006. He drafted Alaska’s medical marijuana law in 1999, and non-medical marijuana law in 2006. He is retired in Juneau.

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Tom Leston
Tom Leston 04/04/14 - 07:46 am
Ak Gold - Vote Yes!

Good grief Dean.
Regulate the stuff just like alcohol. Problems solved.
CBJ could grow the stuff in the old AJ Mine solving our revenue problems. We could sell and market it just like our fish: "Pure Alaskan Mined Weed" or "Alaskan Gold Weed" or "Its not your average stuff its SE AK Gold". We could also advertise : grown in AK clean water, clean AK air, & "natural/organic" Ak salmon fertilizer (perhaps buyer might even find a little gold dust,ha,ha). It WOULD drive tourism. Tourists would flock here to enjoy our smoke rooms Ak food and Ak beer.
It would generate lots of revenue, keep more youth from leaving town as it eases the aches and pains of our aging population.

It makes far more economic sense to regulate it than to keep it criminalized.

Tom Leston
Tom Leston 04/04/14 - 08:18 am
FYI - Some countries are

FYI - Some countries are actually distributing marijuana in nursing homes. Because they found that it brings aging patients - out of their rooms! They want to talk, talk, talk. Pot also helps with agitation, nausea and weight gain. People simply feel better less the horrible side effects that come with pharmaceutical industry drugs. What the heck is wrong with that?

Kevin Nye
Kevin Nye 04/04/14 - 08:18 am
For me, a dilemma

I don't like the criminalization of it. I don't like it that people are in jail for having or selling small amounts of it. I am more Libertarian in my thinking. Like alcohol, "don't be stupid, act like a grown up and don't let it control you and wreck your life".

But as an avid marijuana smoker back in the early Seventies, I can tell you that I flat out ran from that stuff after initial "experimentation" (yeah we wore white lab coats and experimented with marijuana! It was funny!), and then after four years of intense daily-like all day-use of it, I found that it was absolutely wrecking my life. It ruined my short term memory and my long term ambition. We called it having a case of the "I don't give a f****". And, we didn't give a rat's arse about jr high and high school classes, being responsible to be on time anywhere whether it was to class or our after school jobs, and, it was way detrimental. Me and my circle of friends focused mainly on when and where to score some more reefer. And that was back when we smoked mostly "Mexican Dirt Weed" as we called it, with some Colombian once in a while after we began to make more money in our sales efforts. BUT, it seemed that EVERYTHING revolved around it. Our discussion about where to get it, who had the best price, the best s***, what country grew the best s***, who had the "most outrageous munchies at that party last Saturday night when the Refrigerator was attacked and nearly devoured it's ownself", etc. Oh, it was all fun and games and funny, but as time went on, most of us were going nowhere really fast. And that is a BAD thing, not a good thing.

And the memory loss thing was bad. Me, and friends of mine laughed about "forgetting what we were talking about in the middle of a sentence", but really, that was VERY disturbing to me. It began to happen when I wasn't stoned, and even when talking to my Parents whom I loved. And don't you modern day experts tell me that it doesn't happen. It does and you know it. We called it "spacing out", and maybe today there is a different term for it, but I still see internet jokes about ALL of the time. Same story, different era. So for me, as I began to see this happening to me more and more, the logical conclusion for me was this: "I wasn't like this before I started smoking weed, so, I will just "delete it"-no, we didn't say "delete" then-and return my self to normal. And so, I stopped on my own and my ability to communicate with others without forgetting what I was talking about returned. I didn't preach to my friends about quitting it either, although my friends preached at ME for not doing it any more. So, I got new friends. Moved on. And, that was 40 years ago now.

So, no, I don't like the stuff, and I don't like what it does to Kids in particular. And I don't like the whole "it's harmless" rap always being given by it's supporters. And you may also think what you want about it "not being a "gateway drug", but, just like alcohol, it IS a gateway drug. And for that matter, THC IS a drug, even though I have had some of today's youths try and tell me that it is not a drug.

With all of that said though, I DO think that hemp is good stuff and has many industrial uses, and I do think that people should be given the choice to smoke reefer or not smoke it legally, just like people are given the choice to drink alcohol or not drink alcohol. I have never liked heavy government regulation and the criminalization of things petty, and so, I am FOR the decriminalization of it. But I am not FOR the promotion of it's harmlessness and it's alleged "mental health benefits". I have seen too many brilliant kids who are now in their late 20's and early 30's go from the prospect of a vibrantly successful life to a life ahead of them to a life of like "just let's kick it dude, got any weed?" and still livin with their mamas or are in jail because they got into heavier s***.

So, for me it's a dilemma. Legalizing it puts a stamp of governmental approval on it, criminalizing it wrecks peoples' lives also. And legalizing it will also bring in more GOVERNMENTAL CONTROL over our lives. Do we want more of THAT kind of control? I have a number of adult friends who are responsible weed smokers, and so, I think we should just leave things the way they are. We may be better off NOT becoming another Colorado or a Washington State...

Jacqueline Tupou
Jacqueline Tupou 04/04/14 - 08:48 am
2 issues

There are two issues in the marijuana debate. One, whether it will increase the quality of life and safety of Alaskans to legalize it. The answer is resoundingly no, it will decrease quality of life and safety for Alaskans and should not be legalized. However, on the penalty side, I believe there is a great deal that could and should be changed. These 2 issues are seperate. Just because we should change the penalties and enforcement, does not mean we should legalize it. We need to bifurcate these discussions so folks can think about each separately and clearly and not confuse the two.

I am concerned about the direction Juneau is heading in. Just in the last two days I have read on Facebook about a friend's car that was stolen and had all the valuable parts removed and dumped. That means Juneau now has "Chop Shops" where thieves can profit with stolen parts. I hope we make a stand against this and that auto parts places and private individuals will not purchase stolen goods. Additionally, I read about a home being broken into and a child's change jar (that also contained dollars), being stolen. These are senseless crimes. I believe it is not too late for Juneau to turn back this tide of criminal behavior. We must collectively decide what we would like our town to be like and then proactively help to change it. Start or participate in a Neighborhood Watch program or simply keep your eyes and ears open. Feel empowered to ask what folks are doing or phone the police if something seems not right. Listen to those feeling and follow through. We must not sit idly by while crime increases. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. We must do something. Legalizing marijuana is the opposite of the direction we need to head into to have Juneau be the amazing, majestic, fun and kind community we know and want it to be.

Tom Leston
Tom Leston 04/04/14 - 09:39 am
Kevin & Jacquie - need to chill

Kevin - legalizing pot is "less" governmental control, so no worries.
Jacquie - Alaskans did do something. They "collectively decided" and "proactively" took action (the petition drive) to improve our lives. Legalizing marijuana is the right thing to do. Also there is no data that supports your fear that crime increases when people smoke pot. In fact I bet data would show the opposite is true, so no worries.

And IF there has been an increase in crime it is probably related to low revenue.
And seeing how legalizing pot would help our economy, then it is probably safe to assume that crime would also drop after pot is legalized.
Also real "evil" is the drug cartel these people have power because drugs are illegal, if drugs are made legal then they have no power.

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