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My Turn: Marijuana and the developing human brain

Posted: April 4, 2014 - 12:02am

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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Jacqueline Tupou
Jacqueline Tupou 04/04/14 - 10:47 am

Tom: Not to belabor the point, but objectively I cannot think how allowing people to smoke weed improves quality of life or safety in our community. As this article shows, it makes people less smart, how could that be a good thing? How will this help people to make better and smarter choices that lead to happier outcomes? I grew up in a town full of marijuana users. As early as junior high, there were many pot users and the number grew exponentially. I saw so much wasted potential, it was sad to see. Further as those people had children, OCS was often called because these pot users did not take care of their children. There were kids living in rooms of mouse poop, having lice, under cared for or neglected, and certainly not nurtured. Do we want that for our children here in Juneau? I already see many children that are not well cared for and whose burdens at such a young age make my heart ache for them. To make marijuana more accessible and cheaper to their parents would be uncaring and another travesty in their lives. I would hope in people's selfish desires to more easily get high more often, they think about the consequences to the children and our community. It would be sad to have more impaired drivers on our roads to harm and potentially kill others and more parents "checking out" on their children.

John Johnson
John Johnson 04/04/14 - 10:53 am
Wolf is sheeps clothing

Dean- how do you plan on keeping kids from smoking marijuana? Continue with the status quo? Or make it legal and force the buyer to present proof they are an adult? By voting no on this ballot, you are making it easier for kids to obtain it. Dean, you stated that even if its legal, there will still be a black market. Please, show me information that backs up your claim, using examples from washington and colorado. And please, dont use a "ive got a friend who told me". If legalization would cause a dramatic increase in teen usage, dont you think that would be all over the news since its been legal for over a year and has been selling in stores for a few months now?
And to the gentleman who stated that he doesnt want marijuana to be legal because he more or less turned into a loser after smoking.. How are you doin in life now? If marijuana ruined your life, i dont think youd be typing on a computer, im pretty sure youd be dead and in a gutter, covered in your own feces.
Dean, you are a wolf in sheeps clothing. Lets say that we do get rid of all marijuana. We have one choice to catch a buzz. And empire, correct me if im wrong but didnt you just recently post an article about our overcrowding prisons and a representative of the state can be quoted as saying that alcohol is the driving force behind that? And since were making predictions on the future, i predict this- marijuana use will go up as you stated but alcohol use will go down. (And honestly, i dont think marijuana use will increase, youll just see a lot more people openly admitting to smoking it, rather than keeping it secret because of the stigma). Back to alcohol usage going down, who wouldnt want that? Who gets high on weed and beats their wife? Or kids? Do me a huge favor, Dean, and use the search engine at the top of the empire engine, search only empire articles and type "alcohol". To give you a few example of what youll see- a man stabbed his sister 14 times, a bunch of disturbances in the police blotter with keywords "alcohol was involved", an article about the man who burnt down the church.. Now, look up marijuana. Everyone posting in the comments, please, do the same. The truth is that marijuana is here and lots of responsible adults use it. And if its already here and people are already usin it, we can get a good idea of what the future holds if the state decides to legalize marijuana.
Lastly, i hate that you stated that marijuana fuels mental illness. Everyone, please do me another huge favor and google "prescription drugs and mass shootings". You will find several articles that point out that most mass shooting occur after the person is having withdrawals or using prescription drugs such as zoloft and ambien. James Holmes was on zoloft. The recent navy yard shooting- Ambien. This whole freakin world is twisted and its because of people like Dean! I have a friend who served in Iraq and returned with terrible night terrors because of it. He started smoking at night and they have disappeared. How is that bad? Isnt suicide rate going up in the military? And what are we doing about that? Not allowing them to have a natural plant that can cure them? Nope, send them to the doctor to get a ton of prescription drugs, cause that helps, right?
Ladies and gentleman, thats the beauty of the internet, you can fact check and not go off of someone scaring you.

Tom Leston
Tom Leston 04/04/14 - 11:00 am
"but objectively I cannot

"but objectively I cannot think" - Jacquie
Dear Jacquie - we do agree on one thing!

Kevin Nye
Kevin Nye 04/04/14 - 11:27 am
Brad, Please re-read my WHOLE comment.

Brad, you said:

"And to the gentleman who stated that he doesn't want marijuana to be legal because he more or less turned into a loser after smoking.. How are you doin in life now? If marijuana ruined your life, i don't think you'd be typing on a computer, i'm pretty sure you'd be dead and in a gutter, covered in your own feces".

Lovely comment, Brad. But if you will please learn to READ, you will notice that I said that I WALKED AWAY from smoking reefer when I was a teenager. 40 years ago. I said I smoked it heavily for four years and then cut it out and life went back to normal and I proceeded on in life. I didn't even say that it had residual effects, other than the evident fact that I wasted a lot of valuable time.

So, I mean, if you are a reefer smoker, and say that you CAN read, did you "space out" and "forget" what I said after such a short period of time? Maybe you prove my point eh? But no, I just think you want to be combative.

Overall, my point to the rest of you is that I see the pros and cons of legalization, and also the cons of marijuana it's own self. And you cannot say that my points are invalid because, I HAVE "been there". Some of you went there, and are "still there." But I came Brylcream...No wait. I mean back to not smoking dope... ;-)

Hey. I think we can have a happy conversation here without telling others about "being dead in a gutter being covered in their own feces". I mean, come on dude. I think my points were well made and not condescending at all. Let's be nice. You don't want people to think that marijuana smokers are anything but slap happy and kind, do ya?

Jacqueline Tupou
Jacqueline Tupou 04/04/14 - 11:25 am

So am I to surmise that you couldn't not think of any way it improves quality of life, parenting and safety for adults and children in Juneau?

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