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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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John Johnson
John Johnson 04/04/14 - 02:52 pm
Mr Behrends

I also dont want to see people getting high and going to work, that is insanely irresponsible. But whats to stop them from doing it right now? Marijuana is already here and people are already smoke it. The legal status doesnt fix someones poor decision making regarding their employment and smoking on the job. Its not the weed that makes them come to work high, its their own stupid decision making. And i dont think its fair to say that i shouldnt be allowed to smoke because some person got high and went to work.

Steven Rosales
Steven Rosales 04/04/14 - 07:00 pm

that Pot is not legal as far as the feds are concerned! So just like whats "truly" happening in CO we will face the same issues. Banks or businesses that pay taxes can not legally deal in drug money! There are big challenges. Why doesnt Alaska just turn their heads and just decriminalize weed! I was a 15 year Pot Smoker and anyone who says its not addicting is crazy or just lying!

Bill Knabke
Bill Knabke 04/05/14 - 07:38 pm
What if?

This entire argument is based on the assumption that teen usage rates would go up if the drug is legalized for adults. Recent evidence does not support this concern.

(Ten states legalized medical marijuana between 1996 and 2004, but meanwhile monthly usage by high school seniors dropped 4 points, to 18 percent.

Then usage headed back up for a while, then it flattened out.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia now have medical marijuana programs up and running, and two more approved it last year. Yet from about 2010 on, “there is no significant difference” in teen pot use, NIDA’s Compton said. “The numbers are the same, virtually identical.”)

That's a drug abuse official being quoted, BTW.

Nelson Merrell
Nelson Merrell 04/05/14 - 10:32 pm
If people are truly concerned

If people are truly concerned about the health implications of legalization, they should ask themselves this question. Should we use incarceration as the number one way to deal with a public health issue? The answer is a resounding NO! You don't arrest people who are addicted to shopping, gambling, or alcohol. Why lock people up for marijuana?

Bill Burk
Bill Burk 04/06/14 - 10:04 am

Marijuana is a drug that does affect the brain function. Is slows down time, and driving on it can have serious consequences. The human brain does NOT fully develop until around the age of 23-24, and a person smoking pot during this part of brain development can cause lasting problems. AS far as addiction goes pot is mentally addicting, and there are withdrawals from it.

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