My Turn: Marijuana and the developing human brain

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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