Dawn Muenchrath/the Gauntlet

Legal marijuana and the developing mind

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Marijuana hurts young people — this doesn’t change the fact that it should be legalized. The New York-based Icahn School of Medicine and the University of Montreal have released a new study on cannabis’s effect on adolescent brains. The results are not pretty, but they do not make the case for legalization any less compelling.

Gangs and homegrown operations currently distribute cannabis nationwide tax free, and nonviolent drug offenders are imprisoned at great social and economic expenditure. But Canadian and American attitudes toward marijuana are evolving, as demonstrated by liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s recent admission to smoking pot while in office or the decriminalization legislation passed in Colorado and Washington in 2012.

Whether you view the changing marijuana situation as an epidemic or a revolution, containment strategies have never been a viable strategy for success. This was a lesson that governments should have learned from the failure of alcohol Prohibition during the early 1900’s. Canada needs to legalize weed to prevent harm and maximize its medical benefit, but this can only be done alongside regulation, horticultural refining, further study and proper education.

Youth need to understand the potential consequences of use with as much accuracy and impartiality as possible. Some of us as teenagers were exposed to old public safety ads about the destructive effects of marijuana, which were so grotesquely exaggerated and outright falsified that they only reinforced our perspectives that the government, along with our parents and teachers, were employing fear-mongering and scare tactics to keep us away from “flying the Millenium Falcon” — as some of us used to call lighting up. Perhaps we would have weighed our decisions more thoughtfully had we been educated like adults, by adults with reasonable and balanced perspectives rather than shown extreme cases designed to shock and terrify, or given draconian commands to “just not do it.” Marijuana is ironically most attractive during our formative and experimental years, which is precisely when the greatest potential for harm occurs.

On the other hand, sometimes we refuse to see danger when it makes us feel good. The Internet and various music festivals are ripe with subcultures that consider marijuana a sacred herb and the solution to life’s ails, disregarding any negativity towards pot as government propaganda or corporate conspiracy. However, studies have shown that cannabis does not affect the fully-formed adult mind (which peaks in male late 20s and female early 20s) to the same extent that it does for adolescents. Getting high is awesome, as a friend of a friend of a friend once told me, but consideration of emerging empirical data leads me to conclude that young people with unfinished brains should avoid or limit their use of weed.

The Icahn and University of Montreal study, titled “Trajectory of adolescent cannabis use on addiction vulnerability,” examines the drug’s effect on physiological and psychological functions such as pain sensation, appetite, immune system resilience, learning, memory and motivation. Many of these functions are affected by marijuana’s interaction with what doctors call the endocannabinoid system. The study argues that marijuana can alter the mind by overloading the endocannabinoid system with pleasing sensations at a time when the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which governs psychological rewards, is undergoing structural changes. Several American studies have demonstrated that adolescent marijuana use predicts lower socioeconomic status, depression, amotivation, anxiety and addiction. The Icahn study claims that one in four teenagers who use marijuana go on to develop a dependency and while many others smoke regularly without developing mental health issues in later life, teenage users are “particularly at risk of developing addictive behaviours and suffering other long-term negative effects.” Those most at risk are heavy users, which means continuous daily use, and those who start smoking before their 20s. Weed is not a purely benign drug.

There is much left to discover regarding marijuana’s effects on the developing mind. Public understanding of pot’s neurochemistry is shrouded by half-truths, propaganda and a lack of funding for studies. For example, a correlation between marijuana use and schizophrenia has been demonstrated by one study involving 50,000 Swedish military conscripts, but the evidence for direct causation is weak. A 2000 psychiatric study named “Cannabis, Vulnerability and the Onset of Schizophrenia” hypothesizes that marijuana does not always cause psychosis — some predisposed to schizophrenia are attracted to drug abuse and therefore self-medicate their condition with substances that stimulate the production of dopamine, a chemical responsible for feelings of satisfaction and happiness.

Schizophrenia is not uncommon, affecting roughly one per cent of the global population at some point in their lives. Researchers have proposed that marijuana use statistically increases individual odds of developing schizoid symptoms anywhere from twofold to fivefold depending on duration, frequency and amount of exposure, controlling for environmental and genetic factors. The overall risk of developing schizophrenia tapers away sharply after young adulthood, particularly for men, making marijuana much safer in this regard for adults than teenagers. Although up to a third of schizophrenic patients recover fully, sometimes suffering psychotic delusions for only a few weeks before returning to a healthy mental state, the remainder remain debilitated in some form for life.

When impairments do occur from smoking, adults are more likely than adolescents to recover their capabilities after stopping smoking, and they require a shorter amount of time to do so. Sometimes, adult IQ tests indicate that certain cognitive faculties are actually enhanced by cannabis use. Many artists, musicians and the occasional writer claim pot consumption elevates their creativity and lateral thinking skills. Marijuana benefits conditions that tend to affect adults, such as chronic pain and inflammation. These benefits are well-documented and amongst the legalization movement’s chief talking points — after all, obtaining a prescription for marijuana presents difficulties despite its medicinal status in Canada. Marijuana has anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties that have demonstrated potential relief for chronic conditions like Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, glaucoma, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and multiple sclerosis. There are legitimate mental health concerns with marijuana, but the conditions under which we employ it are often so terrible that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Despite pot’s potential for harm, legalization is still a logical way to approach the aforementioned health concerns. The amount of research on marijuana’s long-term effects are limited and the results of any study on cannabis, academic or not, must be examined carefully for bias. Pot has a highly politicized history. Special interests groups from tobacco and alcohol corporations regularly lobby to oppose the legalization of marijuana, and these groups are often linked to culturally conservative and politically powerful circles that regard marijuana as an offensive remnant of the hippie era.

Legalizing marijuana would deteriorate the bureaucratic and social obstacles that researchers currently need to combat when conducting scientific studies on potential consequences or benefits. Legalization would also provide quality control over the product, which is currently distributed by unscrupulous gangsters who are not above adulterating their weed with other drugs or breeding marijuana strains that contain artificially high concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal psychoactive ingredient in cannabis and the chemical most responsible for making the user feel high. Marijuana breeders often grow marijuana that overemphasizes THC in favor of other cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol, also known as CBD, which has proven antipsychotic properties and health benefits that the medical community is currently working to synthesize for painkilling and cancer-preventative applications.

There are immense economic benefits up for grabs by the government. Marijuana grows easily and would be highly taxable, like most vices. With officially legislated distributors in place selling a quality, convenient and consistent product, the underground moonshiner’s scene would diminish quickly. Many Canadians who smoke weed are not part of the criminal underworld and would be eager to pick up their marijuana at the grocery store with the knowledge that they are buying inspected goods, rather than from the sticky back seat of a young entrepreneur’s Honda Civic. The resulting lowered drug revenue for gangs, combined with a freeing-up of police resources currently expended on drug investigations, would relieve pressure on the judiciary system.

The most prominent issue opposing legalization will be influence on youth. Teenage behaviour is impossible to predict, but preceding examples in Europe suggest that legalization actually reduces the appeal of psychoactive drugs to adolescents. Portugal decriminalized personal possession of all drugs (including addictive opiate and cocaine deriatives) but saw a subsequent decrease in usage amongst teens. Youth marijuana use in the Netherlands followed a similar pattern and Dutch youth do not smoke any more than Americans per capita. Dutch youth, however, avoid the correctional system, which is just as well when considering that interest in smoking marijuana in the Netherlands is primarily found among the hordes of tourists who flock to Dutch coffee shops, which sell marijuana products.

Alcohol is generally regarded as more harmful than marijuana. A University of Bristol paper named “The development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse” contains an often-circulated graph that illustrates cannabis as both less likely to cause dependence and less likely to cause harm than alcohol. Pointing to a worse example is not a good argument to legalize marijuana on its own, but we must remember the effects of trying to prohibit a substance that is more addictive, a factor in more violent crimes and more damaging to one’s internal organs than marijuana. Prohibition of alcohol was a logistical failure that did not deter drinkers and only encouraged businesses to convert their basements into drinking lairs known as speakeasies. And even when the government reintroduced legal drinking society did not collapse into a sodden stupor.

Much like alcohol, marijuana is illegal for the young and can cause harm, but they are also similarly easy to acquire and enjoy a popularity unrelated to legal status. Opposers of legalization should recognize that they are up against an unstoppable force — pleasure — and that society’s energies would be better spent on research and cultivation to further understand and perhaps develop this resource, whilst steering adolescents away from marijuana and the gangs associated with the drug trade.