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Legalization of marijuana uncovers dangers.


Many people believe marijuana is a natural, non-addictive and safe drug. Since 1989, support for the legalization of marijuana has tripled from 16 to 54 percent.

In Colorado and Washington state, residents voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana in 2012. That formal embrace signaled a growing acceptance for recreational use of marijuana. Today, 21 states and the District of Columbia sanction medical use (up from 16 in 2010), and 17 states have scaled back punishments for possession of small amounts.

Is marijuana a safe way to rise above the tumult and distress of daily life?

Michele Leonhart, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (D.E.A.), believes that the answer is no. She portrays marijuana as a dangerous and addictive drug, one on par with methamphetamine and heroin, in congressional testimony in 2012. Like other drugs on her agency's list known as Schedule I, she notes that marijuana has no medical use and houses a high probability for addiction.

The D.E.A., convinced of marijuana's dangers to one's health, along with various groups of police officers, educators, and public health officials; remain staunchly adverse to the growing legalization movement. Legalization, they believe, poses significant health and safety risks to Americans. They report that marijuana wipes out memories, lowers the intelligence quotient (IQ), and triggers psychosis, leaving in its wake a nation of brain-dead "zombies" living in their parents' basements.

It is unlikely that existing research will be able to determine positively whether legalization is a good idea. The debate is already over, some believe, as popular sentiment shifts and laws become more lenient.

When a person consumes cannabis, a wave of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) washes over the brain. Believed to be the major psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, THC attaches itself to a protein in the brain known as cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1). CB1 receptors dot the brain and are concentrated in the cortex, where thinking takes place. These receptors are also present in the basal ganglia, which helps control movement; the hypothalamus, which regulates appetite; and the hippocampus, which helps to form memories.

The brain has its own self-made cannabis consisting of molecules called endocannabinoids, which register euphoria in the same ways THC does. One of the primary cannabinoids is anandamide, derived from the Sanskrit word meaning bliss. Endocannabinoids influence pain, memory, mood, appetite, and they play a role in brain development. When foreign THC taps into this system, the effects can feel profound; however, these effects can have a downside. Forty years of studies say that working memory (the ability to hold pieces of information in mind) suffers the most. Marijuana has also been linked to cardiovascular problems.

About one in 10 marijuana users becomes dependent on the drug. Withdrawal from marijuana use is more contentious than tolerance. After stopping heavy use, some people experience irritability, anxiety, and loss of appetite. Scientists cannot confidently report on marijuana's long-term effects on the body and brain. It would be unethical to assign random study participants to use an illicit drug for months on end. The best researchers can do to combat this predicament is to look for associations, namely particular traits, abilities, or limitations that appear more frequently in people who use cannabis. This approach leaves the door open to many variables, including the facts that many people from different walks of life use marijuana and that the drug has a different effect on each person.

One of the strongest associations comes from studies of young people who use it. The adolescent brain is still developing and refining its neural connections, a process that is regulated by the brain's natural endocannabinoid system. When the brain is developing and therefore vulnerable to influences, marijuana use interferes with the brain's normal growth process. Young adults between ages 18 and 25 who used marijuana at least once a week were more likely to have structural differences in two areas of their brains when compared with non-users. Both areas in the brain are associated with addiction--the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala. The differences were more pronounced with increased use as well.

The new reality has unfolded in Colorado, where drug laws have become more lenient in recent years--first for the medical use of marijuana and then for recreational use: A growing number of children under the age of 12 have been admitted to the hospital for marijuana intoxication. The truth is that THC concentrations can vary and there is no way to track this spectrum.

(Source: Journal of Neuroscience, April 16, 2014.)
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Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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