Politics: Northwestern study: Even occasional pot smokers damage their brains

Image Credit: Ian Sane via Flickr

Published by: Dan Calabrese on Thursday April 17th, 2014

Dan Calabrese

Not that they'll believe it.

It will come as a surprise to those who think nothing has come along to illustrate the dangers of marijuana since "Reefer Madness," but a new study from Northwestern University throws a pretty big wrench in the machinery of the marijuana legalization movement.

The argument is, and has been for years, that marijuana should be legal because it's "less harmful than alcohol," and thus should be no more legally restricted than alcohol. Well. That's not true:

The days when people thought only heavy Cheech-and-Chong pot smokers suffered cognitive consequences may be over. A study in The Journal of Neuroscience says even casual marijuana smokers showed significant abnormalities in two vital brain regions important in motivation and emotion.

“Some of these people only used marijuana to get high once or twice a week,” said co-author Hans Breiter, quoted in Northwestern University’s Science Newsline. Breiter hailed the study as the first to analyze the effects of light marijuana use. “People think a little recreational use shouldn’t cause a problem, if someone is doing OK with work or school,” he said. “Our data directly says this is not the case.”

“This study raises a strong challenge to the idea that casual marijuana use isn’t associated with bad consequences,” he added.

The study analyzed 20 pot smokers and 20 non-pot smokers between 18 and 25. Scientists asked them to estimate how much marijuana they smoked and how often they lit up over a three-month test period. Even those who smoked once a week showed brain abnormalities, while larger changes were seen in those who smoked more.

The study specifically finds that smoking pot tends to enlarge the nucleus accumben, which controls emotion, and that it skews the brain's reaction to natural stimuli by causing the release of unusually large amounts of dopamine. That's the chemical that, for lack of a better term, makes you feel good during activities such as eating or sex. Because pot causes the release of so much dopamine, you lose the ability to enjoy natural stimuli to the fullest. As the study's lead author Jodi Gilman says, "That is why drugs take on so much salience, and everything else loses its importance.”

This would explain the behavior of a lot of people you meet who are completely obsessed with marijuana, including many who will probably comment on this column. While they claim it is not addictive, their constant identification with it and their never-ending obsession with making it legal shows that it has become the most important thing in their lives. And that's what you might expect when their brains - complete with their enlarged nucleus accumbens - have become trained not to respond to anything but marijuana.

So this brings us back to the argument they constantly make, which is that it's less harmful than alcohol and thus should be legal just as alcohol is. (Oh, and taxed. I love how libertarians are all for taxes if it means they can get high.) Clearly this study renders that argument far less compelling. But it was a dumb argument to begin with. It basically amounts to this: Let's have more of something that's harmful, because something else is more harmful.

That may be the most idiotic thing I've ever heard. Knowing what we now know (although some of us have understood it for a long time) about the brains of pot smokers, it's not surprise they spew such foolishness.

Now you know they will not accept this. They will attack the sample size of the study, ignoring the fact that it's hardly unusual for clinical test groups to be of limited size. They'll insist that it doesn't matter because marijuana supposedly has medical value, which is not true, because it's the THC chemical in the pot that has the effect they're talking about, and in that case what you do is you develop a safe drug that can be taken under medically controlled conditions. This drug already exists, but they they constantly insist it's not good enough because they can't use it to get stoned.

Then they'll say it doesn't matter because alcohol is legal and nothing is more important than the law being "consistent." Nonsense. The law is filled with inconsistencies and most of them will never be rectified. The real issue here is: If we legalize pot smoking and thus get more of it, is the resulting change in society better or worse? It's worse. So you don't do it. They'll shriek that people like me are "nanny-staters" trying to control their personal behavior, but that's not the point. The point is that you don't allow such a harmful substance to be freely distributed by idiots. That's how you get a whole lot more people ensnared in it.

Finally, you will get the doctrinaire libertarians who want legalization because they basically oppose all laws of any kind that restrict human behavior. I wonder how many people oppose anti-pot laws because they are libertarians, as opposed to how many people became attracted to libertarianism because they smoke pot.

At any rate, it scarcely matters when your brain doesn't even work correctly, and now we have further confirmation that this is the case even if you only smoke pot once a week. So if you're a stoner, find a non-stoner to explain this column to you.

I have more about the spiritual implications of this issue over at my site.

You know, you just might like Dan's books too! Go here to get his series of Christian spiritual thrillers - Powers and Prinicipalities, Pharmakeia and Dark Matter - in print or e-book form. You can follow all of Dan's work by liking his page on Facebook.