News

NORML Responds To Latest Media Frenzy Over Pot and ‘Brain Damage’ Fears

The mainstream media launched into a reefer mad frenzy this week after researchers from Harvard University in Boston and Northwestern University in Chicago published the results of a neuroimaging study assessing the brains of a small cohort of regular marijuana smokers and non-users. The brain scans identified various differences between the two groups in three aspects of brain morphometry: gray matter density, volume, and shape. These differences triggered dozens of high-profile media outlets to lose their collective minds. Here’s a sampling:

CNN: Casual marijuana use may damage your brain

Financial Post: Study proves occasional marijuana use is mind altering

Time: Recreational pot use harmful to young people’s brains

International Business Times: Casual Marijuana Smoking at Young Age May Cause Irreparable Brain Damage – Even at One Joint Per Week

UK Telegraph: Smoking cannabis will change you. That’s not a ‘risk’, it’s a certainty

Yet despite the sensationalist headlines, the study itself was hardly newsworthy. Decades of research pertaining to the potential residual adverse effects of cannabis on brain cognition have failed to support the notion that marijuana poses any sort of permanent brain deficits. And as I write today on Alternet.org, this study similarly failed to report any sort of real-world adverse consequences associated with cannabis use:

Why the Media’s Fear-Mongering on Marijuana Effects on the Brain Is Faulty
via Alternet.org

[excerpt] Using high–resolution MRI imaging, scientists identified specific changes in particular regions of the brain that they inferred were likely due to marijuana exposure. (Since researchers only performed a single MRI session, they could not say definitively whether these changes were, in fact, caused by cannabis or whether they existed prior to subjects’ use of the plant.) Notably, however, these changes did not appear to be associated with any overt adverse effects in subjects’ actual cognition or behavior. (Separate studies assessing youth use of legal intoxicants, such as nicotine and alcohol, have also been associated with documented changes in brain structure. Ditto for caffeine intake in preclinical models. These findings have received far less media attention.)

Both the cases (20 marijuana users) and controls (20 nonusers) in the study were recruited from local universities, undermining the notion that the alleged ‘brain damaged potheads’ were any more academically challenged than their non-using peers. Further, as summarized by HealthDay: “Psychiatric interviews revealed that the pot smokers did not meet criteria for drug dependence. For example, marijuana use did not interfere with their studies, work or other activities, and they had not needed to increase the amount they used to get the same high.”

In other words, case subjects and controls appeared to function similarly in their professional and academic endeavors.

You can read the full text of my response here.

Fortunately, my critique of this latest paper — and in particular the mainstream media’s sensationalist and erroneous coverage of its findings — is far from the only one. Below are links to several other excellent analyses:

MedPage Today: Striking a Nerve: Bungling the Cannabis Story

Daily Beast: No, Weed Won’t Rot Your Brain

Bits of DNA (blog): Does researching casual marijuana use cause brain abnormalities?

DPA Blog: Does Smoking Dope Really Make You a Dope?

News

Study Finds Signs of Brain Changes in Pot Smokers

A small study of casual marijuana smokers has turned up evidence of changes in the brain, a possible sign of trouble ahead, researchers say. The young adults who volunteered for the study were not dependent on pot, nor did they show any marijuana-related problems.

“What we think we are seeing here is a very early indication of what becomes a problem later on with prolonged use,” things like lack of focus and impaired judgment, said Dr. Hans Breiter, a study author.

Longer-term studies will be needed to see if such brain changes cause any symptoms over time, said Breiter, of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Previous studies have shown mixed results in looking for brain changes from marijuana use, perhaps because of differences in the techniques used, he and others noted in Wednesday’s issue of the Journal of Neurosciences.

The study is among the first to focus on possible brain effects in recreational pot smokers, said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The federal agency helped pay for the work. She called the work important but preliminary.

The 20 pot users in the study, ages 18 to 25, said they smoked marijuana an average of about four days a week, for an average total of about 11 joints. Half of them smoked fewer than six joints a week. Researchers scanned their brains and compared the results to those of 20 non-users who were matched for age, sex and other traits.

The results showed differences in two brain areas associated with emotion and motivation — the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens. Users showed higher density than non-users, as well as differences in shape of those areas. Both differences were more pronounced in those who reported smoking more marijuana.

Volkow said larger studies are needed to explore whether casual to moderate marijuana use really does cause anatomical brain changes, and if so, whether that leads to any impairment.

The current work doesn’t determine whether casual to moderate marijuana use is harmful to the brain, she said.

Murat Yucel of Monash University in Australia, who has studied the brains of marijuana users but didn’t participate in the new study, said in an email that the new results suggest “the effects of marijuana can occur much earlier than previously thought.” Some of the effect may depend on a person’s age when marijuana use starts, he said.

Another brain researcher, Krista Lisdahl of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said her own work has found similar results. “I think the clear message is we see brain alterations before you develop dependence,” she said.

AP Medical Writer Lindsey Tanner in Chicago contributed to this report.

Source: Associated Press (Wire)
Author: Malcolm Ritter, Associated Press
Published: April 16, 2014
Copyright: 2014 The Associated Press

News

USF Hosts Statewide Florida NORML Conference

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATampa, FL – On Sunday April 13th, people came from all parts of the sunshine state to the to attend the first statewide Florida NORML conference at the University of South Florida.   While the most  critical topic of the day was Question 2 (Florida’s medical marijuana ballot initiative) to be voted on in the November election, there was also a diverse range of information presented by conference speakers such as student rights on campus, organizing and social media outreach.

Irv Rosenfeld

Panelists consisted of a group of nationally recognized advocates and some of the state’s most high profile reformers.  They included federal medical marijuana patient Irv Rosenfeld, Kathy Jordan of the Kathy Jordan Medical Marijuana Act, the Silver Tour’s Robert Platshorn and Florida NORML Chapter Director Karen Goldstein.   Other speakers included Catherine Sevcenko, litigation coordinator for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and Eli Zucker, Founding Director of USF NORML and Sabrina Fendrick of National NORML.

The event was organized and hosted by the USF NORML chapter, with support from Students for Liberty and United for Care – the campaign behind Question 2.  For more information in how to get involved with marijuana law reform in the sunshine state, please contact Karen Goldstein at normlsfla@gmail.com.

 

News

Neuropsychological Deficits: Fact and Artifact About Marijuana Tests

By Mitch Earleywine, Ph.D
State University of New York at Albany
Chair, NORML board of directors

A new study claims to show small deficits on neuropsychological tests in college students who started smoking marijuana early in life. It might get a lot of press. Prohibitionists love to bang the drum of marijuana-related cognitive deficits, so I’d like NORMLites to know how to make sense of this sort of research. The recurring themes in this literature involve several alternative explanations that never seem to dawn on journalists. These results often arise from artifacts of the study rather than physiological effects of the plant. I’d like to focus on a few: other drug use, dozens of statistical tests, the incentives for performance, and the demands communicated by the experimenters.NWA Canada Prohibition Car

The latest paper of this type is actually pretty good. Researchers studied over 30 people aged 18-20 who started using before age 17 (their average starting age was around 15) and who smoked at least 5 days per week for at least a year. They compared them to a comparable bunch of non-users. I hate to see 15-year-olds using anything psychoactive, even caffeine. Spending full days in high school with less than optimal memory functioning is no way to lay the groundwork for a superb life. I admit that I want these same people to grow up and be the next generation of activists, so feel free to call me selfish when I emphasize NORML’s consistent message: THE PLANT IS NOT FOR KIDS WHO LACK MEDICAL NECESSITY.

OTHER DRUG USE?
First, we have to keep other drug use in mind. Unfortunately, the marijuana group in this study got drunk more than 4 times as much in the last six months as the controls. Given what we know about binge drinking and neuropsychological functioning, it’s going to be hard to attribute any differences between these groups to the plant. It’s just as likely that any deficits stem from pounding beers. Studying cannabis users who aren’t so involved with alcohol would help address neuropsychological functioning much better.

HOW MANY TESTS?
In addition, we should always consider the number of measures in any study. Many of these neuropsychological tasks have multiple trials that can be scored multiple ways. The more statistical tests you run, the more likely it is that you’ll find a statistically significant difference by chance. It’s kind of like flipping coins. It’s rare to flip four heads in a row. But if you flip a coin a thousand times, odds are high that somewhere in the list of a thousand results will be four heads in a row. These investigators got 48 different test scores out of the participants. You’d expect at least 2 of them to be significant just by chance. They found differences on 14 different scores, suggesting that something’s going on, but we’re not sure which results are the “real” differences and which ones arose by accident. (That’s why we replicate studies like this.) And, as I mentioned, it might all be because of the booze.

WHY WOULD ANYONE DO ALL THESE TESTS?
We also have to consider incentives for performance. Most researchers bring participants to the lab for a fixed fee and ask them to crank out a bunch of crazy puzzles and memory assessments. It’s unclear why people would feel compelled to strain their brains. The authors of this study were kind enough to mention some relevant work by my friend (and former student) Dr. Rayna Macher. Dr. Macher showed that cannabis users respond best when you make the effort worth their while. She focused on people who used the plant at least four times per week for a year or more. She read one group some standard instructions for a memory test. The other group got the regular instructions plus an additional sentence: “It is important that you try your very best on these tasks, because this research will be used to support legislation on marijuana policy.”

As you’d guess, this simple sentence fired them up. Compared to cannabis users who didn’t hear that sentence, they performed better on 3 out of 10 measures. (You’d expect less than one difference by chance.) And compared to the non-users, the folks who got the incentive sentence did just as well on all the tests. For those who didn’t hear the incentive sentence, users did less well than non-users on 1 of the 10.

I know that prohibitionists are going to try to call this amotivation. (See my rant on that when you get a chance) I call it putting effort where it pays. But given what we know about how these studies can hamper the reform of marijuana laws, users everywhere should do their best on all tests whenever they get the chance.

WE OFTEN DO WHAT EXPERIMENTERS EXPECT OF US
Last but not least, we have to consider the demands communicated by the experimenter. Decades of data now support the idea that people often do what others expect them to do, especially if they believe the expectation, too. Another friend and former student, Dr. Alison Looby De Young, showed that these expectations are critical in studies of neuropsychological performance and cannabis. She gave a neuropsychological battery to men who had used cannabis at least three times per week for the last two years. One group of men read instructions that said that cannabis had no impact on their performance on these tests. Another group read instructions that said that cannabis was going to make them perform poorly. You guessed it, those men who heard they were going to flub the tests performed worse on 2 of the 4 tests. (You’d expect less than one difference by chance). As you might imagine, some laboratories communicate their expectations about cannabis and cognitive function subtly or not so subtly. Some participants are bound to behave accordingly. So what looks like a cognitive deficit is just an artifact of the laboratory environment where experimenters stare daggers at cannabis users.

In the end, I’m glad that researchers do this work, but these effects are too small and fleeting to justify prohibition. We already know that cannabis isn’t for healthy kids. People who get heavily involved with the plant early in life might not perform as well as those who never touch cannabis even if investigators control for other drug use, AND use a sensible number of tests, AND provide appropriate incentives, AND communicate a reasonable expectation.

But how many people should go to jail for that?

If you said, “None,” you’ve done an excellent job on an important cognitive test.

News

Are Baby Boomers Ready To Give MJ a Second Chance?

Are aging baby boomers ready to rekindle a long-ago love affair with marijuana? That is a weighty question for cultural anthropologists and cool-eyed business analysts alike as the once celebrated, later maligned, but explicitly contraband cannabis plant goes legit — for the first time in nearly 80 years — in a new era of medical and recreational use.

For many who smoked marijuana in their dorms in the ’60s and ’70s, it was an act of rebellion, a communal experience, and maybe a political statement. Today’s product is more likely to be marketed as anti-inflammatory than anti-establishment. And, to the distinct discomfort of some, it may come in a neat corporate package rather than an illicit nickel bag.

“I remember the smoke-filled theaters of our college years,” said Kathryn Maynes, 57, a Beacon Hill boomer who works for a real estate development firm. “There was the obligatory ‘Reefer Madness’ (film) on the screen and people blowing weed. It was very sociable. You didn’t just light up and have a joint to yourself. It was inclusive, it was friendly.”

Maynes, however, gave up marijuana in her 20s and never returned, partly because it left her with feelings of anxiety.

“If it were legalized tomorrow for recreational use, I would think twice about it,” Maynes said. “If I did it, it would only be with people I really trust.”

In fact, 20 states, including Massachusetts, already have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, while Colorado and Washington state have made recreational marijuana legal. Fully three quarters of Americans have told pollsters that they now see legalization for recreational use as inevitable, according to Martin A. Lee, director of Project CBD, a medical marijuana information service, and author of “Smoke Signals,” a social history of marijuana.

“On a cultural level, the debate is virtually over,” said Lee. “It’s widely recognized that marijuana has health benefits. For baby boomers who got high in the ’60s and ’70s, their experience was largely benign. And now it’s becoming mainstream. It’s not just long-haired rebels and stoners. It’s Mom and Dad, Republicans and Democrats, a real slice of America.”

Marijuana’s use for medicinal purposes dates back to ancient China. In the United States, it was used in a variety of treatments from the 1850s to the 1930s when, after getting snared in the Prohibition-era dragnet, it was made illegal.

The plant was formally removed from the US Dispensatory, a compendium of medicines, in 1942. But after a resurgence among hippies and college students in the 1960s, it emerged as a popular, though illegal, treatment in the 1980s for AIDS patients who found it could dull pain, stimulate appetite, and relieve nausea. That inspired a campaign to legalize or decriminalize medical marijuana in California and other states.

Since then, “it’s sort of been a U-turn back to the time when marijuana was widely used in medicine,” Lee said. The momentum was aided by a rediscovery of strains containing cannabidiol, called CBD, a marijuana component with low levels of the psychoactive agent THC. That has made it more appealing as a therapy for treating diseases ranging from cancer and Alzheimer’s to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, alcoholism, psychosis, and depression.

Studies project the growth of a $10 billion legal marijuana industry by 2018, and entrepreneurs and investors are scrambling to capitalize. In addition to growers and sellers, support services and enabling technologies have been cropping up in the emerging niche.

“We’ve developed two products that can help the baby boom generation adapt to all of the choices out there,” said David Goldstein, communications director for Potbotics, a Palo Alto, Calif., startup. “A lot of them feel overwhelmed by the consumer buying process.”

Later this year, Potbotics plans to launch BrainBot, a high-frequency monitoring system that can be used in doctors’ offices to evaluate the brain’s reaction to marijuana and recommend which strains might reduce anxiety or eliminate insomnia for specific patients. The company also plans to roll out PotBot, a recommendation engine in the form of an avatar that can suggest marijuana options for medical and recreational uses.

“You don’t need a doctor to talk to the avatar,” Goldstein said, suggesting an older generation may see a “paradigm shift” in how marijuana is viewed in popular culture.

“In the past, baby boomers used marijuana for the same reason they didn’t want their kids to use it. They were abusing the substance. But with the end of prohibition, everything’s been going in a good direction,” Goldstein said. “We’re giving jobs to taxpaying Americans rather than the black market or Mexican cartels.”

Younger generations may have fewer qualms about the emerging marijuana business.

Justin Desjardins, a 35-year-old Worcester man who works for a renewable energy firm, said his high school basketball career was ended when he was caught with marijuana, which he considered a victimless crime. More recently, after he injured his leg playing football at a family gathering, he said he has used it medically to help him cope with arthritis.

“I always thought that you should just make it legal,” Desjardins said. “People are finding out it’s somewhat of a miracle drug. I have no problem with it going corporate if it means you won’t ruin people’s lives if they got caught with a couple of joints.”

Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Author: Robert Weisman, Globe Staff
Published: April 13, 2014
Copyright: 2014 Globe Newspaper Company
Contact: letter@globe.com
Website: http://www.boston.com/globe/