Wherein I Tumble Into the Weeds Yet Again…

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Well, I didn’t really think I’d be returning to this topic—certainly not so soon—but I’ve learned some things since the first post appeared that I feel are worth sharing.

As I noted previously, despite my ambivalence concerning legalization, I’ve been assuming that it will eventually happen. I still do. A number of you have pointed out the analogy to Prohibition, and we all know how that effort to oppose the public will turned out.

But a New York Times report on the collapse of an effort to legalize marijuana in New Jersey, which was a campaign promise made by the state’s governor, Phil Murphy, and had both his strong backing and statewide public support, points to some opposing arguments that legislators made. (I promise if you stay with me through this, you’ll see that I conclude my findings on a high note. Oops, there I go again with the bad puns.)

From the Times:

“Some lawmakers were unsure about how to tax marijuana sales. Others feared legalization would flood the state’s congested streets and highways with impaired drivers. Some would not be deterred from believing that marijuana was a dangerous menace to public health.”

The Times pointed out that New Jersey lawmakers, and those in the neighboring states of New York and Connecticut, have tried to avoid problems that have occurred in states that have already legalized cannabis. 

Colorado, for example, according to a state-sponsored study published in the March 26, 2019, issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, has seen three times as many cases of people presenting to the emergency room for visits attributable to pot since legalization in 2012. 

The greater number of visits was attributed to edibles—“tales of tourists needing emergency care after gobbling too many marijuana gummies”—leading to vomiting, racing hearts, and psychotic episodes. But the worst problems at a Denver hospital were caused by inhaled marijuana. The study was also prompted by three deaths in Colorado related to edible marijuana products. 

An Associated Press report in the Times observed:

“The analysis confirmed edibles are trouble. Statewide, they made up less than 1 percent of total cannabis sales, measured by THC content [the ingredient that creates the “high”]. Yet 11 percent of ER visits were triggered by edibles.”

There’s no information on safe dosing of these edibles, according to Andre Monte, MD, lead author of the Annals study. An accompanying editorial by Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, stressed the need for additional research about marijuana’s benefits and harms and called increased oversight of marijuana manufacturing and labeling an “urgent need.”

Some of the legislative concerns have been financial: in California and Massachusetts, tax revenues from marijuana sales have been disappointing.  My biggest worry, about how to protect teenagers from the drug, has also evoked serious discussions.

I’m going to digress slightly here because a dear friend who’s a long-time mental health professional observed after reading my first post that discussing marijuana is not sufficient without also talking about vaping, which she knows from experiences among acquaintances has led to psychotic breaks in some adolescents. 

If you know any young people who are tempted by or are engaged in this activity, this fact sheet for teens contains information about the dangers of vaping both e-cigarettes and marijuana. Many brands particularly target youth, prompting one report to ask:

“How can a tween, teen, or 20-something looking for inclusion, status, or the next cool thing resist? Given that vaping among high school students in grades 9-12 increased approximately 1286% between 2011 and 2018, it appears they are willing to give vaping a try.”

Some people have suggested to me that if pot were legal, teenagers might be less likely to find it attractive. A 1286% increase in 7 years? If that statistic is even half right, it offers little support for the “if it’s no longer illegal, it loses its allure” argument.

Another important issue in states that have legalized marijuana, notes the Times article,  involves “a burgeoning industry dominated by white corporate interests even as advocates in Hispanic and black communities say their neighborhoods have been most negatively affected by the drug.”

As I noted in my previous post, I am deeply concerned that the social aspect of marijuana legalization be addressed. While I touched on that issue, it clearly needs more exploration. (I mentioned that the records for marijuana arrests in areas where it’s legal continue to show racial disparities, and there’s agreement that better police training is needed.)  If legalization is to take place, it had better be done in a way that rights the wrongs that have been inflicted by the criminal justice system for years.

In this regard, the bill that was voted on in the New Jersey legislature last week was exceptionally strong. According to the ACLU:

“The bill before the Legislature is truly historic. It includes forward-thinking measures to reverse the injustices wrought by the failed drug war.”

  • expedited expungements for cannabis-related criminal records;
  • ability for people to vacate current sentences;
  • non-discrimination for cannabis use;
  • opportunities in the industry for people with criminal records;
  • social justice representatives on the cannabis regulatory board;
  • meaningful provisions for diversity in the industry.

No other state has leaned into the social justice elements of marijuana legalization the way New Jersey is poised to.”

Let’s hope that any future legalization legislation is equally forward-looking and just.

So the concerns I expressed in that first post—about the need for sensible regulation, careful monitoring, greater awareness of potency, focus on teenagers, and emphasis on criminal justice reform—remain intact, even heightened somewhat by the Colorado study. I guess this is a societal experiment in which we’ll bumble along and, I hope, with good sense and good luck, get better at doing things right with time.

Here’s where I end this unplanned revisit on a high note:

A friend alerted me to an article in Scientific American with the optimistic title: “Marijuana May Boost, Rather Than Dull, the Elderly Brain.” (The original study appeared in Nature Medicine; here’s the abstract.)

Before anyone gets too excited, the senior citizens in question were of the genus Mus—specifically, mice. According to Scientific American, 

“…the drug might affect older users very differently than young ones—at least in mice. Instead of impairing learning and memory, as it does in young people, the drug appears to reverse age-related declines in the cognitive performance of elderly mice.”

Scientists not involved in the study who found it intriguing cautioned, of course, that additional research is needed before assuming the findings would be relevant to aging humans. But those who did the study noticed that in the treated elderly mice, the neurons in the hippocampus (the part of the brain essential for memory and learning) had developed more of what’s called synaptic spines, by which neurons communicate with each other. 

The Scientific American author pointed out that the researchers were even more struck by the dramatic difference in the hippocampus of the THC-treated mice as compared with the elderly, untreated mice. Andreas Zimmer from University of Bonn, Germany, the lead researcher, stated:

 ‘That is something we absolutely did not expect: the old animals [that received] THC looked most similar to the young untreated control mice.” 

The hypothesis is that the THC and possibly other components in cannabinoids act similarly to the brain’s naturally occurring endocannabinoids, which are directly associated with the brain’s neural activity and appear to decline with age. Thus, externally introduced cannabinoids could, theoretically, reverse that process. 

One clinical researcher who wasn’t associated with the study, Mark Ware at McGill University, observed:

“To anyone who studies the endocannabinoid system, the findings are not necessarily surprising, because the system has homeostatic properties everywhere we look.” In other words, it adjusts to changes in order to maintain internal stability.

That can explain the variations we see, points out the Scientific American author. 

“For example, a little marijuana may alleviate anxiety, but too much can bring on paranoid delusions. Likewise, cannabis can spark an appetite in cancer patients but in other people may produce nausea. Thus, the detrimental effects seen in young brains, in which cannabinoids are already plentiful, may turn out to be beneficial in older brains that have a dearth of them.”

Of course, this is just one study, but it’s quite fascinating, isn’t it? While I’m still worrying about teenage abuse of the substance, and irresponsible drivers, and lack of information about potency that’s sending people to the ER for glomming down too many gummies (I wonder how many gummies it took…), I find myself eagerly awaiting further research on the effects of cannabis on the aging brain.

I received several new clearly weed-related followers after my first post on this topic, and I wondered why they found me a kindred spirit when I was so filled with skepticism and concerns.  Then a friend reminded me of my reverie about cherry tomatoes after my one-and-only experience with pot decades ago.

Another friend had commented that he had been pro-legalization, but my first post made him rethink his position. But I told him about this study. After hearing about it, I now have images of happy elderly folk in all sorts of places, reveling in their carefully regulated dosages of brownies, gummy bears, and the like—followed by a chaser of cherry tomatoes unlike any they’ve ever experienced before.

And in my fantasy view of memory nirvana, all who so engage will be able to promptly retrieve the first and last names of everyone they’ve ever met; the actors, titles, and stories of all those wonderful movies; the plays, players, and scores of sports events they viewed with pleasure decades ago; and…well, you get the picture.

…And Mr. Google will simply have to find another line of work.

As always, I welcome your thoughts, opinions, and stories in the comment box below—as well as your feedback in the form of stars (from the one on the left for “awful” to the one on the right for “excellent”) and the “likes” from WordPress folks.  Thanks so much.

Annie

11 thoughts on “Wherein I Tumble Into the Weeds Yet Again…

  1. I am not a user nor do I have children.

    I state this so my position is clear. I have always and still support legalization of pot in many forms for those that are of age and let the legalization be tampered with the laws that govern safety as in operation of a motor vehicle, company policies and parental discretion.

    I keep hearing the good, bad and ugly about the policy of legal pot.

    The cost to law enforcement, crime and the minority community in criminal convictions is uncontainable and needs to stop. We are wasting money, people’s freedom and not improving the situation by not controlling the growing, distribution and legal sales of THC contained products. We need more control of the product by legal, more free will and less condemnation.

    I support pot legalization and the overturning of all marijuana convictions for anyone living today.

    Let’s start over and see how it plays out and rewrite the laws as needed to plug the holes.

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  2. Loud and clear, Charles. As noted in both my posts on the topic, I am obviously as concerned about the criminal justice implications as you are.
    I am prepared for legalization, but it will take us years to work this through in ways that protect people from the excesses. Until we reach that point, I feel obliged to provide people with information from reliable sources to help keep them safe. The aura of legality appears to be giving people a sense that there is both more regulation and more research about currently available pot than what actually exists. I am simply urging caution.

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  3. Another interesting perspective on this topic, Annie.

    One thing that hasn’t been brought into the discussion is the historical perspective.

    The only time this was done as far as I know was in a book published in English under the title Please Keep Off The Grass back in the early 1970s.

    The book was originally written in French and its author was Jacques Cousteau (better known as an oceanographer and undersea explorer who appeared on seasonal episodes of the TV series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau).

    Cousteau as the captain of the sea conservation and exploration ship The Calypso (that John Denver sang about) became concerned in the 1960s when some of the young scientists on his team started smoking marijuana (very popular among the young in both Western Europe and North America in the ’60s) and began showing signs of strange behaviour and cognitive impairment he felt that someone should research the health implications of this drug.

    As a scientist, Cousteau started doing that himself.

    It also occurred to Cousteau that such a study should look at history.

    Was any past culture and society affected or impacted by widespread cannabis use?

    Cousteau discovered that ancient Egyptian culture and civilization was.

    And that it was widespread use of cannabis that knocked Egypt off its pedestal as the source of knowledge, culture, arts, math, science and engineering that it had been for so many millenia.

    And Egypt came to be ruled by the Persians, Greeks, Romans and numerous other nations afterwards.

    That old 1980s song Walk Like An Egyptian may take a whole new meaning for Canada and the U.S.in the future.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is fascinating stuff, and I thank you for enriching the dialogue with this historical perspective. I thought I’d done as much as I cared to on the topic, but now I’m inclined to delve into ancient history. I wonder, though, if Cousteau’s research has been validated, why we haven’t heard more about it. I should think the anti-forces would have been less Sphinx-like on the topic, wouldn’t you? And I hold out hope that our civilization (if we survive Climate Change) will not simply go up in smoke or—worse yet—succumb to overindulgence in cannabis-laced gummy bears. Not with a bang but a simper…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am a little surprised that places like Colorado have been so slow with dosage labeling.

    The other thing I find fascinating is the serious lack of scientific knowledge in this area and how surprised researchers have been with results of actual experiments. This is quite a contrast with modern climate science – a field in which actual controlled experiments are impossible – that everyone seems to regard as “settled”. (Talk about diving deep into the weeds 😀 )

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, they are trying. Here’s something from Colorado about packaging and labeling: https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/marijuana/news/new-colorado-rules-make-marijuana-packaging-safer-adults-less-appealing-children

      I’ll look into the research question later and let you know what I find, but I do recall reading that the illegal status of marijuana has prevented research in the past.

      Two very good points, JP. Glad you raised them.

      Annie

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Canada is on its first year of legalization of marijuana and there have been no catastrophes reported so far. There has been a massive governmental advertising campaign to raise peoples awareness of driving under the influence of marijuana. I hold to my opinion that there needs to be more discussion and research on the legalization of all drugs with possible distribution by pharmacies. Was watching a one hour documentary on tent cities in Seattle almost 100% occupied by drug users. Parts of the city and the drug users are being allowed to rot without any intervention by city council. the whole situation is being ignored and shoved under the carpet. Their needs to be new ways of addressing the drug epidemic and the best way seems to me in not pushing under cover but addressing the issue through the justice system, social services and health care. Nice post Annie and very timely.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks, Len. The idea of possible distribution of all these drugs through pharmacies is interesting and reasonable, but I fear that gummy is already out of the bag: too much money being made in too many quarters.
    I looked up the Seattle tent cities and couldn’t find a reference to drug use as the overwhelming cause. I suspect, though I couldn’t document, that the opioid epidemic is a likely reason–as we know that’s large and growing and not being addressed in a way that it deserves. Homelessness, per se, which is often associated with mental health issues, is a disgrace in this country that should not exist. Interestingly, some articles make it sound like many of the residents are happy with their environs (possibly because they’re preferable to dreadful shelters they’ve been in), which the residents run in some cases. That’s a topic that may be worth a more in-depth look at some point.

    Annie

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Your summary of the need for “sensible regulation, careful monitoring, greater awareness of potency, focus on teenagers, and emphasis on criminal justice reform,” and pointed studies on vaping among the young, edibles, and claw-back thinking to the Prohibition years, certainly point up the dimensions of this challenge. It’s huge. Like those octopuses you wrote about (note correct spelling; thank you), we humans need more than a mere two arms to embrace the scope of it. But love the idea of an elderly brain actually, possibly improving. I’ll take what I can get, though I don’t really seek the high, luscious tomatoes notwithstanding. Thanks, Annie. I’ve forwarded this to friends who, with me, heard Governor Hickenlooper speak recently. Of course, he was asked how it was going in Colorado, but while he didn’t paint a rosy picture, he sure didn’t hit the complicated notes either. Tricky stuff, these political balance beams. D.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tricky, indeed, Denise. I really don’t want to get hung up on this issue, but my concern (apart from young brains) is that the fact of legality may make people unaware that there isn’t the regulation or depth of scientific knowledge that they might assume. I’ve inserted an LA Times editorial on this subject in response to some good points that were raised in comments. They see federal legalization as important to furthering research, an argument that I find compelling.

      Like

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