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.