Pot physically changes your brain (but so do music lessons)

Study hour.

Apr 22, 2014 at 11:30 pm

“Taking music lessons as a child could physically change your brain.” 

That headline ran in the HuffingtonPost last year. Unless you read the HuffPost regularly, you might not have heard about it. There was no rash of stories across the country regarding the brain damage wreaked by music lessons. Actually the findings about music lessons, and music itself, were that they had a positive impact on our brains. But the brains of musicians are definitely wired differently than non-musicians.

Here’s another, more ominous, headline about changes to the brain that was published last year:

Caffeine consumption slows down brain development. Maybe you caught this on Medicalxpress.com last September, but then again maybe you didn’t. Somebody else may have mentioned it, but I don’t recall there being a wave of concern washing across the country about the perils of caffeine. Caffeine is that good drug that gets you pumped up in the morning and, via refills available in almost any office, keeps you cranked all day. Go somewhere and wait for a meeting, somebody will offer you coffee packed with caffeine.

I’ve heard that meditation can physically change your brain. A quick Google search confirmed that this is true. Physical exercise changes your brain. Alcohol makes profound changes in your brain that are known to be bad.

And just last month, Newsmax brandished a headline reading “Smoking linked to brain changes.” A study found that young people who were relatively heavy cigarette smokers exhibited structural brain changes in the short run. 

All of this is to put some perspective on a recent article in The Journal of Neuroscience reporting a study done by researchers from Harvard and Northwestern University that found that marijuana users had differences in their brains compared to non-marijuana users.

Guess what? This news was repeated ad nauseam across the country. “Casual marijuana use may damage your brain,” CNN reported. “More joints equal more damage,” wrote Science Daily. “Recreational pot use harmful to young people’s brains,” declared time.com.

It must be time to throw away your bongs and stop the damage. Call Mom and tell her she was right. Wait, you don’t have to call. Just walk upstairs — because your lazy, crazy pot-smoking butt has been living in her basement — and give her the apology she so rightly deserves.

Well, let’s think about this for a minute. For starters I don’t want to discount the findings. Yes, the study of 20 college students in the Boston area showed that so-called casual marijuana smokers — two to 30 joints each week — showed changes in their brains in areas related to motivation and emotion. And since your brain runs pretty much your whole self, there’s always room for concern when things start changing up there.

Keep in mind the study said there were changes in the brain, not brain damage as some were claiming. The anti-marijuana world seemed to gleefully declare, “Hallelujah, we’ve finally found out what’s wrong with that stuff.” Maybe your straitlaced brother-in-law laid into you with that bit of information over Easter dinner. Those who believe there’s something wrong with the herb now seem to have something factual to hang their hats on.

On the other hand, it’s kind of interesting to note that Carl Sagan, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and President Bill Clinton — all bona fide smart people — have admitted to marijuana use.  Maya Angelou, Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie are in that club too. On the other hand, President George W. Bush and Rush Limbaugh have also admitted to marijuana use. So maybe this marijuana thing cuts both ways.

The point is that marijuana doesn’t turn you into a slobbering cretin who spouts gibberish. It certainly didn’t have that effect on the aforementioned group of super-achievers. Did I mention Ted Turner and Martha Stewart?  Actually if someone really wants to know the long-term effects of marijuana use, there are plenty of subjects walking the streets, sitting in boardrooms or just about anywhere else in society. You can start with the list of the top 50 most influential marijuana users.

But let’s get back to the study, which only reported that there are changes, nothing more. They did not report cognitive deficits in users. Nothing in the study concerned itself with any behavioral, social, educational or legal problems associated with the subjects’ marijuana use. In fact, all of the subjects (including the group of 20 nonusers) were 18- to 24-year-old college students from the Boston area. They were screened for physical and mental health before they were admitted to the study.  In any way that we know about, users and nonusers in the study pretty much have similar lives. 

One thing though, their definition of “casual users” doesn’t fit with my definition. The subject who was smoking 30 joints a week is not what I would consider a casual user. I’m not casting aspersions on this person, but he or she is blowing four-plus joints a day. That’s not casual use.

And here’s something else to consider. “The federal government holds a patent on marijuana as a neuroprotectant,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “That runs counter to the notion that these same constituents cause brain damage.”

The feds indeed have had this patent for a decade. That happened under George W. Bush.

Armentano has written extensively about the known science about marijuana and has served as an expert witness in several court cases involving its effects. He also says, “We know that younger people’s use of nicotine and alcohol causes problems but do not use that fact as a justification to arrest and prosecute adults who use those substances responsibly.”

Legal marijuana in Washington state and Colorado is for adults 21 and older. The only provision for young people in the legalization drive is in medical therapies. Much of this argument should be a moot point. Nobody is pushing for adolescents, whose brains are still developing, to have access to legal marijuana. And adults, well, adults should be able to make that choice.

When you weigh all the pluses and minuses, marijuana compares very favorably to the legal intoxicants available to adults. Nothing is 100 percent good or bad. If you take a look at the information supplied with most prescription drugs, there is a long list of potential side effects that sometimes cause things like cancer, strokes and even death. Marijuana has none of those side effects. 

So remember that the new study only documents brain change, not brain damage. And the human brain goes through changes all the time. Unless you’re high on reefer madness, this latest is nothing more than a tiny piece in the overall puzzle.