The Truth About What Pot Does to the Brain
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The Truth About What Pot Does to the Brain


This post was originally published on November 10, 2014.

Brain Food for Thought

Forget the old studies about how bad marijuana is for users; The New York Times has published an article about what the brain looks like while exposed to today’s weed.

Here’s the general idea: in the center of our brains is the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). It’s gray matter shaped like a walnut and when something feels good it kind of lights up, glows like a flame and grows in density. “There’s some sort of drug learning taking place,” says Jodi Gilman, a researcher from the Massachusetts General Hospital-Harvard Center for Addiction Medicine. To put it lightly, the NAcc takes in all the info like a dog sniffing the air and makes it normal. This is the brain adapting to pleasure so we don’t become addicted to it acting as a built-in evolutionary anti-addiction device.

Gilman reviewed 20 weed smokers between the ages 18 and 25, and with the help of her colleagues at Harvard and at Northwestern University, found that the brain’s structure changed in all of them—even in the seven weed smokers who only smoked once or twice a week. Brains are in their final phase of development in the mid-20s and research supports the fact that weed smoking causes mental health problems during this vital development phase. Of course, the potency of the weed researchers were using before 2000 was low compared to today’s medical-grade marijuana grown on farms with $1000 dollar lights under water backed by big time federal money.

Weed out the Bad Stuff

Weed seized by the DEA shows that there’s been a huge rise in THC (the part of weed that gets smokers high). In 1995, the average sample of weed had 3.75% THC but in 2013 the number spiked to 13%—and that’s a low figure by today’s standards.

The medical marijuana movement may have started in California but it spends most of the year in Colorado now. Medical weed is old news in California but in Colorado, most anyone can buy weed that has a THC potency of 21%, more than double the 90s average.

Nora D. Volkow from the National Institute of Drug Abuse claims that the high THC levels in today’s weed is related to greater risks. ER visits for weed (yep, that’s a real thing) doubled from 66,000 in 2004 to 129,000 in 2011. I laughed the first time I saw a flyer for Marijuana Anonymous. But according to Dartmouth Medical School’s Alan J. Budney, one out of 11 adults qualifies for membership and one out of every six teenagers is also addicted.

One Day in September

Right now, Gilman is trying to figure out the science behind statements that claim that THC disrupts focus, memory, decision-making and motivation for about 24 hours.

Gilman’s main concern is that these college students are making major life decisions while their brains are being altered by weed. A 2012 study out of Duke University shows that teenagers who smoked weed before 18 daily and continued into college lost eight IQ points by the age of 38. In the words of another researcher involved in the study, “If I were to design a [drug]that is bad for college students, it would be marijuana.”

These are all cold, hard facts. I don’t think any of this will impact any laws or even be taken seriously outside of recovery communities and researchers but I do believe that if THC levels rise even more in the future, politicians will be forced to reconsider marijuana laws, especially the recreational ones in places like Colorado or Oregon. Of course there are higher priority problems on everyone’s list of things to do and weed is so embedded in our culture today that this may not be likely.

But here’s the thing: modern weed isn’t what they were smoking in Dazed and Confused back when Ben Affleck was overweight and Renee Zellweger didn’t even get speaking roles. It’s a real drug now that shares a name with a distant, unrecognizable cousin from the past.

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About Author

Carlos Herrera is a comedian, photographer and writer whose work can also be found on The Fix . He has been featured in LA Weekly and has performed at The Hollywood Improv among other places.