This post was originally published on November 28, 2014.
So another report that concluded that pot causes brain damage was released recently, and per usual, folks on both sides of the legalization issue are probably either celebrating (with booze no doubt) or scrambling to find ways to debunk the study.
Lead researcher Dr. Francesca Filbey, an associate professor at the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas and Director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Research in Addictive Disorders at the Center for BrainHealth, published the study’s results in the November 10th issue of the peer-reviewed scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). She concluded: “Our findings provide evidence that heavy, chronic marijuana users have lower OFC orbitofrontal cortex gray matter volumes compared with non-using controls.”
That sounds pretty much like “brain damage” to me. And sure enough, I looked up what a “reduction in gray matter” means, and the list is comprised of the stuff that you would expect to be affected by chronic substance abuse: muscle control, sensory perception (like seeing and hearing), memory, emotions, speech, decision making and self-control. You know, the kind of things that affect everyone who’s not particularly healthy—like substance abusers and nursing home residents.
The study took 48 weed users who got stoned minimally at least four times per week for at least six months, but the group actually averaged approximately 10 years of steady pot smoking, with 25 of the subjects describing themselves as “marijuana-dependent.” Researchers compared them against 62 non-users by using three different MRI techniques to evaluate various brain characteristics. “The results (also) suggest increases in connectivity, both structural and functional, that may be compensating for gray matter losses,” said Dr. Sina Aslan, one of the UT researchers. “Eventually, however, the structural connectivity or ‘wiring’ of the brain starts degrading with prolonged marijuana use.” Though not a scientific term, I’d say this is what most people refer to as “burnout.”
So What Does All This Mean? Pretty much nothing in the grand scheme of things. Oh, it will give all the anti-legalization forces another study to reference, which is fine since there are a lot of good reasons for not legalizing marijuana, just as there a lot of stupid ones, and the liquor and pharmaceutical lobbies love studies like this. But there are also some pretty good reasons for legalizing pot, even though as a recovering alcoholic/addict, I won’t be smoking it anytime soon. Legalization issues aside, studies like this might have a small impact on whether someone young will decide to smoke pot or not, but zero effect on someone who already smokes (like the test subjects). It’s been my experience that those type of potheads (of which I was one) aren’t going to let a little loss of gray matter cut into their bong hits.
You don’t have to be a scientist to know that people who smoke a lot of pot for a long time don’t function very well—physically, emotionally or spiritually. But you can say the same thing about those who drink, take prescription pills, and to a lesser extent, smokes cigarettes—all of which are legal. Most people aren’t addicts, and even though none of those things are good for you, most people don’t abuse them the way that addicts abuse everything.
And I say this as a guy who smoked pot pretty much every day for nearly 30 years. With me, though, it was difficult to tell if the weed was affecting my wellbeing because I was drinking about a quart of booze every day, along with taking pills and doing cocaine. I never thought pot was addictive—until I quit drinking for about a year-and-a-half using the marijuana maintenance plan. I substituted weed for booze and found out just how addictive it was when I ran out. Then I would go scrambling around town for a joint or a roach just so that I could watch TV and fall asleep.
Dr. Plankton’s Not-So-Scientific Conclusion: The bottom line is this: no real addicts will ever stop doing anything that is bad for them as long as they feel the benefits outweigh the consequences. Not having a brain firing on all cylinders is a small price to pay for the joy of sparking up a fattie and watching This Is Spinal Tap for the 100th time with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey on your lap.
At least that’s what I thought before I got clean and sober.
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