Two new studies published online today in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Psychiatry provide little support for previous claims that cannabis exposure is significantly harmful to the developing brain.
The first study, which assessed the effects of cannabis exposure on brain volume in exposed and unexposed sibling pairs, reported that any identifiable differences “were attributable to common predispositional factors, genetic or environmental in origin.” By contrast, authors found “no evidence for the causal influence of cannabis exposure” on brain morphology.
The trial is “the largest study to date examining the association between cannabis exposure (ever versus never used) and brain volumes.”
The study is one of two recent clinical trials to be published in recent months rebutting the claims of a widely publicized 2014 paper which alleged that even casual marijuana exposure may be linked to brain abnormalities, particularly in the region of the brain known as the amygdala. In January, researchers writing in The Journal of Neuroscience reported “no statistically significant differences … between daily [marijuana] users and nonusers on [brain] volume or shape in the regions of interest” after researchers controlled for participants’ use of alcohol. Similarly, today’s JAMA study “casts considerable doubt on hypotheses that cannabis use … causes reductions in amygdala volumes.”
A second study appearing today in the journal assessed whether cannabis use during adolescence is associated with brain changes that may be linked to an increased risk of schizophrenia. While researchers reported finding an association among male subjects who possessed a high genetic predisposition toward schizophrenia, authors reported that no such association existed among male subjects who were at low risk for the disease, or among females in either the high risk or low risk categories. The finding is consistent with the theory that early onset cannabis use may potentially exacerbate symptoms in a minority of subjects predisposed to the disease, but it contradicts claims that marijuana exposure is a likely cause of schizophrenia, particularly among those who are not already vulnerable to the disease.
Abstracts of both new studies appear online in JAMA Psychiatry here and here.
A new scientific review of burn injuries in Colorado confirms what many of us have been saying for some time – that the popularity of dabbing (i.e., the use of hash oil) brings with it some real dangers and some potential political dangers.
I have previously written about my own preference for flowers, rather than concentrates or edibles, but that is largely the result of my age. I began smoking marijuana 50 years ago, when I was a freshman at Georgetown Law School, and back then one was lucky if you could establish a reliable source for good marijuana, and these more esoteric versions of marijuana were largely unheard of. Occasionally the dealer would have a little hash (allegedly imported from Lebanon or some other distant country, although one never really knew), but it was usually terribly expensive and treated more as something to be saved for a special occasion, like champagne. Most of the time it was difficult enough just to find good pot.
But it is clear that the culture has evolved over the decades, and many of those wanting to enjoy the marijuana experience today prefer something other than flowers. In the states that have legalized marijuana, many seem to prefer edibles or concentrates. Whether that trend will continue is uncertain, but so long as a significant segment of the consuming public wants to obtain edibles or concentrates, we should focus on ways to permit that without endangering the public.
Regarding edibles, as our initial experience in Colorado has demonstrated, the key components to using edibles safely are:
Proper labeling, to avoid accidental ingestion
Proper dosage per unit, to avoid inadvertent overdosing (which is never fatal, but can be terribly unpleasant).
Better educational outreach to novice users, so they understand the lag time between ingesting the marijuana before the full psychoactive effects are felt.
So the initial concern over a few mishaps involving edibles in Colorado seems to have abated. Informed consumers should experience no problems enjoying the marijuana experience from infused edibles.
With concentrates, the most serious issue is the risk of explosions by those who attempt to extract the THC using butane. Novice consumers need to be made aware of the increased strength of marijuana in this form, and concentrates, like edibles, must be kept safely away from children.
Hash oil is a potent marijuana concentrate that can be as strong as 90 percent THC, and is easily manufactured (the process is readily available on the Internet) using butane as a solvent. But the process is also highly volatile and can result in dangerous explosions that all too often cause serious, and sometimes deadly, burn injuries. The similarities with the rash of meth explosions a few years ago is difficult to avoid.
New Study Released from Colorado
A new study just published in the Journal of Medical Toxicology, analyzed the incidents of burn injuries from butane hash oil extraction in Colorado from January 1, 2008 through August 31, 2014, comparing the two years prior to the legalization of medical use in the state; the period of medical use only in Colorado; and the first eight months of 2014, the first year of full legalization.
According to this study, there were no such incidents during the two years prior to the adoption of medical use; 19 cases during the medical use only phase lasting from October 2009 through December 2013; and 12 cases during the first eight months of 2014. So the total number of these explosions was small.
Those involved in these butane extraction explosions were largely white (72 percent), male (90 percent); and young (median age of 26). And the medium length of their hospital stay was 10 days.
The study’s authors concluded: “Hydrocarbon burns associated with hash oil production have increased since the liberalization of marijuana policy in Colorado. A combination of public health messaging, standardization of manufacturing processes, and worker safety regulations are needed to decrease the risks associated with BHO (butane hash oil) production.”
Potential Political Backlash
Another risk associated with these burn incidents is the possibility that the non-smoking public may be influenced to oppose further legalization proposals, because of the dangers presented by these explosions. Although the actual numbers of explosions are relatively low, each of them are scary, and most become major news stories, at least on the local and state level, thereby frightening large numbers of citizens, many of whom base their support for legalization on the premise that prohibition causes far more harm than the use of marijuana itself.
These incidents of butane burn injuries may well cause some of our supporters to re-evaluate their prior support. And there is no reason for us to incur this political baggage; we have an alternative production method that is safe.
This is a risk that could be avoided by using a CO2 extraction method, instead of butane, to produce concentrates, and as a culture we need to get the word out that it’s time to bring an end to the use of butane extraction altogether. It’s dangerous to produce concentrates with butane, at least by amateurs, and it may well present a health risk to the consumer.
The CO2 extraction method is safe and non-volatile, avoiding any danger of an explosion. And consumers are further protected because bacteria, mildews and molds are destroyed, and there is no butane residue in concentrates made this way.
It’s a win-win solution, but we need to better inform those who produce and use concentrates. If consumers begin to demand CO2-extracted concentrates, and reject products made with butane, the industry will quickly fall into line.
It’s time we insisted on the responsible production and use of concentrates. Otherwise we may find ourselves facing significant limitations, or even total bans, imposed on the production and availability of these products. Let’s resolve this problem ourselves, so the authorities need not deal with it.
This blog was initially published on Marijuana.com.
Republican voters in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire do not believe that the incoming administration ought to interfere with the enactment of state laws legalizing marijuana, according to polling data conducted by Public Policy Polling and published today by Marijuana-Majority.com.
Sixty-seven percent of GOP voters in New Hampshire agree that “states should be able to carry out their own marijuana laws without federal interference.” Sixty-four percent of Iowa GOP voters agreed with the statement.
This voter sentiment is contrary to the public positions of at least two Republican Presidential candidates, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Senator Marco Rubio — both of whom have espoused using the power of the federal government to roll back changes in state marijuana laws.
Overall, a super-majority of all voters in Iowa (71 percent) and New Hampshire (73 percent) oppose federal interference in state laws permitting marijuana use.
Previous polls surveying a national sampling of voters have reported similar results. Gallup pollsters reported that 64 percent of respondents oppose federal interference in state laws that allow for the legal use of the cannabis by adults, while a Third Way commissioned poll found that six out of ten voters believe that states, not the federal government, should authorize and enforce marijuana policy. Most recently, a 2015 Pew poll reported that a strong majority Americans — including 64 percent of Independents, 58 percent of Democrats, and 54 percent of Republicans — believe that the federal government should not enforce laws in states that allow marijuana use.
We first wrote about this trend in July when Florida’s largest county, Miami-Dade, passed an ordinance allowing local law enforcement to treat marijuana possession offenses involving 20 grams or less as a civil infraction, punishable by a $100 fine.
Key West City City officials are poised to finalize a similar measure in September while lawmakers in Palm Beach County are considering taking similar action. Decriminalization is also gaining momentum among lawmakers in the city of St. Petersburg.
These changes to local laws are especially significant in Florida, where state lawmakers have failed to even consider amending its archaic and overly punitive marijuana policies. Consequently, Florida possesses the third highest annual marijuana possession arrest total (roughly 60,000 arrests per year) in the nation.
But that may soon change. Advocates, including Florida NORML, are pushing a 2016, ballot initiative aimed at legalizing the adult use of marijuana, while a separate measure to amend the state’s medical marijuana laws is also expected to be decided by voters (in 2014 the measure narrowly failed to meet the state’s 60% vote requirement). According to a Quinnipiac poll conducted last year, 88% of Florida residents support legalizing marijuana for medical use and 55% of residents support legalizing the possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana.
It’s clear that Florida residents are fed up with policies that treat those who possess marijuana as criminals and are looking to their local governments to lead the way in reforming these policies. NORML encourages you to contact your local city commissioners and urge them to consider adopting decriminalization policies in your communities.
I recently attended the 2015 Seattle Hempfest, and it was again this year a lovely celebration of all things marijuana. The first day was a rainout, a rarity for this event, but the final two days brought good weather, large crowds, and a good time for all.
If Marijuana Is Legal, Why Do We Need Hempfest?
As someone asked me when I first arrived at my Seattle hotel, “why are they still holding the Hempfest now that marijuana is legal in Washington state?” It is true that the Seattle Hempfest began as a protest against marijuana prohibition – in fact the sponsors frequently use the term “protestival” to describe this annual festival.
Washington state became one of the first two states, along with Colorado, to legalize marijuana in 2012, breaking the chains of marijuana prohibition and forever reshaping the legalization debate both nationally and internationally. But much work remains to be done in Washington (and the few other jurisdictions that have voted for legalization to date).
Personal Cultivation Needed in Washington
Specifically, in Washington state we need to amend the law to permit personal cultivation; the right to grow one’s own marijuana should be respected in all states, both as a basic consumer right and as a guarantee that the legal market will remain responsive to the needs of consumers. Consumers want marijuana that is good quality, safe, convenient and affordable.
Important Improvements Needed in All Legalization Jurisdictions
And in all of the legalization states we need to legalize and license marijuana lounges or coffee shops, where adult smokers can socialize outside the home. Marijuana smoking is a social activity and smokers should certainly be permitted to gather with others in designated venues to socialize. But to date, no state has allowed that.
And we need to continue to improve these early legalization laws, so we treat responsible marijuana smokers fairly in all respects. That is, we need to end job discrimination against legal smokers, absent a showing of impairment on the job; to stop presuming legal smokers are unfit parents, without a showing of abuse or neglect; and to require a showing of actual impairment before someone is charged with a marijuana-based DUID offense.
So marijuana smokers still have lots of policies to protest, even as we are ending prohibition one state at a time. But it is also true that some of these public events, such as the Seattle Hempfest, have now become more celebration than protest – in this instance, celebrations of personal freedom. Following 75-years plus of prohibition, and tens of millions of marijuana arrests, it is understandable that marijuana smokers want to celebrate their hard-won victories.
What Is Legalization?
But I did hear a couple of speakers at the Hempfest make the rather strange claim that marijuana “is not legal” in Washington state, as a way to show their displeasure with some of the limitations and regulations in place in their state. Instead of celebrating with pride the key role Washington state has played in jump-starting the marijuana legalization movement, they were attempting to twist the common meaning of “legalization”, apparently believing that to refer to the current law as “legalization” would somehow undermine their desire for improvements in the law.
So perhaps we need to spend a couple of minutes to see if we can agree on a common meaning of legalization, so we don’t fall into the trap of allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. In my dictionary “legalize” is the antonym of “criminalize.” If marijuana is no longer criminal, it is legal.
There are a few vocal protagonists who insist that it is not “legalization” if it is regulated; if there are limits on the quantity one can possess or cultivate; if it is taxed; or even if there are age controls. But under those definitions of legalization, automobiles and automobile driving, for example, would not be “legal”. Nor would alcohol and alcohol drinking, or many other activities that are regulated and taxed, and include age limitations.
I feel comfortable saying that the vast majority of Americans would say if it is legal for adults to smoke marijuana, and if they can buy it from a legal market, that is “legalization”. It may not be a perfect system, but it is nonetheless legalization.
Whether you approve of all the provisions of the Washington marijuana law or not, private marijuana use is now legal and adults can buy their marijuana from retail stores. It is, without question, a version of legalization, and smokers in 46 states would love to have the Washington marijuana law in effect in their states.
Those who advocate for systems which include fewer regulations and controls, or none at all (some are demanding that marijuana be considered a commodity, like tomatoes or sweet corn) surely have the right to try to convince a majority of their state’s voters, or state legislators, to adopt such a system. But it is silly, and to some degree self-defeating, to claim that other versions of a legal system are not “legalization.” These new laws, although none are perfect, should be a subject of great pride, evidence of the incredible progress we have made reforming marijuana policies in this country over the last few years.
In Washington state there were, before prohibition was ended, about 7,000 individuals arrested on minor marijuana charges annually. This year there have been less than 150 marijuana arrests. I’m sure most smokers in Washington state would view that dramatic change as evidence that the legalization law approved by the voters in 2012 was an important step forward, even as they realize it is far from perfect.
So instead of making the bizarre claim that marijuana is not legal in Washington state, those who support improvements to that law should celebrate and take pride in the fact that they were one of the first two states to challenge the federal government and bring an end to marijuana prohibition, and get to work tweaking their legalization law so it is even better.
Otherwise, they are just sore losers who remain committed to undermining the new law.
This column was first published on Marijuana.com.