NORML Responds To Latest Media Frenzy Over Pot and ‘Brain Damage’ Fears

  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director April 18, 2014

    The mainstream media launched into a reefer mad frenzy this week after researchers from Harvard University in Boston and Northwestern University in Chicago published the results of a neuroimaging study assessing the brains of a small cohort of regular marijuana smokers and non-users. The brain scans identified various differences between the two groups in three aspects of brain morphometry: gray matter density, volume, and shape. These differences triggered dozens of high-profile media outlets to lose their collective minds. Here’s a sampling:

    CNN: Casual marijuana use may damage your brain

    Financial Post: Study proves occasional marijuana use is mind altering

    Time: Recreational pot use harmful to young people’s brains

    International Business Times: Casual Marijuana Smoking at Young Age May Cause Irreparable Brain Damage – Even at One Joint Per Week

    UK Telegraph: Smoking cannabis will change you. That’s not a ‘risk’, it’s a certainty

    Yet despite the sensationalist headlines, the study itself was hardly newsworthy. Decades of research pertaining to the potential residual adverse effects of cannabis on brain cognition have failed to support the notion that marijuana poses any sort of permanent brain deficits. And as I write today on Alternet.org, this study similarly failed to report any sort of real-world adverse consequences associated with cannabis use:

    Why the Media’s Fear-Mongering on Marijuana Effects on the Brain Is Faulty
    via Alternet.org

    [excerpt] Using high–resolution MRI imaging, scientists identified specific changes in particular regions of the brain that they inferred were likely due to marijuana exposure. (Since researchers only performed a single MRI session, they could not say definitively whether these changes were, in fact, caused by cannabis or whether they existed prior to subjects’ use of the plant.) Notably, however, these changes did not appear to be associated with any overt adverse effects in subjects’ actual cognition or behavior. (Separate studies assessing youth use of legal intoxicants, such as nicotine and alcohol, have also been associated with documented changes in brain structure. Ditto for caffeine intake in preclinical models. These findings have received far less media attention.)

    Both the cases (20 marijuana users) and controls (20 nonusers) in the study were recruited from local universities, undermining the notion that the alleged ‘brain damaged potheads’ were any more academically challenged than their non-using peers. Further, as summarized by HealthDay: “Psychiatric interviews revealed that the pot smokers did not meet criteria for drug dependence. For example, marijuana use did not interfere with their studies, work or other activities, and they had not needed to increase the amount they used to get the same high.”

    In other words, case subjects and controls appeared to function similarly in their professional and academic endeavors.

    You can read the full text of my response here.

    [Update: I have a separate op/ed (“Smoke weed, turn into a pothead? Not so fast”) responding to this paper online in The Los Angeles Times here.]

    Fortunately, my critique of this latest paper — and in particular the mainstream media’s sensationalist and erroneous coverage of its findings — is far from the only one. Below are links to several other excellent analyses:

    MedPage Today: Striking a Nerve: Bungling the Cannabis Story

    Daily Beast: No, Weed Won’t Rot Your Brain

    Bits of DNA (blog): Does researching casual marijuana use cause brain abnormalities?

    DPA Blog: Does Smoking Dope Really Make You a Dope?

    33 Responses to “NORML Responds To Latest Media Frenzy Over Pot and ‘Brain Damage’ Fears”

    1. Julian says:

      Good work Paul!
      What else do prohibitionists have left but more lies and propoganda? Didnt their mother ever tell them not to lie or they’d have to keep lying to keep from getting busted?
      Well guess what Michelle Leonhart, David Koch and Kevin Sabet: You’re busted.
      While its distressing to see CNN on this report of marijuana madness and weed propoganda (in anticipation of a Weed 3 trilogy before elections over patent “507,”) There’s a major disconnect between prohibitionist-funded media propoganda and WHERE younger, mota-vated American voters are getting their news. Young people are getting their news on line, more often from non for profits like NORML, or from entertainment news like the Daily Show whose role is to portray the hypocrisy and trivial irony of paid media propoganda.
      2/3 of Americans could get out and vote this November, just because of marijuana ballots in their state. That’s huge. It will be a national record. Thats more people than voted during Obama’s first election, which was roughly half the U.S.
      Now more than half the U.S. Is poised to have some form of medicinal or decriminalization legislation passing this November, passing the tipping point of prohibition.
      We see through the propoganda. We know that some guy who ate a marijuana brownie and jumped off a balcony to his death in Colorado had other issues. America is laughing at the paid off media right now. We are smiling because we know that a bully cries like this when they finally know the fear of their own extinction.

    2. Galileo Galilei says:

      After taking several IQ tests over the Internet then calculating an average, my IQ measured EXACTLY what it was in Kingergarden 58 years ago. I can NEVER corroborate these studies with my own experience.

      Long ago I learned NEVER to believe these studies.

    3. Tom says:

      Yeah the media has been pathetic. First it will cause you to jump out of windows if you eat it, then your brain is going to change, and now if you eat marijuana you will kill your wife because you are hallucinating so bad.

      This is exactly reefer madness.

      The media acts like people have had legal access to marijuana for the first time ever this year. Seemingly ignorant to the fact many states have had medical marijuana for a long time and recreation marijuana has been legal for over two years.

      Give us a break.

    4. Ray says:

      Know what is worse than smoking pot as a kid? Going to jail for smoking pot as a kid.

      So if the argument for marijuana prohibition is that it causes brain damage, than why don’t we try and outlaw alcohol again like we did so many years ago.

      I call bull shit on this studdy. Just keep pushing the oxycodone as the cure all pain medication for medical patients and wonder why we have such a big heroin problem. One day our politicians will stop listening to big Pharm. and start listening to the people they work for.

    5. Ray says:

      Oh, know what else causes brain damage in kids?

      Dravet syndrome, also known as Severe Myoclonic Epilepsy of Infancy (SMEI).

    6. Name says:

      I also want to add that I’ve read through this report, and adding the fact that in a medical professional. I utilized marijuanas stress relieving properties often during my academic career and it only ever helped me deal with the many difficult trials my degree out me through. I also want to share that what they found is not indicative of anything negative, despite media hyping it as such. Increased dendritic growth in the brain as well as increased grey matter are generally associated with an increase in neuropathways. This has been a known association with the plants use for decades, and is neither anything new, nor a negative consequence. Infact, for the most part, it can be considered a healthy byproduct of the plants usage. Increased neuropathways are often associated with greater mental cognition later in life when cognition usually begins to fall apart via the onset of dementia and other as of yet fully understood maladies of an aging brain. increased neurogenesis is also considered to be associated with a pseudo protective measure against the onset of Alzheimer’s.

      As such, it is pretty obvious that the media is sensationalizing (often with obvious anti-legalization biased agendas) in an attempt to bank ratings off the rising legalization changes in the nation. Or in short, “fear mongering sells”.

    7. Name says:

      Also, apologies for typos, I wrote all that on my iPhone, and it doesn’t like to cooperate!!

    8. Joel: the other Joel says:

      Prohibitionist are desperately trying to fight back anyway they can.

    9. Jolly O Toker says:

      Here it comes the 2014 version of Reefer Madness and the drama is getting funnier as 420 approach. Call that a study by using only 40 people to prove their point?

    10. Fear mongering Propaganda,,,,

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