By Mitch Earleywine, Ph.D
State University of New York at Albany
Chair, NORML board of directors
A new study claims to show small deficits on neuropsychological tests in college students who started smoking marijuana early in life. It might get a lot of press. Prohibitionists love to bang the drum of marijuana-related cognitive deficits, so I’d like NORMLites to know how to make sense of this sort of research. The recurring themes in this literature involve several alternative explanations that never seem to dawn on journalists. These results often arise from artifacts of the study rather than physiological effects of the plant. I’d like to focus on a few: other drug use, dozens of statistical tests, the incentives for performance, and the demands communicated by the experimenters.
The latest paper of this type is actually pretty good. Researchers studied over 30 people aged 18-20 who started using before age 17 (their average starting age was around 15) and who smoked at least 5 days per week for at least a year. They compared them to a comparable bunch of non-users. I hate to see 15-year-olds using anything psychoactive, even caffeine. Spending full days in high school with less than optimal memory functioning is no way to lay the groundwork for a superb life. I admit that I want these same people to grow up and be the next generation of activists, so feel free to call me selfish when I emphasize NORML’s consistent message: THE PLANT IS NOT FOR KIDS WHO LACK MEDICAL NECESSITY.
OTHER DRUG USE?
First, we have to keep other drug use in mind. Unfortunately, the marijuana group in this study got drunk more than 4 times as much in the last six months as the controls. Given what we know about binge drinking and neuropsychological functioning, it’s going to be hard to attribute any differences between these groups to the plant. It’s just as likely that any deficits stem from pounding beers. Studying cannabis users who aren’t so involved with alcohol would help address neuropsychological functioning much better.
HOW MANY TESTS?
In addition, we should always consider the number of measures in any study. Many of these neuropsychological tasks have multiple trials that can be scored multiple ways. The more statistical tests you run, the more likely it is that you’ll find a statistically significant difference by chance. It’s kind of like flipping coins. It’s rare to flip four heads in a row. But if you flip a coin a thousand times, odds are high that somewhere in the list of a thousand results will be four heads in a row. These investigators got 48 different test scores out of the participants. You’d expect at least 2 of them to be significant just by chance. They found differences on 14 different scores, suggesting that something’s going on, but we’re not sure which results are the “real” differences and which ones arose by accident. (That’s why we replicate studies like this.) And, as I mentioned, it might all be because of the booze.
WHY WOULD ANYONE DO ALL THESE TESTS?
We also have to consider incentives for performance. Most researchers bring participants to the lab for a fixed fee and ask them to crank out a bunch of crazy puzzles and memory assessments. It’s unclear why people would feel compelled to strain their brains. The authors of this study were kind enough to mention some relevant work by my friend (and former student) Dr. Rayna Macher. Dr. Macher showed that cannabis users respond best when you make the effort worth their while. She focused on people who used the plant at least four times per week for a year or more. She read one group some standard instructions for a memory test. The other group got the regular instructions plus an additional sentence: “It is important that you try your very best on these tasks, because this research will be used to support legislation on marijuana policy.”
As you’d guess, this simple sentence fired them up. Compared to cannabis users who didn’t hear that sentence, they performed better on 3 out of 10 measures. (You’d expect less than one difference by chance.) And compared to the non-users, the folks who got the incentive sentence did just as well on all the tests. For those who didn’t hear the incentive sentence, users did less well than non-users on 1 of the 10.
I know that prohibitionists are going to try to call this amotivation. (See my rant on that when you get a chance) I call it putting effort where it pays. But given what we know about how these studies can hamper the reform of marijuana laws, users everywhere should do their best on all tests whenever they get the chance.
WE OFTEN DO WHAT EXPERIMENTERS EXPECT OF US
Last but not least, we have to consider the demands communicated by the experimenter. Decades of data now support the idea that people often do what others expect them to do, especially if they believe the expectation, too. Another friend and former student, Dr. Alison Looby De Young, showed that these expectations are critical in studies of neuropsychological performance and cannabis. She gave a neuropsychological battery to men who had used cannabis at least three times per week for the last two years. One group of men read instructions that said that cannabis had no impact on their performance on these tests. Another group read instructions that said that cannabis was going to make them perform poorly. You guessed it, those men who heard they were going to flub the tests performed worse on 2 of the 4 tests. (You’d expect less than one difference by chance). As you might imagine, some laboratories communicate their expectations about cannabis and cognitive function subtly or not so subtly. Some participants are bound to behave accordingly. So what looks like a cognitive deficit is just an artifact of the laboratory environment where experimenters stare daggers at cannabis users.
In the end, I’m glad that researchers do this work, but these effects are too small and fleeting to justify prohibition. We already know that cannabis isn’t for healthy kids. People who get heavily involved with the plant early in life might not perform as well as those who never touch cannabis even if investigators control for other drug use, AND use a sensible number of tests, AND provide appropriate incentives, AND communicate a reasonable expectation.
But how many people should go to jail for that?
If you said, “None,” you’ve done an excellent job on an important cognitive test.
According to polling data released this week by Gallup, 38% of Americans admit to having smoked marijuana in their lives. This rate remains relatively unchanged from Gallup’s previous surveys on this question. 34% responded in the affirmative when asked in 1999 and 33% in 1985.
What is significant about this data is that, while total use had risen very slightly, use among 18-29 year olds has fallen 20% since 1985. In 1985, 56% of 18-29 year olds admitted to having tried marijuana, which dropped to 46% in 1999 and is now down to 36%. This decrease has occurred while twenty states approved medical marijuana legislation, sixteen states have decriminalized possession, and two states have fully legalized marijuana. The threats of skyrocketing young adult use seem incredibly unfounded when it appears the current trajectory towards marijuana legalization has had the opposite effect.
Gallup found use rates among 50 to 64 year olds has gone from 9% in 1985 to 44% today. These findings seem to show that as those who came of age in the 1960′s and 70′s get older they are continuing or returning to their cannabis use.
You can view the full survey here.
A 2011 Gallup poll found that a record high of 50% of Americans support legalizing marijuana.
Defense Attorney Lauren K. Johnson won a major court victory for parents who legally use marijuana for medical purposes last week in Los Angeles. In the case of Drake A. (case # B236769), Division Three of the Second Appellate District, California Court of Appeal ruled on December 5, 2012 that there was no evidence showing that the defendant, a father, is a substance abuser for simply being a legal medical marijuana patient. The court confirmed that while parents who abuse drugs can lose custody of their children, a parent who uses marijuana for medical reasons, with a doctor’s approval, isn’t necessarily a drug abuser.
The father, “Paul M.” was placed under DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services) supervision after he testified in an October 2011 hearing that he used medical marijuana about four times a week for knee pain. During that same hearing, he also stated that he never medicates in front of his children, nor is he under the influence while they are in his care. DCFS supervision requires drug counseling, parenting classes and random drug testing. During subsequent drug screenings the father tested positive for marijuana, and negative for all other drugs. As a result, the Superior Court of Los Angeles ruled that the child was to become a “dependent of the court based on the trial court’s finding that [the] father’s usage of medical marijuana placed the child at substantial risk of serious physical harm or illness…”.
“Paul M.” appealed the former court’s ruling, which was challenged in the Second Appellate District of California. The Appellate court subsequently ruled in favor of reversing the Superior court’s judgment. The official ruling stated “[that the] DCFS failed to show that [the] father was unable to provide regular care for Drake [the minor child at issue] due to father’s substance abuse. Both DCFS and the trial court apparently confused the meanings of the terms ‘substance use’ and ‘substance abuse’.”
Johnson issued a press release noting that this is the first case to distinguish between marijuana use and abuse with regards to child protection laws. “In overturning a Los Angeles Superior Court ruling against the plaintiff, Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, the Appellate Court said the ‘mere usage of drugs,’ including marijuana, is not the same as substance abuse that can affect child custody, as alleged in this case by the lower court.” She went on to say, “The ruling illustrates a growing recognition of the legitimate use of medical marijuana in this state and other states. We want kids to be safe, but we also want parents to be able to use legally prescribed medications when children appear not to be at demonstrated risk of harm.”
This has been a pervasive issue in California, as well as other medical marijuana states. Legal patients have lost custody of their children and been forced to turn their children over to a juvenile protection agency. The NORML Women’s Alliance has been working hard to bring this issue to the forefront. NORML Women’s Alliance Director Sabrina Fendrick issued the following statement; “This ruling is a small victory in our fight for legal marijuana patients’ parental rights. We hope that future judicial hearings, as well as child protection agencies will utilize this judgment and adopt new policies that reflect the Appellate court’s ruling.”
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This week: Detroit is approved to vote on marijuana decriminalization measure and a new study shows medical marijuana legalization does not increase teen drug use.
Also, another must watch video from this past Wednesday’s DEA Oversight Committee Hearing. This time it is Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) putting the DEA Chief Administrator’s feet to the fire:
[In response to the AP article “Easing of State Marijuana Laws Poses Challenge for Parents”]
No one can deny that the number one goal of a parent is for his or her children to grow up healthy, and be able to make responsible decisions about everything from their friendships and lifestyle, to their safety. Parents do this by sitting down and having open honest conversations about issues that will inevitably affect them in the future.
Education gives children the tools and understanding to help them cope with the challenges they have already experienced, and will continue to face further down the road. Creating a government regulated system for marijuana legalization, which will include everything from age limits to promotional and advertising restrictions (and obviously impaired driving regulations), will actually help parents address this issue with their kids. Several studies have already shown that states with regulated marijuana programs have not seen an increase in teen use. Some have even seen a decrease in pot use among their youth population.
The prohibition of marijuana sends the message “marijuana is morally wrong” and implies that there is no such thing as a responsible marijuana consumer. This ignorant policy improperly allows the government to interfere in the parent’s job of teaching their kids about moderation and responsibility. Scare tactics and rhetoric are disingenuous and do not help children understand the realities of the world we live in.
It is socially acceptable for parents, alcohol distributors, and even the government to teach children about safe drinking practices (with a full understanding that alcohol is directly responsible for thousands of deaths every year), and the state regulation of marijuana will allow parents and educators do the same for the plant (whose non-lethal and relatively harmless side effects inevitably make the latter substance the safer choice).
We did not have to outlaw cigarettes to reduce the use among minors. A policy of education and regulation (not prohibition) has created an environment in which cigarette usage has fallen to an all time low. The same goes for alcohol. A sustained and concerted effort on responsible drinking practices by the government, alcohol companies and educational institutions have driven teen alcohol use down to a record low as well, according to the 2011 Monitoring the Future Survey. Age restrictions, government regulation and education have proven to be one of the most effective elements in reducing youth access to adult-only recreational substances. None of these controls apply to marijuana.
As it currently stands, marijuana is illegal and sold on the black market to anyone willing to pay for it. Drug dealers don’t ID. Today, young people report that they have easier access to illicit marijuana than to legal beer or cigarettes. This is because the latter is legally limited to adults only.
Children need accurate information to make informed decisions. They need to be educated on how consuming marijuana can effect their body’s development specifically, and how to reduce any harms associated with its use – as well as how to distinguish between use and abuse. Just as it is socially acceptable for parents to speak with their children openly about their use of alcohol, with an emphasis on that fact that it is only appropriate for adults in moderation, the legalization of marijuana will allow parents to openly discuss their (possible) past or current use and be able to objectively and rationally speak to their children about pot. The controlled regulation of marijuana will send a message of moderation and responsible use. It will also undercut the black market, which in turn will reduce teen access. It’s as simple as that, and it’s a win-win for everybody.