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:
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:
[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:
Bits of DNA (blog): Does researching casual marijuana use cause brain abnormalities?
CNN’s Sanjay Gupta: Apologizes for Past Opposition, Delivers Full Throated Defense of Medical MarijuanaAugust 8, 2013
CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta has reversed his previous opposition to marijuana law reform and delivered a full throated defense of cannabis’ medical applications in an editorial published this week on CNN.
In his own words:
Over the last year, I have been working on a new documentary called “Weed.” The title “Weed” may sound cavalier, but the content is not.
I traveled around the world to interview medical leaders, experts, growers and patients. I spoke candidly to them, asking tough questions. What I found was stunning.
Long before I began this project, I had steadily reviewed the scientific literature on medical marijuana from the United States and thought it was fairly unimpressive. Reading these papers five years ago, it was hard to make a case for medicinal marijuana. I even wrote about this in a TIME magazine article, back in 2009, titled “Why I would Vote No on Pot.”
Well, I am here to apologize.
Click here to read the full article.
Dr. Gupta, a neurosurgeon and CNN’s chief medical correspondent, explains how he mistakenly bought into certain government propaganda surrounding cannabis, but through continued research and his experiences filming his upcoming documentary “Weed” (which airs on CNN on Sunday at 8pm ET and PT) completely changed his mind on the plant and its efficacy.
I mistakenly believed the Drug Enforcement Agency listed marijuana as a schedule 1 substance because of sound scientific proof. Surely, they must have quality reasoning as to why marijuana is in the category of the most dangerous drugs that have “no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse.”
They didn’t have the science to support that claim, and I now know that when it comes to marijuana neither of those things are true. It doesn’t have a high potential for abuse, and there are very legitimate medical applications. In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works.
NORML applauds Dr. Gupta for openly apologizing for his role in how Americans have been “terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States” on the issue of marijuana and his recent advocacy in favor of marijuana law reforms, something we can only hope will continue. Sanjay appeared on Piers Morgan Live last night to promote his new documentary, this segment alone demands some attention for his ability to explain the medical applications of cannabis and the hypocrisy of our current laws in an intelligent and articulate manner.
If current momentum sustains itself, Sanjay Gupta (who was named Forbes #8 Most Influential Celebrity in 2011) is just one more of what will become a long line of prominent and respected media and medical professionals who will speak up against our failed cannabis prohibition. His advocacy can have nothing but a net positive effect on the current dialogue going on in mainstream America surrounding marijuana and help continue to push public opinion in our favor.
Sanjay Gupta’s “Weed” airs this Sunday on CNN at 8pm ET and PT
Alternet: “Five Scientific Conclusions About Cannabis That The Mainstream Media Doesn’t Want You To Know”July 30, 2012
Writing in the journal Science some four decades ago, New York State University sociologist Erich Goode documented the mainstream media’s complicity in maintaining cannabis prohibition.
He observed: “[T]ests and experiments purporting to demonstrate the ravages of marijuana consumption receive enormous attention from the media, and their findings become accepted as fact by the public. But when careful refutations of such research are published, or when later findings contradict the original pathological findings, they tend to be ignored or dismissed.”
A review of today’s mainstream media landscape indicates that little has changed. While studies touting the purported dangers of cannabis are frequently pushed by the federal government and, therefore, all but assured mainstream media coverage, scientific conclusions rebutting pot propaganda or demonstrating potential positive aspects of the herb often tend to go unreported.
Writing today on the website Alternet.org, I explore five recent scientific findings regarding cannabis that have gone all but unnoticed by the corporate media.
Click here for the full story.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), the primary sponsor of HR 2306: The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011, appeared on ‘This Week with Christiane Amanpour’ on ABC with fellow guests George Will of the Washington Post and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI).
The conversation found its way to marijuana legalization which led to Barney Frank calling out the hypocrisy of most of his conservative colleagues.
“It’s a great embarrassment to the conservatives,” said Frank, “They want to tell people who they can have sex with. Come on, all this is big government! Who can I have sex with? Who can I marry? What can I read? What can I smoke? You guys, on the whole — not all of you — but the conservatives are the ones who intrude on personal liberty there.”
The debate got heated between Frank and George Will. “I mean, personal liberty, if someone wants to smoke marijuana who’s an adult, why do you want to make them go to jail?” Frank questioned.
“I need to know more about whether it’s a gateway drug to other drugs, I need to know how you’re going to regulate it,” George Will replied.
“Anything is a gateway to anything,” Representative Frank shot back, “That’s the slippery slope argument which is a very anti-libertarian argument. The fact that if somebody is doing something that’s not in itself wrong, that it might lead later on to something else then stop the something else. Don’t lock them up for smoking marijuana.”
Will defended himself claiming, “What you’re calling a cop-out, I’m calling a quest for information.”
“How long’s it going to last, George?” Frank asked, “We’ve been doing this for decades.”
Watch the clip below:
MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell: “I Really Don’t Know How [Prohibitionists] Sleep at Night…Without the Booze.”October 19, 2011
Tuesday night, on his program “The Last Word,” Lawrence O’Donnell took an impassioned stance against marijuana prohibition while reporting on the recently released Gallup legalization poll.
O’Donnell, who formerly served as Staff Director of the Senate Finance Committee, notes the disconnect between the public opinion on this issue and policy coming from elected officials.
“In a democracy,” he stated, “we should expect such a dramatic shift in public opinion to be reflected in our public officials, but support for marijuana legalization in the United States Senate…has gone from 0% in 1968 to 0% in 2011.”
O’Donnell then rightfully attacked the Obama Administration’s insistence on keeping marijuana a schedule I substance.
“Now we know that no one in the Obama Administration is stupid enough to actually think [marijuana is as dangerous as heroin], but we also know politicians have no intention of facing reality anytime soon when it comes to marijuana. Politicians will continue to allow young lives to be ruined for mere possession of marijuana; politicians will continue to allow people to be arrested. [They will] allow people to go to jail, allow people to be arrested, allow people to get criminal records, get kicked out of school, be turned down for jobs just because they’ve used marijuana, something more than one president has done and gotten away with.”
In the conclusion to his segment, he unabashedly calls out our country’s elected officials for their hypocrisy on the issue, as many of them have no hesitation to indulge in the legal, more dangerous alternative.
“Senators, members of Congress, presidents, vice presidents, and Supreme Court justices are going to continue to get high, many of them every day and every night. Many of them will do it publicly, and loudly, and legally at restaurants and campaign fundraisers and at state dinners,” O’Donnell said, “They will raise their glasses and get high and they will continue to put people in jail for using a harmless, non-liquid way of getting high like marijuana. Such hypocrisy carries an even stronger stench than the alcohol-drenched breath of those politicians and judges and prosecutors and DEA officials. I really don’t know how they can sleep at night…without the booze.”
If more mainstream media journalists begin embracing the issue with the same intensity and comprehension as Lawrence O’Donnell displayed on his program last night, the end of the war on cannabis might be closer than we think.
You can view the segment in its entirety below: