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.
The poll, which questioned over 11,000 law enforcement officers regarding their opinions on drug policy, revealed that just over 64% believed our marijuana laws needed to be relaxed in some form. When asked “Do you believe possession of marijuana for personal use should…” and presented with several options, 35.68% of respondents stated that marijuana be legalized, regulated and taxed, 10.84% chose that it should be be legalized for medical reasons and with a doctor’s prescription only, 14.24% said it should continue to be illegal but only punished via fines (no incarceration), and 3.68% said marijuana should simply be decriminalized. Only 34.7% believed marijuana should continue to be illegal with the criminal penalties that are currently in place.
“This poll reveals that support for marijuana prohibition is eroding even amongst those who are serving on the front lines enforcing it,” stated NORML Communications Director Erik Altieri, “When a majority of the American people and most of those tasked with implementing a law disagree with it in principle, it is time to change that law.”
You can view the full results of this survey here.
“Prohibition cannot be enforced for the simple reason that the majority of the American people do not want it enforced and are resisting its enforcement. That being so, the orderly thing to do under our form of government is to abolish a law that cannot be enforced, a law which the people of the country do not want enforced.” – New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia on alcohol prohibition.
On December 5th 1933 at exactly 5:32pm eastern standard time, Utah signed on as the last of the 36 states needed to ratify the 21st amendment, repealing the nation’s failed 13-year prohibition policy experiment banning the sale and use of alcohol nationwide. At 6:55 p.m., President Roosevelt signed an official proclamation announcing the nation’s new alcohol policy.
It was clear to the public, and politicians of the day that alcohol prohibition had failed in everything it was trying to achieve. The 18th amendment led to widespread disrespect for the law, black market violence, serious loss of tax revenue, and a drain on police resources.
Here we are again, eighty years later fighting another, equally damaging policy of marijuana prohibition. Unlike the short lived 18th amendment however, our nation’s punitive and disastrous marijuana laws have been in effect for more than 75 years. The longevity of this current prohibition has resulted in exponentially more damage to our society than that caused by the alcohol laws of the 1920’s and early 30’s. Today’s laws have ruined millions of lives and wasted hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. It has fueled the black market, contributes to the erosion of civil liberties and continues to line the pockets of criminals and cartels.
Eighty years ago today, our President and 36 states came to the same conclusion: That making something a majority of people perceive as harmless and fun illegal will not make it go away, or solve any problems perceived to be associated with its use. It is about managing public safety by containing the market and managing the user experience. The majority of alcohol drinkers and marijuana users are responsible people who consume in moderation. It is time for our lawmakers to recognize what their predecessors did so many years ago, legalization and regulation is the only sensible solution. Colorado and Washington are pioneering a new policy allowing for the legal, taxable sale of marijuana to adults 21+, and it is only a matter of time before more states follow suit. Through an environment of control, standardization and accountability, both for the individual and the industry, our nation can begin to undo the generations of damage brought on by marijuana prohibition.
The days of marijuana prohibition are numbered and one day, marijuana will take its rightful place alongside alcohol as a legal recreational alternative. One day, we too will be celebrating our very own day of repeal.
Did you know you can do your holiday shopping and support marijuana legalization at the same time?
As we close out of Cyber Monday and enter the full swing of the holiday season, you now have the opportunity help a great cause while doing your online holiday shopping at no extra cost. Every Time you make a purchase through the following websites, a percentage of your purchase price will be donated to the NORML Foundation.
iGive: Sign-up through www.igive.com/norml, download the button and start shopping. There’s over 1400 socially-responsible stores helping to make donations happen.
Amazon: When you shop through Amazon, the Amazon Smile Foundation will donate 0.5% of the purchase price to NORML. Just click here or the link below and start shopping.
Other ways to help NORML during the holiday season: You can make a tax-deductible contribution to the NORML Foundation via check, credit card or PayPal by clicking here. You can also donate stock options, sign up for corporate gift matching (if applicable) and/or incorporate NORML into your will and estate planning.
One’s eyes rarely lie or distort reality. So when walking by my favorite newspaper stand in downtown Washington, D.C. last night another clear political tea leaf revealed itself about the increasing acceptance in America for ending cannabis prohibition when I spied the competing covers for the most recent editions of The Nation and Reason Magazine.
Both magazines are populated with interesting and though-provoking pieces about ending cannabis prohibition, the coming commerce in cannabis post-prohibition and ‘liberal guilt’ for supporting the war on some drugs.