Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Sunday, June 16, 2019

"Marijuana Damages Young Brains: States that legalize it should set a minimum age of 25 or older."

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary in the New York Times authored by two doctors, Kenneth L. Davis and Mary Jeanne Kreek. Here are excerpts:

It’s tempting to think marijuana is a harmless substance that poses no threat to teens and young adults. The medical facts, however, reveal a different reality.

Numerous studies show that marijuana can have a deleterious impact on cognitive development in adolescents, impairing executive function, processing speed, memory, attention span and concentration. The damage is measurable with an I.Q. test. Researchers who tracked subjects from childhood through age 38 found a consequential I.Q. decline over the 25-year period among adolescents who consistently used marijuana every week. In addition, studies have shown that substantial adolescent exposure to marijuana may be a predictor of opioid use disorders.

The reason the adolescent brain is so vulnerable to the effect of drugs is that the brain — especially the prefrontal cortex, which controls decision making, judgment and impulsivity — is still developing in adolescents and young adults until age 25....

The risk that marijuana use poses to adolescents today is far greater than it was 20 or 30 years ago, because the marijuana grown now is much more potent. In the early 1990s, the average THC content of confiscated marijuana was roughly 3.7 percent. By contrast, a recent analysis of marijuana for sale in Colorado’s authorized dispensaries showed an average THC content of 18.7 percent.

The proposals for legalizing marijuana under consideration in New York and New Jersey allow for use starting at age 21. While society may consider a 21-year-old to be an adult, the brain is still developing at that age. States that legalize marijuana should set a minimum age of no younger than 25. They should also impose stricter limits on THC levels and strictly monitor them. Educational campaigns are also necessary to help the public understand that marijuana is not harmless.

Simply because society has become more accepting of marijuana use doesn’t make it safe for high school and college students. Cigarettes and alcohol, both legal, have caused great harm in society as well as to people’s health, and have ruined many lives. Marijuana may do the same. We must tightly regulate the emerging cannabis industry to protect the developing brain.

UPDATE: Interestingly, not long after blogging about this NY Times commentary, I came across this extended Washington Post piece headlined "Potent pot, vulnerable teens trigger concerns in first states to legalize marijuana." Here is a snippet:

As more than a dozen states from Hawaii to New Hampshire consider legalizing marijuana, doctors warn of an urgent need for better education — not just of teens but of parents and lawmakers — about how the products being marketed can significantly affect young people’s brain development.

The limited scientific research to date shows that earlier and more frequent use of high-THC cannabis puts adolescents at greater jeopardy of substance use disorders, mental health issues and poor school performance.

“The brain is abnormally vulnerable during adolescence,” said Staci Gruber, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who studies how marijuana affects the brain. “Policy seems to have outpaced science, and in the best of all possible worlds, science would allow us to set policy.”

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/marijuana_law/2019/06/marijuana-damages-young-brains-states-that-legalize-it-should-set-a-minimum-age-of-25-or-older.html

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