Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Thursday, August 29, 2019

US Surgeon General issues new health advisory on "Marijuana Use and the Developing Brain"

Screen+Shot+2018-09-14+at+4.43.10+PMThis morning, the federal government weighed in on the health risks of marijuana reforms through this new extended US Surgeon General advisory headed "Marijuana Use and the Developing Brain."  Here is how it gets started and some key passages (with lots of cites to research removed):

I, Surgeon General VADM Jerome Adams, am emphasizing the importance of protecting our Nation from the health risks of marijuana use in adolescence and during pregnancy. Recent increases in access to marijuana and in its potency, along with misperceptions of safety of marijuana endanger our most precious resource, our nation’s youth.

Background

Marijuana, or cannabis, is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States.  It acts by binding to cannabinoid receptors in the brain to produce a variety of effects, including euphoria, intoxication, and memory and motor impairments.  These same cannabinoid receptors are also critical for brain development.  They are part of the endocannabinoid system, which impacts the formation of brain circuits important for decision making, mood and responding to stress....

The risks of physical dependence, addiction, and other negative consequences increase with exposure to high concentrations of THC7 and the younger the age of initiation. Higher doses of THC are more likely to produce anxiety, agitation, paranoia, and psychosis.  Edible marijuana takes time to absorb and to produce its effects, increasing the risk of unintentional overdose, as well as accidental ingestion by children and adolescents.  In addition, chronic users of marijuana with a high THC content are at risk for developing a condition known as cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, which is marked by severe cycles of nausea and vomiting.

This advisory is intended to raise awareness of the known and potential harms to developing brains, posed by the increasing availability of highly potent marijuana in multiple, concentrated forms.  These harms are costly to individuals and to our society, impacting mental health and educational achievement and raising the risks of addiction and misuse of other substances.  Additionally, marijuana use remains illegal for youth under state law in all states; normalization of its use raises the potential for criminal consequences in this population.  In addition to the health risks posed by marijuana use, sale or possession of marijuana remains illegal under federal law notwithstanding some state laws to the contrary.

Marijuana Use during Pregnancy

Pregnant women use marijuana more than any other illicit drug.  In a national survey, marijuana use in the past month among pregnant women doubled (3.4% to 7%) between 2002 and 201712. In a study conducted in a large health system, marijuana use rose by 69% (4.2% to 7.1%) between 2009 and 2016 among pregnant women.  Alarmingly, many retail dispensaries recommend marijuana to pregnant women for morning sickness.

Marijuana use during pregnancy can affect the developing fetus. THC can enter the fetal brain from the mother’s bloodstream and may disrupt the endocannabinoid system, which is important for a healthy pregnancy and fetal brain development. Moreover, studies have shown that marijuana use in pregnancy is associated with adverse outcomes, including lower birth weight.  The Colorado Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System reported that maternal marijuana use was associated with a 50% increased risk of low birth weight regardless of maternal age, race, ethnicity, education, and tobacco use....

Marijuana Use during Adolescence

Marijuana is also commonly used by adolescents, second only to alcohol.  In 2017, approximately 9.2 million youth aged 12 to 25 reported marijuana use in the past month and 29% more young adults aged 18-25 started using marijuana.  In addition, high school students’ perception of the harm from regular marijuana use has been steadily declining over the last decade.  During this same period, a number of states have legalized adult use of marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes, while it remains legal under federal law.  The legalization movement may be impacting youth perception of harm from marijuana.

The human brain continues to develop from before birth into the mid-20s and is vulnerable to the effects of addictive substances.  Frequent marijuana use during adolescence is associated with changes in the areas of the brain involved in attention, memory, decision-making, and motivation.  Deficits in attention and memory have been detected in marijuana-using teens even after a month of abstinence.  Marijuana can also impair learning in adolescents.  Chronic use is linked to declines in IQ, school performance that jeopardizes professional and social achievements, and life satisfaction.  Regular use of marijuana in adolescence is linked to increased rates of school absence and drop-out, as well as suicide attempts. 

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/marijuana_law/2019/08/us-surgeon-general-issues-new-health-advisory-on-marijuana-use-and-the-developing-brain.html

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