The Wayne County Drug and Alcohol Commission held an informative session at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Friday night, March 14. The subject: marijuana use and its effect on the teenage brain. While titled “It’s Not Your Mama’s Marijuana or Your Papa’s Pot,” the presentation lead by Mary Paladino and Charlotte Myers, focused both on how marijuana has changed in the past 20 years as well as how a better understanding of how it works on the brain has evolved.
Paladino noted that there has always been controversy surrounding marijuana, but with many states legalizing its use for medical reasons and the decriminalization of its recreational use in Washington and Colorado, things now are more complicated than ever.
••• Legal vs. safe & healthy
“There seems to be a confusion now with ‘legality’ versus ‘safety’ or ‘healthy,” Paladino pointed out. Even though medical marijuana has been used to treat a slew of syndromes ranging from glaucoma to epilepsy, she’s found no statements or letters from any medical association stating a support for its use, tied to a specific condition. The notable exception, Paladino noted, was the American Epilepsy Society, who, in its position, supported further research on any substance, marijuana included, that would help patients, but that there was no definitive proof that it helped persons with epilepsy and feels the use of medical marijuana should be up to the individual.
Marijuana’s classification as a Schedule 1 drug has a lot to do with the lack of pharmacological research. As defined by the US Controlled Substance Act, a drug is classified as Schedule 1 if a) it has a high potential for abuse; b) there is no accepted medical use for it; or c) there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision.
••• More powerful today
While Big Pharma and the Food and Drug Administration may have pushed marijuana research to their backburners, bootleg biologists have been genetically and chemically altering the plant and its processing for decades in order to produce products that yield more Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical in marijuana that actually affects the brain and produces the “high.”
The THC in the typical size marijuana cigarette rolled up by a Baby Boomer at a Jimi Hendrix concert was 3.1% less than a similar dose toked up by their Gen-X kids at Lollapalooza. Nowadays, the THC levels are 5x higher than they were just 20 years ago.
Similarly, refinement processes to further enhance the effects of the drug have also increased the THC levels. While Hashish and its various derivatives have been around for a while, these resins and oils have nothing on budder, also known as wax, which is a flaky substance created by extracting the canniboids by using isopropyl alcohol form the plant. Actual figures on the potency of budder vary, but all are much higher than hash, and contain 30-50% more THC than regular marijuana. Budder is typically smoked and just one hit can produce effects that last for hours.
Not only has the drug changed, so has our understanding of how it works in the brain. Paladino explained that science now believes the brain doesn’t stop developing in males until almost age 25 and on average, by age 21 for females. In the past it was thought that the brain reached its developmental zenith around age 15. THC affects the Prefrontal Cortex, the area that controls judgment, planning, and decisions as well as the Hippocampus which is where learning and memory are centered. THC can also affect the Cerebellum, which while somewhat fully developed by teenage years, is still a part of the brain necessary for muscle movement and coordination. However the area that can become the most effected by THC is the Nucleus Accumbus, the pleasure center of the brain, which develops rather early in life.
••• Not so happy
THC acts like dopamine and tells the Nuculus Accumbus to send out “happy signals” to the rest of the brain. The more THC in the system, the less natural dopamine will be produced because the brain thinks it’s already there. When the THC finally wears off there is no natural dopamine there and the user will feel depressed until the dopamine is restored to its natural balance. Long term users could shut down the dopamine production altogether making pot smoking a necessity just to get through the day. This newer research also suggests that while there was thought to be no physiological addiction to the drug in the past, a real physical dependency may now actually exist in long term users.
Myers and Paladino urge anyone who wishes to know more about these subjects to contact the commission at 570-253-6022.