Cerebrum Winter 2021


Marijuana: Young Minds and Other Concerns

Government Agencies Weigh In Any ethical evaluation of marijuana policies should consider the latest scientific understanding of marijuana’s effects on cognitive abilities on adolescents and its potential downstream impacts on education, employment, job performance, and income. The most authoritative governmental sources are the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), supplemented by a few other federal agencies. Most of the scientific information in this column is gleaned from their websites, buttressed by commentaries from outside experts. The latest Marijuana Research Report from NIDA was updated in July 2020. A cover letter from Nora Volkow, the agency's director, notes that marijuana is gaining greater acceptance in our society, making it “particularly important” for people to understand what is known about both its adverse health effects and potential therapeutic benefits. Whether the therapeutic benefits outweigh its health risks is still an open question that science has not resolved, the director asserts. Marijuana is the second most commonly used psychotropic drug in the US, after ethanol (alcohol), and after years of its use tapering downward the risks of marijuana have steadily declined. This is alarming because heavy use of marijuana at an early age can cause harmful changes in the brain, according to a growing number of studies. Some studies have even linked marijuana use to significant declines in IQ and short-lived interference with memory , especially when heavy use starts in among high school and middle school students, rates have started back up. At the same time, teenage perception of adolescence. Those who used marijuana heavily as teenagers and quit using as adults did not recover the lost IQ points, according to NIDA. By contrast, people who only began using marijuana heavily as adults did not lose IQ points. This is clearly a red flag warning to protect teenagers from excessive use, and policy makers have an ethical duty to keep marijuana out of the hands of teenagers to the extent possible, through such steps as requiring valid identification cards before selling to minors. If nothing else, a vigorous educational campaign in schools and on social media platforms might mitigate the damage. Whatever harm an individual may personally suffer from marijuana, it seems clearly unethical for users to inflict harm on others. In some homes, children have found and eaten marijuana edibles in overdose quantities. Parents have a moral obligation to protect them. There is some evidence, albeit inconclusive, that marijuana may increase the risk of motor

BY PHILIP M. BOFFEY T roubling ethical issues—especially as they relate to the brains of young people—have been raised by the latest round of marijuana initiatives that won resounding approval from voters in the November elections. While most eyes were focusing on the presidential race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, or on political races lower on the ballot, four states—Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota—decisively approved the recreational use of marijuana. This brings the total number of states that have done so to 15, plus the District of Columbia. Most of the issues have been raised in previous legalization battles but have gained heightened importance and some new wrinkles after the latest round of

voting. It seems clear that the American public is moving inexorably toward wider use of marijuana, so it is important to keep in mind that while states may make legalized marijuana available to people over the age of 21, federal agencies say the adolescent brain continues to develop until the mid- to late 20s, while some studies show that the frontal lobe in the adolescent brain is still forming at age 30. Oregon voters approved a particularly sweeping

and potentially historic step: the nation’s first measure to decriminalize personal use of small amounts of all drugs, not just marijuana but such “harder” drugs as heroin and cocaine as well. Punishment will be tantamount to a traffic ticket, not a jail sentence. The measure will also greatly expand access to drug treatments and harm reduction services, funded by savings from no longer arresting, incarcerating, and prosecuting people for drug possession, and by marijuana sales taxes. From an ethical standpoint, it seems far better to treat drug use as a public health problem requiring medical treatment or health services rather than as a justification for locking people up and potentially ruining their lives. Advocates of drug reform hope Oregon’s step will spur similar action in other states and strike a body blow against the so-called “War on Drugs.” Such measures could help reduce the glaring, ethically unjust disparities in the punishment of Black people and other racial minorities for possession of small amounts of drugs.


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