Pubdate: Thu, 17 Apr 2014
Source: Herald-Dispatch, The (Huntington, WV)
Copyright: 2014 The Herald-Dispatch


The nation's growing movement to legalize marijuana for medical or
recreational use is no doubt sending the message to many that the
substance is harmless.

But that would be an incorrect assumption, according to a growing body
of research that suggests use of marijuana can damage brains,
particularly those of youth and young adults.

A study released this week found that using marijuana a few times a
week can alter brain structures in a way that could pose risks to the
casual user. "Just casual use appears to create changes in the brain
in areas you don't want to change," Hans Breiter, a psychiatrist and
mathematician at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of
Medicine in Chicago, told The Associated Press. Breiter led the study,
which was conducted in collaboration with researchers at Harvard University.

The study looked at the brains of 40 college students, 20 of them
relatively light marijuana users and others who used no marijuana.
Among the users, the scientists found volume, shape and density
changes in two brain areas -- the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala.
Those areas influence emotion and motivation and some types of mental
illness. The study found that the brains of those who smoked more
marijuana differed more from the brains of non-users.

The findings did not surprise other researchers who have come up with
similar results, including a study that found a decline in IQ points
among people who used marijuana regularly. Breiter's concern, which
echoes warnings yielded from other research, is that marijuana can
pose a greater threat to the developing brains of teens and younger
adults. He noted that people who are well into their 20s or even 30s
have brains that are still developing.

But the potential long-term impacts seem to be lost on a growing
number of young people. Surveys of middle and high school students
locally and across the country have shown that a shrinking percentage
of them perceive marijuana as harmful.

Likely feeding that perception is the growing legalization of
marijuana. California was the first state to legalize medical
marijuana in 1996, and now 20 states and the District of Columbia have
followed suit. Two states have gone a step further; Colorado and
Washington allow recreational use of marijuana.

The result is that advocates who work to combat the use of harmful
substances have a greater challenge ahead of them. Locally, the Cabell
County Substance Abuse Prevention Partnership has focused some of its
annual "drug summits" on the effects of marijuana use on developing
brains, and it works in the schools to educate students about the
dangers of marijuana and other substances.

That's important work, particularly now. Francis Collins, the director
of the National Institutes of Health, told USA TODAY that people
should be more aware of the potential brain impacts, particularly in
light of the movement to legalize marijuana. "Perhaps it would be
better if ... there was a little bit more recognition of that
particular consequence," he said.

Those who ignore the warning could suffer consequences limiting their
prospects for the future.  
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