Recent Studies on Pot and Brain Damage Need to be Given”Sober”Attention

050114A study recently came out analyzing the damage to the brain caused by pot smoking. Unfortunately, it came out during the week of the Triduum, and a Catholic blog like this had another focus at that time. But it’s time to circle back and have a look.

I wrote some time ago of my anecdotal observation that the pot smokers I knew all developed serious problems with motivation, and that the effects of being “high” lingered long after toking a joint and went on to become semi-permanent. It involved a glazed look, a shuffling gait, and a lethargic attitude largely exemplified by the phrase: “Hey man…I ain’t gotta do what the man says; I ain’t gotta go to the man’s class…” When some of the kids I grew up with started using pot, there was a very noticeable change in their personalities.  Again, I have written more on that here: The Problem of Pot

Now comes a more scientific study from Harvard that affirms what experience has taught. Below are some pertinent excerpts (in bold) along with my brief commentary (in red). The full article is here: Harvard Study links Pot and Brain Damage

According to a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from Harvard and Northwestern studied the brains of 18- to 25-year-olds, half of whom smoked pot recreationally and half of whom didn’t. What they found was rather shocking: even those who only smoked few times a week had significant brain abnormalities in the areas that control emotion and motivation.

Exactly. But I wonder why the author of the article used the word “shocking”? As I have said, and many of you have commented, getting stoned makes you groggy, unmotivated, and induces a sort of personality change. I think it would have been shocking not to find any brain abnormalities. The phenomenon of becoming unmotivated is very observable.

Note too the phrase  “significant brain abnormalities.”

Similar studies have found a correlation between heavy pot use and brain abnormalities, but this is the first study that has found the same link with recreational users.

The study described “recreational users” as those who smoked pot between one and four times a week.

Using three different neuroimaging techniques, researchers then looked at…areas [of the brain] … responsible for gauging the benefit or loss of doing certain things, and providing feelings of reward for pleasurable activities such as food, sex, and social interactions. “This is a part of the brain that you absolutely never ever want to touch,” said [Hans] Breiter, co-author of the study….These are fundamental in terms of what people find pleasurable in the world and assessing that against the bad things.”

Pay attention! Pot affects judgment. The study seems to make clear that not only are pot smokers damaging their motivation, they are also affecting their ability to make sound judgments about what is good vs. bad, helpful vs. harmful.

This may go a long way to affirm another connection I have made anecdotally between drug use and the cultural revolution. How else can we describe the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s other than as a long stream of bad decisions, poor judgment, the abandonment of common sense, and just plain stupid and foolish thinking? In other words, an awful lot of the leaders, drivers, and participants in this these revolutions were stoned and their brains were damaged.

And even today, when there is so much evidence of the social harm caused by these revolutions, many still can’t make the connections; they want more of the same; they want to drive us deeper into revolution. Are their brains damaged? I don’t know. You decide.

But the widespread lack of common sense in our culture, especially among the Baby Boomers, has a kind of surreal quality to it. It’s a little like a bad dream that you’d expect people to eventually wake up from—but many don’t. Perhaps their brains are too damaged to wake up or to think clearly. I don’t know. You decide.

Shockingly, every single person in the marijuana group, including those who only smoked once a week, had noticeable abnormalities.

OK, so at least according to this study, even “moderate” use causes harm. Studies will continue, but honestly, the data have been pretty clear to me for a long time just from my personal experience with pot smokers. It ain’t cool or pretty. They just look glazed, stoned, unmotivated, and “dulled out.” Their whole sad demeanor shouts to me: “Don’t do drugs!”

I am not going to address here the issue of how drug use should be dealt with by the legal system. I am not certain that putting users in jail is the answer. But the legalization push that is rampaging through this country is yet another example of bad judgment. Let’s slow down the train and at least adopt the same attitude toward pot that we have toward cigarettes.

Pot should barely be tolerated within fifty miles of where anyone lives. And if it is “legal” it ought to be pushed to the margins of our society with no less scorn than tobacco has recently been given. When I see a tobacco smoker I think, “How sad. How foolish…given all we now know.” There is no less reason to consider pot smokers in this same manner. They are not cool, hip, or glamorous. Smoking pot is sad and foolish behavior.

To address the “Yeah, but what about alcohol?” objection, I will make a few quick observations:

  1. Drunkenness is a sin.
  2. Would our society be better off without any alcohol? Probably. But if so, why would we want to add another substance with problematic associations to the mix?
  3. I am not aware of any study that says that moderate or occasional use of alcoholic beverages permanently damages the human brain. But it is clear that excessive use of alcohol has severe bodily consequences, including effects on the brain.
  4. The Bible, while condemning drunkenness, does not forbid the use of alcohol and even commends the proper use of wine, etc.
  5. The moderate use of alcohol is not in the same category as pot smoking and the two should be discussed as separate matters. The expression “Drugs and Alcohol” is an equivocation that lumps together two different realities that are separated by wide gulfs of culture, history, experience, and medical study.

When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, a lot of music “celebrated” pot. Here is one of those popular “songs.” It made a joke out of being stoned. At the end of the day though, it was just dumb.

13 Replies to “Recent Studies on Pot and Brain Damage Need to be Given”Sober”Attention”

  1. I would venture to say given the present state of affairs our society has arrived at after observing this drug induced movement started back in the latter 1960’s, the present leadership would only prefer to control the results of the impact rather than stop it. To much has been gained for this perverse generation as a result of drug use and their mission has not been fulfilled. It is not about right and wrong, it’s about control and power over the masses. It is not a conspiracy theory, it’s a fact. Look where the Church stands in it’s relationship to society as defined by the powers that be, as compared to fifty years ago.

  2. I have often heard that when a person stops using drugs of any kind including pot, their maturity level is at the age of when they began using. It has been stunted or almost stopped growing at the point of use. I have seen this in people I knew from childhood. I see it in their choice of clothing and music, the way they handle situations, like a teenager if that is when the drug use began, in their moral and ethical outlooks or mindset, in their difficulty in keeping a job, in their manner of speech and communication skills, etc.
    I can’t imagine how this legal use of marijana for medicinal purposes will change society, change human interaction or even change one’s personal quest for God, for needing religion period.
    I grew up in the same time period as yourself, but that song is a first for me.

    1. As a person who has worked toward recovery from addictions for over ten years and, progressed to supporting others who are new to this recovery, I applaud you for this very telling statement.
      Many of us have found that the best, and most effective, program is achieved by basing that program on the time when we began our thorough isolation from society in general. Over and over I have heard those who provide, in themselves, the best example state how they had to backtrack to that young age and head out in a healthy direction.
      An interesting effect is that the progress is often a little (stress little) quicker than it would have been because all the life lessons which we’ve experienced are there waiting for a clear head and a spiritual cleansing.
      Back to the main issue; I feel fortunate that – shortly before I turned 30 in 1982 I developed a mild distaste for pot. Since I didn’t see any point in spending money on something which only provided discomfort and, which discomfort would take an hour or more to wear off while I waited in a state of boredom, I stopped. Unfortunately the emotional and spiritual pain which I craved escape from clamoured for something else – so I turned to other things. Continued to do so until I faced it with the help of other people who had overcome and by turning to God who I still loved but had come to honour in only a token manner. Before this I tried techniques from self-help books which were about doing it all by myself. These efforts always led to worse binges than ever, likely because I remain separate from the society which I chose to isolate from.
      Since then and interesting thing happened when I mention my (mild) dislike. Casual indulgers in pot or hashish tend to shrug and agree that the experience is not worth bothering myself about. Heavy indulgers mostly become angry and claim that my discomfort must be extreme and that I am too weak, or some such, to be able to enjoy such a “wonderful experience” When I tell them that there’s no horror or severe distress – just boredom while waiting for the feeling to go away – they usually go to even more anger.
      I suspect that the anger is based on a fear of having their false, and destructive, comfort taken away.

      1. Oh yeah, my computer’s a bit primitive and videos and songs (unlike that which can be read) seemed timed to a common timing anyway so I’m not sure what the song is. However, I’ve always been struck with Dr. Hook’s “Got Stoned and I Missed It” even when I enjoyed pot. The frustration of being powerless over addiction one might suppose.

  3. Having been retired from teaching for some years I must say that the study to which you refer and your comments are ‘spot on’.
    There is constant pressure being applied to our government here in Canada to loosen all laws regarding pot. It started with the idea that pot is of great help to those suffering from medical conditions.The law is federally regulated so we do not have a province changing the law to suit its voters….at least not yet.
    One hopes that the study to which you refer will gain a very wide audience.


    Teenage Cannabis Smoking ‘Permanently Lowers IQ’.

    Teenagers who regularly smoke cannabis are putting themselves at risk of permanently damaging their intelligence, according to a landmark study.

    Starting smoking cannabis during one’s teens can have permanent effects on the brain, found researchers.

    Researchers found persistent users of the drug, who started smoking it at school, had lower IQ scores as adults.

    They were also significantly more likely to have attention and memory problems in later life, than their peers who abstained.

    Furthermore, those who started as teenagers and used it heavily, but quit as adults, did not regain their full mental powers, found academics at King’s College London and Duke University in the US.

    They looked at data from over 1,000 people from Dunedin in New Zealand, who have been followed through their lives since being born in 1972 or 1973.

    Participants were asked about cannabis usage when they were 18, 21, 26, 32 and 38. Their IQ was tested at 13 and 38. In addition, each nominated a close friend or family member, who was asked about attention and memory problems.

    About one in 20 admitted to starting cannabis use before the age of 18, while a further one in 10 took up the habit in the early or mid 20s.

    Persistent users [at least four days a week] who started as teenagers suffered a drop of eight IQ points. Professor Terrie Moffitt, of KCL’s Institute of Psychiatry, who contributed to the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said “persistent users” who started as teenagers suffered a drop of eight IQ points at the age of 38, compared to when they were 13.

    Persistent users meant those who used it during at least three of the ages from 18 to 38, and who said at each occasion they were smoking it on at least four days a week.

    She said: “Adolescent-onset cannabis users, but not adult-onset cannabis users, showed marked IQ decline from childhood to adulthood.

    An average person [suffering an 8 point loss] dropped far down the intelligence rankings, so that instead of 50 per cent of the population being more intelligent than them, 71 per cent were. “For example, individuals who started using cannabis in adolescence and used it for years thereafter showed an average eight-point IQ decline.

    “Quitting or reducing cannabis use did not appear to fully restore intellectual functioning among adolescent-onset former persistent cannabis users,” she said.

    Although eight points did not sound much, it was not trivial, she warned.

    It meant that an average person dropped far down the intelligence rankings, so that instead of 50 per cent of the population being more intelligent than them, 71 per cent were.

    IQ is a strong determinant of access to college, lifelong total income, access to a good job, performance on the job, tendency to develop heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and even early death. “Research has shown that IQ is a strong determinant of a person’s access to a college education, their lifelong total income, their access to a good job, their performance on the job, their tendency to develop heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and even early death,” she said.

    “Individuals who lose eight IQ points in their teens and 20s may be disadvantaged, relative to their same-age peers, in most of the important aspects of life and for years to come.”

    The cognitive abilities of the 10 per cent of people who started in their 20s – who could loosely be classed as college smokers – also suffered while they were still smoking.

    However, if they gave up at least a year before their IQ test at 38, their intelligence recovered, suggesting their brains were more resilient and bounced back.

    Cannabis was increasingly being seen as a safe alternative to tobacco. … More secondary school students in the U.S. are using cannabis than tobacco … Fewer now think cannabis is damaging than tobacco. But cannabis is harmful for the very young.Prof Moffitt said adolescent brains appeared “more vulnerable to damage and disruption” from cannabis than those of fully mature adults.

    Reliable figures on cannabis usage among today’s British teens and twentysomethings are hard to come by.

    But Prof Moffitt said there was growing concern in the US that cannabis was increasingly being seen as a safe alternative to tobacco.

    “This is the first year that more secondary school students in the US are using cannabis than tobacco, according to the Monitoring the Future project at the University of Michigan,” she noted.

    “Fewer now think cannabis is damaging than tobacco. But cannabis is harmful for the very young.”

  5. Imagine if, when Prohibition was repealed, instead of shielding children from harmful exposure to alcohol, state and federal governments had essentially abandoned them to the glamour drinking culture.

    We might have seen documentaries about the social problems by 1938. Socially conservative elements in society might have lamented the situation, given the fact that such conditions couldn’t have prevailed if there were an effective government of laws, not of men.

    Eventually, society would have decayed to a film noir alternate reality like that in Dashiell Hammett’s horribly cynical “Red Harvest”. The American “City on a Hill” would be well on its way to the complete dominance of brute force portrayed in Alessandro Manzoni’s “The Betrothed”.

    This is essentially the situation today, with the news announcement that the US Justice Department will not prosecute any marijuana crimes unless there is indication of organized crime infiltration—as happened in the Netherlands when cannabis and hashish possession for personal use were decriminalized.

    The core issue is that underage users are most seriously impacted. There are no public discussions about the effects upon minors of the marijuana gray market. The only group with an organized platform of political agitation is the “medical” marijuana industry, which has substantial incentives for current conditions to remain as they are, including essentially unregulated use by minors.

  6. Thanks for the distinctions on alcohol.

    Part of me admires the strict Islamic prohibition on alcohol, but, ultimately, strict prohibition is a bit extreme. There is nothing wrong with moderate alcohol use and some recent studies have shown that moderate drinking may actually be healthy. The ancients knew this. In his letters, Jerome was fond of repeating Paul’s advice to Timothy that it is good to take some wine “for the stomach’s sake.”

    The Catholic position on alcohol is a sensible moderate position between the extremes of strict prohibition advocated by Muslims and some Protestants and the pagan position that it’s good to go on a bender now and then, as long as you don’t drive.

  7. Inadvertently perhaps all this push for the legalizing of pot is of the demonic. Colorado has legalized it. And there is edible marijuana too. Guess what? Children are eating it with distressing results. And what about people who drive high? How many people have to die so that others can have unlimited access to this drug. And unlimited access to sex pretty much too with government paying the fees and abortion, the murder of the unborn, available to anyone, at any time in their development.

    Sin and pleasure are ruling the day and not the common good.

  8. I await the day when similar neuro-imaging and neuropsychological studies will be conducted on casual sexual behavior in the young. We know that mental health and sexual restraint are positively correlated and that teen suicidal ideation and suicide attempt are positively correlated with sexual activity, but we haven’t looked at changes in brain physiology based upon sexually precociousness. Looking back into the 1960s, I do not think it was coincidental that increases in sexual promiscuity was associated with the use of pot, and other drugs.

  9. The Florida legislature just legalized medical marijuana for children. The forces of hell won’t rest; they have the stupid adults and now they want the children. When I hear the phrase, God bless America, I cringe. It should be instead, God have mercy on America.

  10. Also, note that at the end of the study the scientists are very clear to state that “Correlation is not causation”.

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