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Legalizing pot is not without risk

June 10, 2018

Possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use by adults will become legal in Vermont on July 1st. I think that’s not a bad idea.

Neuroscientist Judith Grisel agrees. But in this recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post, she notes that pot use — particularly heavy use by teenagers — is not without significant risk. Indeed, she writes, Americans are being “astoundingly naive about how the widespread use of pot will affect communities and individuals, particularly teenagers.”

The research on marijuana’s effects on the brain shows that the ingredient that causes the high–delta-9-THC–can dampen motivation and interfere with a successful life, as well as lead to “tolerance, dependence and craving — the hallmarks of addiction.”

Moreover, the research on THC’s impact on the developing adolescent brain is “inconveniently alarming.” Teens who smoke pot regularly have reduced activity in brain circuits critical to noticing new information and making decisions; they are 60 percent less likely to graduate from high school, “are at a substantially increased risk for heroin addiction and alcoholism,” and are seven times more likely to attempt suicide.

I think a solid argument can be made that Grisel is conflating cause with effect: Might it be that less-motivated and suicidal teenagers are drawn to pot (and heroin and alcohol) in the first place, not that pot causes them to be less motivated and suicidal?

That said, Grisel points out that recent studies show that THC can turn on or off genetic expression in a teenager’s epigenome, making young users’ children “at increased risk for mental illness and addiction” years before they are conceived.

I said pot was going to become legal in Vermont. I didn’t say that I was going to smoke it.

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