Pot and the brain: Real, negative effects that come with too high a cost

By Debby Haskins

Scientifically speaking, why does one feel “high” from marijuana? As Vermont contemplates legalizing marijuana and increasing the access to it and acceptance of it, it’s worth learning about what marijuana does to the brain. Arguably there is still much scientific study to do on the subject, but research on pot and its effects has come a long way in the past three decades. The most troubling results of this research involve the negative effects on the user and, by extension, the impact these effects have on society.

Marijuana contains several psychoactive chemicals that are similar to chemicals that the human brain creates – chemicals that are important to proper functioning of the brain. As a group, all of these chemicals are known as cannabinoids. In every cannabinoid, one part of the molecular structure matches up with special receptors on brain cells that are designed to latch onto the chemicals the brain itself produces. However, the rest of the molecular structure in the marijuana cannabinoids is not the same as the natural brain chemicals.

When marijuana cannabinoids reach the brain, they fill up lots of receptors, so the natural cannabinoids can’t latch on and produce the effects they’re designed for. Instead, the odd shapes of the marijuana cannabinoids produce unintended effects. Many of these effects are not benign. While study is far from over, what many see as a harmless diversion causes real disruption to ordinary brain functions and can lead to far more serious conditions for a user – especially a young user.

One of the marijuana cannabinoids is delta-nine-tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC. Perhaps its most benign side effect is to overpower the normal appetite regulation system and give users “the munchies.”

But THC also fires up the pleasure circuit in the brain, which many years of surveys have shown leads to dependence in 1 out of 11 users in the general population. The dependence rate goes up to 1 in 6 users who start using as teenagers, and at least 1 in 4 for heavy users, those who use daily or near daily.

There is very solid evidence that marijuana is a major risk factor in mental illness, causing earlier onset in people who are predisposed and worsening the symptoms in those who are afflicted. New research in the U.S. and Europe indicates that marijuana can be not just a risk factor but a causative factor in mental health disorders. Marijuana’s cannabinoids are associated with several mental health disorders, including general anxiety disorders, anti-social behavior, OCD, depression, suicide, PTSD, and psychosis, including schizophrenia. Between 10 percent and 15 percent of marijuana users experience temporary psychotic outbursts of varying intensity at one time or another. This can happen in people with no family or personal history of mental illness of any kind.

These effects must not be lost in the discussion of new tax revenue, increased tourism and an overall attitude of “what’s the big deal?” The negative impacts are real and so are the costs, both in terms of dollars and the intangibles that make our Vermont, its citizens, and its communities special.

 Debby Haskins is the executive director for the Vermont division of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM-VT) a volunteer organization.

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