Is Legalizing Marijuana Playing With Fire?

When marijuana is available legally for patients with medical conditions there can be a number of benefits if certain conditions apply: If the pharmaceutical drug options to treat the patients symptoms carry more risks than marijuana; if the marijuana offers more therapeutic benefits than the pharmaceutical drugs and if the profits from marijuana sales are channeled into constructive enterprises that will benefit society as a whole.

However, legalizing marijuana for recreational use is a whole different concept and one that has many people worried. The parties that are lobbying to legalize marijuana claim that legalization will supposedly take the manufacture and sale of marijuana out of the hands of drug addicts, drug cartels and other clandestine factions and into the domain of regulated manufacturers and retailers. Obviously, this will allow the taxes from sales to be directed into the public health and education systems, which would be far better than the current situation where only drug dealers benefit financially.

But there are several downsides to legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes. One of the main issues is that legalization sends out a message to impressionable adolescents that marijuana is perfectly acceptable. The other issue is that it will become far easier for minors to purchase marijuana even though it will probably only be available to those over 21 yo. Just like alcohol, teens can always find older siblings or friends to buy cannabis for them but having said that, it's already fairly easy for young people to purchase marijuana, whether it's legally acquired or not.

So What's Wrong With Marijuana?

Besides the statistics indicating that marijuana is a gateway drug for heavier drugs, marijuana itself can be very damaging to both physical and mental health. Physically it causes fatigue and increases the risk of heart disease and cancer, particularly lung cancer (if it's smoked) and cancer of the lymphatic system as well as oral tumors and other forms of cancer. Studies have shown that smoking marijuana is far more carcinogenic than nicotine and most people are well aware of the cancer risk from smoking cigarettes. Neurologically, marijuana is a well-known trigger for mental illnesses such as bipolar and schizophrenia and the damage it can cause to a developing brain can be catastrophic.

In normal brain development, significant changes occur in brain structure and function during the adolescent years and healthy brain function and growth needs to be supported through a healthy diet, adequate sleep and other favorable lifestyle factors. So consider the outcome if the developing brain does not receive the ideal requirements for normal growth and instead is exposed to neurologically-toxic substances such as marijuana (or other drugs).

Research carried out at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in the US showed that adolescents who use cannabis regularly have abnormal changes to their brain structure and the youngger the person is when they begin using marijuana, the greater the brain abnormality. Some of the brain damage that has been identified includes changes to the working memory – even two years after stopping the drug.

Furthermore, other research has shown that addiction develops very quickly, particularly in teenagers, and often results in the young person losing their motivation to engage in learning; no longer visualizing and working towards their dream career and no longer caring about their health. The long-term risks of marijuana use are well-known such as cancer; mental health conditions and other risk factors – often resulting in regular users becoming walking zombies that are mainly focussed on their drug use and little else. Teenagers that are addicted to cannabis are also more likely to experience feelings of anger or discontent whenever they have not had the drug for a while and there are at high risk of becoming anti-social and losing their friends.

The reason that addiction happens so quickly nowdays compared to years gone by is because the drug is so much stronger. So, these days, teenagers that beginning smoking marijuana at parties may soon begin to smoke every week and before they know it, they are seeking it daily. Large numbers of addicted teenagers are smoking marijuana several times a day just to feel 'normal'. This sort of use has a dramatic effect on their developing brain; their heart and lungs; their ability to learn and on their finances – they either need to steal to pay for their addiction or they find themselves going to work just to pay for their habit.

Sadly, even those that decide to stop using cannabis are unable to repair the irreversible brain damage that may have occurred if they have been regular users during the critical brain development phase. Psychiatrist, Dr Paula Riggs, quoted the statistics from long-term research in New Zealand that was conducted on adolescents that regularly smoked marijuana. The research was carried out over 38 years and found that there was a 6-8 point reduction in IQ in regular users which can affect them for the rest of their lives. The brain damage caused by marijuana use includes a reduction in executive function which is an important set of mental processes that are required for organization, planning, memory and other essential brain functions. Executive functioning helps you to 'join the dots' in terms of what you have learned in the past and how it relates to your current situation and what you need to do.

Therefore, regular use of marijuana alters the brain circuits in a really negative way and you do not have to be a rocket scientist to understand the impact this would have on brain development and the ability to achieve in life. As marijuana shapes the way the brain develops – a developing brain that is focused on learning versus a brain exposed to mind-altering drugs may have dire consequences for the rest of that person's life – even if they stop smoking marijuana later on. This is probably why the research shows that regular use of marijuana during the teenage years increases the likelihood of unemployment in adulthood or at best, results in a cannabis user or ex-cannabis user only being able to find work in (unsatisfying) sub-standard jobs that are far removed from the dream job they once saw themselves doing.

The only people to benefit from any kind of drug addiction are those that are making profits from the sales and I think it's a great tragedy that any government can 'approve' any substance that can irreversibly damage our young people's brains and potentially destroy their futures – no matter how much they may earn from the taxes on marijuana sales. Adolescents are vulnerable as the 'pleasure-seeking' part of their brain developments much faster than the 'self-control' part – leaving them much more susceptible to drug taking and other risky behaviors and they do not have the capacity to comprehend long- term consequences. Therefore, in my opinion, it's deplorable that a government does not protect their young citizens by saying “No” to legalization.

Particularly as some of the legalized edible marijuana is being packaged specifically to appear like lollies which would be far more attractive to children and teens! So, call me cynical but it would appear that the marketing of marijuana is actually targeting our youngsters. This is despite the fact that eating marijuana allows much more THC to be absorbed into the body compared to smoking, so it increases the likelihood of overdoses, particularly in young people.

Parents, educators and policy makers around the world have a responsibility to protect our young generations and should not be fooled by well-oiled marketing campaigns advanced by those who stand to make millions while teenager's brain structures are being destroyed along with their futures.