A recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience has ignited discussion of the impact of smoking marijuana on teenagers. (Study link) What the researchers found was that young smokers who smoked six joints per week (median) show brain changes compared to young adults (18-25), who had not smoked marijuana within the past year.  Brain scans done on the participants found a correlation  between the marijuana use and changes in the brain. The authors also found that the brain changes were linked to dose, i.e., the heavier smokers showed more changes. There is no evidence that the changes are lasting or can be linked to behavioral differences among the participants. Despite that, the lead author of the study, Ms. Jodi Gilman, described the findings as significant. stating  “This is when you are making major decisions in your life, when you are choosing a major, starting a career, making long-lasting friendships and relationships.”   Some in the prohibitionist camp are trumpeting this study as evidence to stop the move toward marijuana legalization.

Research like this is important and there should be more of it.*  But let’s put these particular research findings into context.

There should be no delusions that use of marijuana is risk free.  Use of any drug carries health and other risks.  Teen drug use, including tobacco and alcohol, should be discouraged. It has long been clear that teen use of drugs increases addictions risk as well as the risk of related health problems. There should be little dispute on this point. The question is how best to control and minimize these risks. The sad fact that prohibitionists ignore is their approach has been woefully ineffective.  Despite a 50 year War on Drugs and punitive penalties for marijuana use, teen use remains largely unchanged. Further, negative changes that have occurred can be fairly described as resulting from prohibition. For instance,under prohibition, the potency of street marijuana has increased dramatically, enhancing the risks for all users, especially teens.

The alternative of legalization in a controlled marketplace offers significant benefits. Potency can be controlled and set in the same fashion as the potency of beverage alcohol. Age restrictions, again similar to alcohol, can be put into place. Right now, high school students report it is easier to purchase illegal drugs than it is to purchase alcohol. And most importantly, legalization will keep teens seeking marijuana out of the illegal street market where every transaction carries the risk of assault, rape, robbery and homicide.

Nobody wants teens using marijuana — or texting while driving, or drinking alcohol, or the myriad of other risky behavior teens are prone to become involved with. Our choices are stark.

We can continue the fantasy that punitive policies and “this is your brain on drugs” propaganda actually have any impact. Or we can implement a set of drug polices that are real-world tested and effective in accomplishing the goals we are all striving towards.

*The irony is that marijuana research has been severely limited by federal officials who then claim we need more research before moving forward. Bureaucracy 101.