It’s been a long, strenuous week for you and your friend. You struggled through two exams, a paper, and three problem sets while he endured countless grueling hours at work, but you’ve finally reached the light at the end of the tunnel – Friday night. Too exhausted to go out, you both decide to smoke some weed to have a nice, relaxing night and leave behind your stresses from the week. You don’t think twice about the possible negative effects of the drug you are about to consume. After all, it’s plant-based, perfectly natural, and even used as a form of medical treatment. That means it must be safe, right?!
Many people believe that marijuana is completely harmless and that the state of tranquility produced by its consumption is the only effect on the body. In fact, marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug across the U.S. and on college campuses, and its use is continuing to grow. This increasing popularity most likely stems from the assumption that there are no serious side effects to this drug (such as addiction, cancer, etc.), and this lax attitude has become the driving force behind society’s endorsement of its legalization.
However, before we all jump up in support of this drug, we need to take a step back and assess the potentially harmful effects of marijuana. A recent study conducted brain scans on young adults who were either non-dependent marijuana users, thus exhibiting no physical reliance on the drug, or who were simply non-users. The researchers found that marijuana use was correlated with alterations in tissue density, volume, and shape of the nucleus accumbens and amygdala – two regions of the brain particularly involved in the reward pathway.
The fact that these significant brain changes were detected in young, non-dependent/ lighter users suggests that there may be much more profound neural modifications in those who ingest marijuana more frequently. We are aware that the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala are involved in the dopamine reward system (as well as play a role in addiction) – however, we are unsure exactly what these conformational changes in the brain entail for those who have them. (Alarmingly, we DO know that similar volume reductions in the nucleus accumbens have been observed in heroin addicts (Seifert et al 2014)!)
This high level of uncertainty about the neurological effects of marijuana needs to be taken into account before we promote the legalization of this drug and endorse it to younger generations in America. It is unfair to give people a false sense of security about the “safe” qualities of this drug before we are fully able to understand the potential downsides. Future studies should continue to investigate how marijuana affects the brain and if the resulting tissue abnormalities prove to be irreversible and detrimental to one’s health. So until the effects of this drug are known for sure, you may want to think twice before lighting up with your friends after a difficult week!