With marijuana legalization for either recreational or medical use spreading across the US, Americans’ attitudes towards marijuana are quickly changing. More people see marijuana use as safe and socially acceptable. While marijuana does appear to be safer and less addictive than many substances, especially when only used occasionally, there are still risks associated with it, especially for younger users. This is something to be careful as marijuana gets easier to buy. While we’ve known about the effects of marijuana use–poor concentration, poor memory, loss of motivation–for some time, few studies have examined the long-term effects of marijuana use. One such study followed more than 1000 New Zealanders from age 13 to 38, asking questions about their marijuana use at certain intervals and conducting psychological testing at the beginning and end. The study found that the most persistent users showed a drop in IQ of about six points, even after controlling for educational differences. That kind of drop in in IQ is comparable to lead exposure. Part of the reason marijuana use is so dangerous in teens is that their brains are still developing. While teens may appear physically mature, and while they are legally adults at age 18, the brain hasn’t fully matured until about age 25. The prefrontal cortex and the endocannabinoid systems are the last to fully develop. Both of these systems are vulnerable to the effects of THC and marijuana use during adolescence may alter their development. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher level thinking, such as planning, self-control, working memory, and emotional regulation. It is likely damage to this area that is most responsible for the drop in IQ seen in the New Zealand study. The endocannabinoid system is an older part of the brain. It plays an important role in cognition, neurodevelopment, stress response, emotional control, and regulating other neurotransmitter systems. Other studies have found that heavy marijuana smoking can damage the brain’s white matter, the insulation, or myelin, that wraps neurons and helps them transmit signals efficiently. This white matter development is the main reason brains aren’t fully mature until age 25, and the younger someone starts using marijuana, the more it interferes with this myelination process. Since these myelinated neurons connect many different parts of the brain to the prefrontal cortex, any damage to the myelin will cause cognitive deficiencies. Teens who use marijuana are also more likely to develop substance use issues later on. This is partly because of the developmental effects of using marijuana and other substances and partly because early use is associated with other risk factors for addiction, such as having a parent who struggles with addiction, or having a co-occurring mental health issue, such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, or schizophrenia.
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