As more places legalize cannabis for recreational use, the issue of a minimum use age becomes relevant. When trying to establish a minimum use age for a drug that was considered a narcotic very recently, even by the places legalizing it now, it becomes about the actual risk factors associated with it. While a few studies come out with weak links to neural issues, the real question not being asked is, can cannabis be good for young brains?
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Perhaps it’s taboo to even suggest it, but it was also taboo to consider legalizing cannabis just a few years ago. It was perfectly fine for doctors to encourage cigarette smoking all the way up until the 1960’s, even though by that point it was already well understood by the medical community the very strong, and undeniable connection between cigarettes and cancer. That connection was denied by tobacco companies until 1998. It only became ‘taboo’ to mix smoking, and things like children, when it was decided on a grander scale to encourage a minimized use of cigarettes. The idea of taboo is often linked simply to how well something is understood, and the information being put out there. Information that is often paid for, and used to serve a purpose. Before we get into the question of whether cannabis is good for young brains, let’s go over what we do know about it already.
Cannabis and plant medicine?
Cannabis is a flowering plant in the Cannabaceae family. So right there we know one important thing about it: it’s a plant. And that means that we are not dealing with pharmaceutical medicine, we’re dealing with natural plant-based medicine. Now, if you’re thinking cannabis is the one standout plant in the plant world to offer medicinal benefits, you’d surely be mistaken. For anything (and I mean *anything*) that cannabis is said to be capable of doing, you will, indeed, find other plants that do the same. Want help with neurological issues and cutting down on amyloid plaque in the brain? Take some turmeric. Want a natural anti-depressant? Give St. John’s Wort a try. Need help sleeping? Try hops, or California poppy, or valerian. Need some help paying attention? Swallow down some gingko biloba, and if you really want to get rid of that cold faster or protect yourself against microbial diseases, take your oregano oil everyday (also about the best way to get rid of food poisoning, which I can personally attest to).
Even when it comes to THC’s ability to make a person feel good, well, so do poppy, and coca, and plenty of other plants. In most ways, when looking at plant medicine, there is actually absolutely nothing special about cannabis. But, also when looking at plant medicine, there is very little reason to believe that a plant already associated with helping with neurological disorders, would be the same plant to cause them. Yes, some plants are deadly, but we already know that no one dies from cannabis. At the very worst, literally, the very worst possible, it *could cause minor deficits, but once again, way more points in the direction that it is helpful to the brain, not harmful.
Things to consider
Having thoughts is great, but being able to back up information is what we rely on. This can come from medical research, or looking at history, and the most reliable results tend to be when the two agree. While history can often tell us how things have been used over thousands of years of time, it can’t necessarily tell us what the situation is today. One thing that can be looked at though is the simple question of ‘was cannabis used on children in ancient medical traditions?’ No search turned up a negative response to this, indicating that children were included for cannabis treatments.
Long standing medical traditions like Ayurvedic medicine, and Traditional Chinese Medicine tend to be good at not causing more harm, and even in the case of more dangerous plants, give plenty of warnings of literally everything that can be expected. So, while there is no ancient medical study to show if it is actually detrimental, or if cannabis is good for young brains, what we can know is that it was used on young people for thousands of years, and within that time, the medical practitioners who managed to write thousands of pages on the effects of plants, never noted it causing any kind of brain damage in in adults who used it as children. This is not to say that there weren’t warnings attached to it, as there absolutely were.
These days, people are way less caring of what went on thousands of years ago if there isn’t a medical study to say the same thing today. This is mostly good, except for where it gets to the part about medical studies being funded, and often having massive conflicts of interest that didn’t exist back when natural medicine practitioners were doing their thing a thousand years ago. So really, it’s not just about having a study done, it’s about having multiple studies done, and limiting (and publicly admitting to) any conflicts of interest.
Unfortunately, the latter part is rarely done, making simply reading a random study often less useful than looking at behaviors of ancient people. When the drug in question is cannabis, it should be remembered that pharmaceutical and biotech interest runs heavy, making it all the more difficult to get unfettered information. In this case, the very specific information we’re looking into, are the effects of cannabis on a young person’s brain, and whether its actually possible that cannabis is good for young brains, or at the very least, without detriment.
The medical research
There have now been plenty of studies that look at the effects cannabis has on young brains, although most are not clear or direct, giving confusing, and often conflicting answers.
In 2020, a systematic review was done regarding studies investigating if an adolescent brain is more vulnerable to cannabis. The review indicates that there is the possibility of neurological changes (notice the word ‘changes’ and not ‘damage’). This systematic review, much like the others I’ve seen, does not stipulate per study mention, how much cannabis was used. It is quite possible that some of these studies were done using a ridiculous amount of cannabis, rather than anything that would be realistic. It could be the difference between investigating the effects one joint a week might have, and 100 joints a day.
Regardless of the amount used for individual studies, the overall general finding was that changes can be noticeable, but “Future studies are required to better investigate adolescent cannabis use with more accuracy using better defined groups or longitudinal studies and examine the permanency of these changes following caseation of use.” This line indicates that even the changes mentioned cannot be called permanent, which undermines the idea that permanent damage was caused.
In a systematic review from 2019 – Age-Related Differences in the Impact of Cannabis Use on the Brain and Cognition, it states “The aim of this systematic review is to provide a critical examination of the moderating role of age on the relationship between cannabis use and cognition.” The review authors state: “While the results of this review do not offer a conclusive answer on the role of age…[it] has allowed for the formation of new hypotheses to be addressed in future work.” The following are the assumptions the review authors saw fit to test next in research, based on their findings:
“First, general executive functioning seems to be more impaired in adolescent frequent cannabis users compared to adult frequent cannabis users. Second, age-effects may be most prominent among very heavy and dependent users. Third, craving and inhibitory control may not decrease as much post-intoxication in adolescents compared to adults. Lastly, adolescents’ vulnerability to reduced learning following cannabis use may not persist after sustained abstinence.”
These authors point out the importance of how much cannabis is being used, while not pointing to huge deficits, and admitting, like every study out there, that there isn’t anything published right now saying the effects are permanent.
In yet another systematic review from 2014 on the effects of cannabis on adolescent brains, the review authors state: “teens who engage in heavy marijuana use often show disadvantages in neurocognitive performance, macrostructural and microstructural brain development, and alterations in brain functioning.” This is followed by this admission:
“It remains unclear whether such disadvantages reflect pre-existing differences that lead to increased substances use and further changes in brain architecture and behavioral outcomes. Future work should focus on prospective investigations to help disentangle dose-dependent effects from pre-existing effects, and to better understand the interactive relationships with other commonly abused substances (e.g., alcohol) to better understand the role of regular cannabis use on neurodevelopmental trajectories.”
Basically, they’re admitting that they have no idea if those who show more disadvantages, are actually showing the result of cannabis use or genetics, as well as making it clear that dose is important (possibly ruling out study findings where insane amounts of cannabis, or THC, are used), and the implication of other substances. Let’s remember that apart from alcohol and a multitude of other illicit drugs, teens are perfectly allowed to take all kinds of heavy medication like diphenhydramine (Benadryl), are often prescribed benzodiazepines (do you think any medical professional really wants to argue which is worse?), and are subject to all kinds of things like chemical cleaners, and air pollution – the latter of which, depending on the location, is far more dangerous to a developing brain than a little cannabis. If you really want to get into how dangerous the things in the air that we’re exposed to are, you can start by reading this.
Other medical research
Maybe most damning to the assertion that cannabis causes irreversible brain damage, is this study – one of the only of its kind – put out in 2019 that actually followed a group of approximately 1000 subjects, starting in the 1980’s, and going for about 15 years. Brain scans and testing were done throughout. The study found that “Adolescent cannabis use is not associated with lasting structural brain differences.” This is one of the only studies published where actual testing was done at different time junctures, covering an expansive amount of time.
Lastly, let’s remember that cannabis is being looked at more and more for help specifically with neurodegenerative diseases. While this study from 2020 investigates CBD for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, this study from 2012 talks about how “CBD combined with Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol is already under clinical evaluation in patients with Huntington’s disease.” In fact, more and more studies are popping up showing cannabis as a whole, and different cannabinoids independently, as having the ability to help the brain.
These studies just don’t exist for crack and alcohol. And perhaps it should be considered that if we’re using cannabis to help brains in one domain, it’s probably unlikely to cause massive damage in another. That’s not a rule, but it is a basic logic point to consider. This isn’t to say that cannabis is good for young brains either, but it does add to skepticism that cannabis is causing major and irreversible brain damage for adults who start smoking young.
And now to make it a bit more personal: I didn’t start smoking until I was around 21, but I went to high school with lots of people who were smoking in their teenage years. I come from a very rich, upscale area, and nearly everyone of those pot-smoking kids, is now not only a functional adult, but with a medical degree, law degree, engineering degree, or something like that. If cannabis is so detrimental to young brains, there should be an abundance of messed up people from where I’m from, and there aren’t. Quite the opposite indeed. Perhaps things like socioeconomics, access to quality food and education, and decent medical care, play more into future brain issues than a plant no one seems to be able to make a real connection to actual brain damage with.
Let’s put it in perspective
When it comes to the actual studies that are referenced throughout the internet, with all different spins put on them, there is not one that can make the definitive statement that cannabis causes detrimental and permanent brain damage. And that one statement that I just made is scary considering how downright sure of themselves most of these publications sound. To give an idea of how ridiculous it all is, consider all the same studies, but involving alcohol. Do you think the end result would be ‘we just can’t say for sure if children drinking every day will be more likely to develop brain issues in the future’? Can you even imagine a statement so silly?
Part of the reason its silly is because we don’t need studies to tell us. It’s such a massive part of life, and something that so many people have so much experience with, that we just know. Just like how information was known in those ancient medical traditions. In fact, if studies came out saying otherwise, we’d be confused. Mainly because we’ve all seen it in some way, whether it came from a mother drinking too much while pregnant, kids starting at a young age, the way a person (literally any of us) acts while inebriated, or the outcome of accidents involving alcohol.
You also won’t see that kind of “we don’t know” hogwash when talking about crack, or methamphetamine. Because we already know what they do too. It’s so obvious we can see it. Yet no one seems to be able to ‘just see it’ with cannabis, and the best that the very best studies can do is say there ‘might’ be a connection, possibly with an ‘ungodly’ amount of cannabis used, which ‘doesn’t’ seem to be permanent. Let’s be glad that the authorities are more sure about crack, and perhaps we should sigh a bit at how sure we all are of the issues involving alcohol, and the measly, incompetent job that’s done to keep the damage contained.
If ever you get into the dangers of drugs and appropriate societal responses, I think the one place where there will always be more to say, and more to do, is with alcohol. It’s almost funny to point the finger at cannabis in light of the hulking, massive, destructive issue of alcohol, and yet, that’s what’s happening. Of course, they both can pose their own dangers, as it is not one against the other, but when it comes to the scope of that danger, there is no comparison. In the same way I wouldn’t encourage anyone to light-up over vaping, I also wouldn’t encourage a child to consume large amounts of…well…anything. Because maybe that’s the biggest takeaway when it comes to cannabis and young brains. Maybe, unless a ridiculous amount is being consumed, cannabis is good for young brains. And if it isn’t actually helping them, at the very least, it’s not hurting them either, at least not in any super well-definable way. And that’s according to both research and history.
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