Regular Marijuana Use May Compromise Ability to Enjoy the Good Things in Life
As we move toward widespread legal sanction of marijuana use, there is a scarcity of good information available about the drug’s true effects on the human mind and body. Unfortunately, the scientific study of marijuana has been complicated by political considerations: advocates of marijuana refuse to accept evidence that suggests the drug might have any negative effects, while opponents exaggerate the significance of any finding that implies such effects might exist.
A closer look at the reactions to research findings presented last summer in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a weekly journal dedicated to publicizing important scientific breakthroughs, will provide a good example of this dynamic in action.
A team of investigators at the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a government organization dedicated to eradicating drug addiction, recruited 24 recreational marijuana users to participate in a project designed to test their reaction to the drug Ritalin. This stimulant is used in the treatment of ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) and is known to provoke a response from the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. It does so primarily by instigating greater production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which produces positive emotional reactions as well as increased focus and attention.
The government researchers were interested to learn how marijuana consumption might affect the brain’s reward circuitry and impact its ability to produce dopamine. Non-marijuana users were recruited to comprise a control group, and personality testing plus brain imaging techniques were used for the purposes of evaluation and comparison. On average, the marijuana users enrolled in this study had smoked five joints a day, five days a week, for more than 10 years.
The NIDA scientists believed long-term cannabis use might inhibit a person’s ability to produce adequate supplies of dopamine. However, this theory was not verified by their results. After taking Ritalin, the pot users and control group volunteers all had similar (elevated) amounts of dopamine present in their brains. But in comparison to members of the control group, the marijuana smokers showed reduced neurological, behavioral and cardiovascular responses following their consumption of the ADHD drug. The drug’s overall impact on their systems was repressed, in other words, and they did not report feeling the same level of euphoria as their study counterparts with no history of heavy marijuana use.
This discovery represented a real “a-ha” moment for the government research team. They quickly concluded that marijuana consumption damages the brain’s pleasure-and-reward systems and that pot smokers were likely to have difficulty experiencing pleasure in general—outside of their use of their favorite drug, of course.
Politics and Marijuana Make Strange Bedfellows
But while these findings are intriguing, they don’t prove much of anything at this stage. The pot smokers who participated in this study had consumed the drug in unusually heavy quantities for quite some time, and the neurological effects they suffered may only occur in those with equally prodigious smoking habits. There is also the possibility that these individuals had a pre-existing condition that negatively impacted the functioning of their brain’s pleasure-seeking circuitry, hindering their ability to produce or respond to dopamine naturally. If so, their regular use of marijuana might have been a coping mechanism, an attempt to self-medicate their unhappiness away. And there is also the possibility that regular marijuana use might somehow predispose the brain to perceive the presence of other drugs as some kind of threat. If this were the case, the suppression of Ritalin’s typical neurological effects could have been a defense mechanism designed to provide protection against an unwanted intruder.
Knee-jerk reactions to dismiss the study findings by pro-pot advocates were as swift as they were predictable, but what was discovered by the NIDA research was measureable and not based on speculation. If these results are confirmed by other studies, with all possible variables accounted for, the ramifications will be clear.
If marijuana consumption, in whatever amount, damages a person’s capacity for enjoying life, that is information that current and potential pot users alike will need to know so that they can make thoughtful and intelligent decisions about the way they live their lives moving forward.
Political complications too frequently muddy the waters when the subject is marijuana. But there is truth out there waiting to discovered, and as time progresses, more and more of it will be revealed—regardless of who approves and who doesn’t.
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