Legalizing Marijuana Raises Health Concerns

The recreational use of marijuana became legal in Colorado and Washington. Over a dozen states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of the substance.

Although federal law still bans both the sales and possession of marijuana, President Obama has said the federal government has bigger issues at hand and will not aggressively prosecute those selling or possessing the drug in states where the use is legal.

Proponents of legalization argue that marijuana is much safer to use than alcohol, stating that it is virtually impossible to overdose on marijuana.

Scientists have come to the conclusion that fewer than 10% of smokers become dependent on the substance, although they have deemed it addictive. Marijuana does, however, contain carcinogens, including tar and other toxins similar to those found in tobacco, but people generally do not smoke marijuana in the same amounts as cigarettes.

However, there are still health concerns related to the legalization of marijuana. For example, today’s marijuana is much more potent than it was several decades ago. THC, the psychoactive ingredient found in marijuana, has more than doubled between 1993 and 2008. This increased potency may yield unforeseen consequences. The human brain’s cannabinoid receptors are typically activated by naturally occurring chemicals in the body called endocannabinoids, which are similar to THC. There is a high density of cannabinoid receptors in parts of the brain that affect pleasure, memory and concentration. Some research suggests that these areas continue to be affects by marijuana use ever after the “high” dissipates.

Those smokers who start at a young age are at a higher risk and approximately 1 in 5 will become addicted. Those who start at a younger age also tend to smoke much more, and more often, than those who start later in their teens.

A recent study showed that young adults who started smoking pot regularly before they were 16 performed significantly worse on cognitive tests of brain function than those who started smoking later in adolescence. “They performed particularly poorly on tests assessing executive function, which is responsible for planning and abstract thinking, as well as understanding rules and inhibiting inappropriate responses.”

Also found was a drop in IQ scores among teens who regularly smoked pot. Imaging scans also found detectable difference in how their brain worked. The scans found alterations in the frontal cortex white matter tracts of the brain in the early-starters.

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