By Fred Gardner, August 2014

Because so many Prohibitionist mouthpieces are liars, it’s hard to take seriously their assertions about marijuana use harming “the developing brain” of young people. Much of the alleged evidence involves studies in which young rodents were given stupendously high doses of THC. Then there’s the flimsy, flawed study attributing an eight-point decline in IQ to heavy, early marijuana use. The politicians and the corporate media treat this IQ loss as a well-established and significant fact. To cite one of a thousand ready examples…

Earlier this month, after the New York Times editorial board came out for legalization, “Meet the Press” host David Gregory asked Times columnist David Brooks for his expert opinion. “I have two basic issues,” Brooks pontificated with his evil-chipmunk grin. “One, the effects on the teenage brain really are pretty significant…” He made the assertion with total confidence, knowing Gregory wouldn’t ask him to cite any relevant research. Nor would the host of “Meet the Press” ever say anything rude like, “Concern for their developing brains didn’t keep you from cheering under-21-year-olds on to battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, did you, David?”

Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post chimed in: “I’m with David. I think I don’t have a huge problem with letting states experiment. [Thanks, Ruth.] But I think for states to decide to go the full legalization route is a problem precisely for my mommy reason… Everybody knows who has teenagers like me, the fact that alcohol is legal increases their access to alcohol. Making marijuana readily, legally available will increase their (laughing into the monitor) my kids are at home laughing at me.”

This was a double falsehood: U.S. teenagers have readier access to marijuana than to alcohol, and if the Marcus offspring were watching, they were groaning in embarrassment. Marcus then bolstered her “mommy reason” with a cliche and another factual double whammy.

“A vast social experiment is going on,” she said. “We do not know the outcome except that the best evidence is that you lose, if you use marijuana as a teenager regularly, eight IQ points.” I love her reference to “the best evidence,” as if she has surveyed the literature. But the truth is she doesn’t know jack. The subjects in the infamous IQ study (in Dunedin, New Zealand) didn’t just use marijuana “regularly,” which can mean on the weekend, they  used marijuana so heavily that they’d been busted three times before age 17. And the subjects were worse off socioeconomically at  age 37. And an eight point fall-off in IQ is not considered significant by those who administer the tests… This is the basis for Under-21 Prohibition!

The segment ended with the evil chipmunk —though a greater lover of individual rights— advocating “government playing some role in restraining some individual choice just to create a culture of healthiness for especially the teens.”

Dr. Grinspoon’s Line

O’Shaughnessy’s asked two trustworthy physicians for their line on “underage” marijuana use.

Lester Grinspoon, MD, a professor of psychiatry emeritus at Harvard Medical School and the author of several pro-cannabis books, acknowledges “There is evidence that the brain is still developing until about 21.” Synapses and myelin sheaths (insulation) may still be forming, and unused neural pathways are still being pruned into the 20s.

“But I have seen no evidence that marijuana is causing harm,” Grinspoon went on, “in contrast to alcohol, which is a proven neurotoxic. The whole question of ‘underage smoking’ has to be viewed in the context of alcohol, which is the college kids’ alternative to marijuana.

“Alcohol is proven to be harmful, and the people who drink a lot of it can harm themselves. Women who drink a lot while they’re pregnant will risk Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in their children. If I had to choose an intoxicant for 18-to-21 year olds, I would far prefer marijuana to alcohol. My official position is: ‘remain virginal until age 21.’ But we live in the real world, and that’s not going to happen. And therefore, if one says anything negative about adolescents using marijuana, parents have to add, ‘If he’s going to use something, it’s far less harmful than alcohol.’

Grinspoon adds that prohibition creates “the-seeking-of-the-forbidden-fruit phenomenon.” Also, he notes, “if you get too stoned, you get anxious and you never want to do it again.”

Dr. Goldstein’s line

Bonni Goldstein, MD, sees patients in Lawndale (Los Angeles County) and is the director of the Canna-Centers chain of clinics, with five offices in California. Her patients include more than 100 children with severe epilepsies. We asked her views on marijuana use by young people.

BG: I have an almost-14-year old who is about to start high school and I’ve had many discussions with him. He is not sick. He has no diagnosis. So he shouldn’t be putting anything into his body or brain. That is not wholesome and healthy. I’ve explained to him that chemicals — even natural chemicals, even though cannabis is natural— it’s still a biologically active compound that can and does work in the brain and the body. I’m not saying “No,” I’m saying “Wait. Let your brain develop become the human being that you’re meant to become. Your job right now is to go to school, get an education, participate in sports and live a drug-free life.

“Later in life if you feel that this is something you want to do, and your brain is developed… I’m not going to have any control over you. For now, let your brain develop the way it should.”

It would be different if he was sick.

He and his father stop by my office from time to time and he’s seen some of the young people that I take care of. He’s a nice, sensitive kid. He’ll say, “Mom what’s wrong with that patient?” Or, “Does CBD help that patient?” He gets what I do and he gets it that the cannabinoids have a strong effect on the brain.

The Imaginary Party Line

If your real goal is to minimize marijuana use by healthy young people, your strategy has to be education (see above), not prohibition. Demand can overwhelm prohibition. Education can reduce demand.

Isn’t “legalization” supposed to mean the end of prohibition? Why maintain it for those under 21? Why assume that marijuana prohibition —which everyone now recognizes as a “failure”— is somehow going to succeed if focused on people under 21? It makes no sense.

Jeffrey Hergenrather, MD, president of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians, points out that “Under-21-year-olds are dealing with a great deal of anxiety —much more than is generally recognized.” If they’re in college, they’re running up debt and uncertain about finding work afterwards. If they’re not in college, most Under-21s are in entry-level jobs or unemployed. Many join the military as their only practical option.

Under-21 year olds in Colorado and Washington who are coping with anxiety and/or depression —or who have been binge drinking— should consider medical cannabis as a treatment option. Doctors associated with Student Health Services prescribe pharmaceutical anti-depressants and anxiolytics; students should ask them to approve cannabis, too. Student Health Services should also approve cannabis as a substitute for alcohol. “Harm Reduction” is now an accepted concept in Medicine.

We have to ask: who has the biggest stake in maintaining Under-21 Prohibition? Obvious answer: the helping professionals —addiction specialists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and a diverse array of therapists and counselors who provide marijuana-related “treatment.”

Under-21 Prohibition also guarantees an ongoing role for law enforcement and the criminal justice system. The helping professionals require, businesswise, that treatment for marijuana problems be compelled by the courts.

The Bottom Line:

Under-21 Prohibition means say goodbye to our peace dividend —a big part of it, anyway.