Separate science from hype in marijuana education

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Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States. The general public’s perception is that using marijuana is not risky behavior and the perceived harm continues to decline.

This new acceptance and casual attitude about marijuana usage is reflected in recent polling data. Both a Gallup and Pew Research poll recently published show respondents supporting legalization of recreational use to be 64 percent . The social trend continues to show a steady climb, increasing from 48 percent in 2012. Currently, eight states have legalized recreational pot for private, personal use.

Throughout our nation’s history there have been various efforts/campaigns to reduce the use of drugs. Unfortunately, many of these “war on drugs” types of outreaches have been ill-conceived or misdirected. And, especially with marijuana, the messages have been punctuated with half-truths, scare tactics and the reefer-madness mentality. These mixed messages continue today; hence, the increasing acceptance and decreasing awareness of the physical and psychological impact that marijuana has on the individual.

The intent of this commentary is to provide clear, documented information so that individuals can make informed decisions about their behavior and health habits.

A study at the University of Pittsburgh published in April 2017 revealed that marijuana use during teen years may cause a predisposition to depression and lower academic achievement. Many other studies have shown the correlation of pot usage and decreased cognitive ability. These studies clearly demonstrate that learning, memory and attention are impaired with marijuana use. They also show lower IQ scores by an 8-point average for individuals between the ages of 13 to 38. Lost mental ability did not return in those who quit smoking marijuana as adults.

Numerous studies indicate that marijuana exposure during adolescent development can cause permanent adverse changes in the brain . Long-term marijuana use has been linked to mental illness, such as the development of schizophrenia, psychoses and social anxiety disorders. Heavy cannabis users are more likely to report thoughts of suicide than non-users.

The physical effects are also well documented. Marijuana smoke irritates the lungs and frequent smokers have the same breathing problems that tobacco smokers experience, such as frequent cough, phlegm, lung illnesses and a high risk of lung infections.

Some evidence suggests that smoking marijuana may trigger a heart attack as pot increases the heart rate for up to three hours after smoking; individuals with heart issues may be at an even higher risk.

Marijuana use during pregnancy also presents risk to the fetus. Maternal use has been linked to fetal brain function and behavioral problems. This can affect attention, memory and problem-solving abilities. THC, the mind-altering chemical in pot, also passes through breast milk to the newborn.

The potency of marijuana has continued to increase over the past 15 years, resulting in higher rates of dependence and health-related concerns. Contrary to common belief, marijuana can be addictive. Research suggests that 1 in 11 users become addicted. This number increases to 17 percent, or 1 in 6, among those who begin marijuana use as a teen. The rate of addiction increases 25 to 50 percent for individuals who smoke pot on a daily basis.

The evidence is clear; marijuana use is not the safe and innocent drug that proponents promote. All drugs have benefits and risks associated with use. Let’s be clear as we move forward in this discussion, sorting out science from fiction.

Vince Mercuri, executive director of the Open Door Alcohol/Drug Treatment Center and Crisis Intervention Program in Indiana, Pa., is a member of the Valley News Dispatch Editorial Board.

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