By Paul Armentano
In her latest blog post, US National Institute on Drug Abuse director Nora Volkow claims that “science should guide marijuana policy.” But if the nation’s top anti-drug doc truly believes that facts, not ideological rhetoric, ought to shape America’s drug policies, why does she feel the need to keep distorting the truth about pot?
Writes Volkow: “Besides being addictive, marijuana is cognitively impairing even beyond the phase of acute intoxication and regular use during adolescence may cause a significant, possibly permanent IQ loss.”
Or, more than likely, it may not. In fact, the very study Volkow relies on to make this questionable claim was publicly repudiated in a 2012 review published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That review suggests that socioeconomic differences, not pot use, are responsible for dissimilarities found among former teen marijuana users and non-users. In fact, once economic variables were factored into the assessment, the analysis reported that cannabis’ actual effect on IQ was likely to be “zero.”
As for Nora Volkow’s allegation that pot is addictive, well, a bit of context is necessary. Do a minority of people who experiment with cannabis at some point in their lives exhibit symptoms of drug dependence? Yes, about nine percent do so, according to the National Academy of Science, Institute of Medicine. But this percentage is similar to that of anxiolytics and is far lower than the dependence liability associated with other substances like alcohol (15 percent) and tobacco (32 percent). So concludes the Institute in its report “Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base”: “[Al]though few marijuana users develop dependence, some do. But they appear to be less likely to do so than users of other drugs (including alcohol and nicotine), and marijuana dependence appears to be less severe than dependence on other drugs.”
NIDA’s head also writes, “Brain scans in users who started when they were young show impaired neural development, probably because cannabis interferes with normal brain maturation.”
Hardly. Although a handful of imaging studies have identified slight differences in the brains of cannabis users versus controls, investigators have cautioned that these results are correlations only. It is further acknowledged that these differences do not appear to be associated with any overt adverse effects in subjects’ actual cognition or behavior. In fact, an authoritative review on the subject of cannabis use and cognitive performance, published by the International Psychological Society, concluded, “The results of our meta-analytic study failed to reveal a substantial, systematic effect of long-term, regular cannabis consumption on the neurocognitive functioning of users who were not acutely intoxicated.”
In a weak attempt to try and further bolster the case for maintaining criminal cannabis prohibition, Volkow states, “We do not yet know how marijuana will affect vulnerable populations like older people or those with physical or mental health problems.”
Setting aside the fact that cannabis has been used by human populations for thousands of years, thus providing us with ample empirical evidence as to the herb’s relative safety, Volkow’s overall point appears to be this: ‘Since we remain unaware of how cannabis may impact our most vulnerable populations we should continue to criminally arrest, prosecute, and potentially incarcerate everyone who consumes it.’ Does this in any way read like a ‘scientific’ or ‘public health approach’ to addressing the cannabis issue? At the very least we – and this includes Volkow – know enough about cannabis, as well as the failures of cannabis prohibition, to publicly advocate for an end to the practice of arresting adults who consume it responsibly.
Finally, Volkow says, “There is no reason to think laws limiting marijuana to adults will be any more successful than comparable laws for cigarettes or alcohol.” Yet the very public policies and regulations Volkow is criticizing have, in recent years, proven to be tremendously effective. According to the latest federal government figures, self-reported alcohol consumption within the past 30 days among 12th graders has fallen from 75 percent in the late-1970s to 40 percent today. Tobacco use among 12th graders has similarly dropped, from 28 percent in the 1990s to just 16 percent today. It is the imposition and enforcement of age restrictions – coupled with science-based educational campaigns targeting young people – that have directly led to the historic reductions in young people’s use of alcohol and tobacco, the latter of which is now stands at a historic low and is far less popular among teens than is use of the illegal herb.
In closing, Volkow writes, “Approaching drug use as a public health issue should be a critical goal, and these approaches should be informed by science.”
On this point, we agree. But, unfortunately, with ideologues like Nora Volkow running the show, America’s marijuana policies will continue to be hopelessly divorced from science rather than driven by it.