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November 19, 2014

The ins and outs of marihuana use

Reuel S. Amdur

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On October 24, Carleton University Professor emeritus Peter Fried spoke to Ottawa's Council on Aging about marihuana. He directed an investigation begun in 1978 on the consequences of mothers' use of marihuana during pregnancy for development and behavior of their offspring.

According to Fried, “Marihuana is less risky than other addictive drugs, but it is not harmless.” 

Ten per cent of users become dependent.  People used to use the leaves of the plant but now the buds and flowers of the female plant are preferred, as they contain the most tetrahydrocannibinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient. 

The stalk of the plant and the seeds contain very little of the active ingredients, and the stalk provides the fibers which at one time were used in making rope.  Marihuana which is available today is stronger than it was 20 years ago because of the reliance on buds and flowers, rather than leaves. 

The brain has its own natural cannabis, endocannibinoids.  These affect pain, memory, mood, and appetite and have a role in growth of the brain.  When a person smokes up, THC and other chemicals enter the brain and latch onto a protein, a receptor called cannibinoid receptor type 1, or CB1.  These receptors are found in various regions of the brain.

According to Fried, the brain of the late-stage fetus has a very large number of CB1 receptors, more than at any other time in life.  His studies have found that if the mother smokes pot, there are no noticeable effects in the first three or four years, but later subtle impairments show up. 

There are problems with visual analysis (for example, working jigsaw puzzles), working memory, and integration of information, in comparison with control group functioning. 

There was evidence as well that the children of these mothers tended to use street drugs more frequently than the control group children, in adolescence.  Because the teen brain is still growing—till age 20 or 21—marihuana use can permanently affect brain development, with an impact more serious than for people who take up with the drug at a later age.

Behavior under the influence of marihuana is different for that with alcohol.  At a stop sign, a drunk may just barrel through, while someone who is stoned might likely go up to the stop sign and wait there too long. 

Marihuana affects a number of different parts of the brain.  These have varying functions. 

Thus, the amygdala affects mood, while the basal ganglia cause someone to slow down.  Coordination is impaired because of the impact on the cerebellum.  Marihuana affects the cortex by altering complex thinking, interfering with attention and with switching from one task to another.  The hippocampus is the memory center, and marihuana makes it less efficient.  Users tend to have greater appetite because it stimulates the hypothalamus.  And they want to smoke up again because of the nucleus accumbens, the reward center.  It “feels good.”   

Medically, cannabinoids are used for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, stimulating appetite, and controlling spasms.  They have desirable side effects of reducing anxiety and acing as a sedative.  Less desirable is a tendency to cause dizziness.  Marihuana treats symptoms, not the disease itself.

One problem for AIDS sufferers is wasting, that is, an involuntary loss of 10% or more of baseline average weight.  In wasting, there is a loss of appetite, nausea, pain, and anxiety.  Cannabis aids with all of these problems.  There are other medicines that assist, but they are not useful for everyone.  Additionally, marihuana helps keep other medicines down.

With multiple sclerosis, marihuana, by helping to relieve involuntary spasms, can in some cases protect the person’s sleep.  In glaucoma, it can reduce the pressure, but only for a short period of time.  Generally speaking, marihuana is not useful for acute pain but may help with chronic pain, for instance in some cases with cancer.

  1. The mist is sprayed into a large balloon, and the patient inhales from the balloon.    

Fried spoke of some of the differences between alcohol and marihuana consumption.  Most people do not drink to get drunk, but marihuana is consumed to get stoned.  While a drunk may continue to drink, a stoned pot user is likely to stop.  Many users of marihuana are healthy.  They may use it to help them to deal with the tumult and stress of everyday life.  However, studies indicate that users suffer poorer attentiveness, working memory, and mental nimbleness.

The popularity of marihuana, says Fried, makes change in the regulatory system certain.  For him the important thing is that use be controlled, to keep it out of the hands of children and young people, because of the danger to the brain at that time of their lives.  Controls should also address quality.  The product purchased on the street may contain all kinds of undesirable foreign substances, some of which might be harmful. 

In spite of rapidly growing use of the drug, physicians are often loath to prescribe it, because of lack of good information on dosage, indicators for use, contraindications, and also because of concerns about liability.

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