According to many media outlets, the perception of marijuana’s safety was dealt a blow in the April 16, 2014 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. The journal published a study that focused on recreational marijuana use, which has seen a major positive shift in public perception. The study found that brain changes were linked to moderate, recreational use and surmised a connection to addiction. However, the study did not show that the changes were necessarily bad, and only managed to demonstrate a correlation with addiction rather than a cause. Most media stories did not report this discrepancy in the implication of the findings.
While the researchers employed the methods of science, the study nonetheless relied on a relatively small subject group. Only twenty participants were part of the ″user″ group and twenty more were non-users who were used as controls. All of the subjects were between the ages of 18 and 25. The study group was known to use cannabis at least once a week.
The study’s results showed that the users’ brains increased in gray matter density over the course of the study. In particular, the amygdala was shown to increase in density, a brain center often correlated with stress and addiction, among many things. The control group did not experience such a structural brain change. Thus, the study demonstrated a neurological shift, a change that was placed in the context of addiction. The study did not measure the participant’s other behaviors, such as school performance, relationships, and social and emotional well-being. Apart from the amygdala, no other features of addiction were measured.
Jodi Gilman, a lead scientist in the study, was quoted as saying, “They are not reporting any problems from marijuana, and yet we still see these brain changes.”
The amygdala, like so many brain centers, is not a simplistic entity. It is implicated in a wide range of emotional and behavioral functions. It is believed that it is where emotional memories are stored and that it plays a role in a variety of psychological disorders. The precise functioning of the amygdala is not yet known, nor is its precise role in these problems.
Most media articles lead the reader to believe that any brain change is a negative change, particularly when found in conjunction with an illicit substance. A highly popular article written by Alice G. Walton for Forbes.com reported on ″brain changes″ but could not confidently assert a negative implication of the brain changes. The reader was left to infer that any brain change is a negative one, particularly a change in the amygdala.
Not only does the study fail to demonstrate a causal link between marijuana and addiction, its efficacy is called into question on the basis of the small study group. This was no longitudinal study either, it was only a short-term experiment. Despite all best efforts, the study shows no scientific evidence of cannabis addiction at all. While recreational use of marijuana may lead to brain changes, any conclusions related to an addiction link are pure speculation. Lastly, the study’s introduction acknowledges that other studies have shown contradictory results.
The scientists and the writers reporting on their study seek to prey on a fearful mindset that does not dig past a surface level perception of a problem. If all science needed was correlation among a small subject group, then it could just as easily show that lucky rabbits feet resulted in positive winnings in poker or that prayer is an effective method for cancer treatment.
It is worth noting that increased gray matter density has been shown to increase when people develop a mindfulness practice. A mindfulness practice includes activities such as meditation, yoga, or even certain types of martial arts. A study released in the January 30, 2011 issue of Psychiatric Research demonstrated that subjects developed increased gray matter density in the hippocampus as a result of their meditative practices.
In the case of both meditation and marijuana use, many have described an emotional opening and release as the result of use. Cannabis is known to increase the pleasure of eating, listening to music, and sexual activity. It is also hailed as a stress-reducing medicine which many use to treat depression and anxiety.
Marijuana has shown usefulness in the treatment of a number of physical and psychological ailments. A study conducted by Harvard scientists concluded that there was no connection between marijuana and schizophrenia. So, if recreational marijuana use is linked to brain changes, it appears that neurological adaptations are perhaps more complicated than many media stories would indicate. Given the evidence of addiction to prescription medications and the deadly nature of some of them, the use of cannabis is still a safe alternative.
Opinion by Hobie Anthony