Marijuana: Drug of Abuse?

This week in my Neuroanthropology class we are focused on tobacco use and the cultural context of addiction. This got me thinking about other mind altering substances, in particular marijuana and ayahuasca, which have both in the news recently. In the case of marijuana, the results of the midterm elections revealed that voters in three states have decided to join Colorado and Washington in legalizing various amounts of marijuana and its consumption on private property. In the case of ayahuasca, I recently watched an episode of “This is Life with Lisa Lee” in which war veterans were using ayahuasca in Peru as a method of relieving symptoms of PTSD. Being very interested in the topic of the therapeutic use of mind altering substances, I decided to catch up on my required reading and examined several articles on marijuana and ayahuasca.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia currently have laws legalizing marijuana in some form. Four states have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Alaska and Oregon will become the next states after Colorado and Washington where recreational marijuana is legal after voters approved cannabis ballot measures set to become effective in 2015. District of Columbia voters also recently approved a ballot initiative legalizing recreational use of marijuana that will be subject to Congressional review.

Due to marijuana being classified as a Schedule 1 substance in the U.S., most research is being conducted in other countries, however, this seems to be changing as I was able to find a couple studies conducted in the U.S. One interesting study, (Chapkis 2007), interviewed medical marijuana (MMJ) patients in California. Chapkis found many of her respondents reported that they valued the consciousness altering properties of marijuana significantly more so than its other various reported therapeutic benefits (2007). These patients reported that the effects on mood and cognition were difficult to separate from its medical benefits. I theorize the consciousness altering properties allow patients to relax, dissociate, and ease the stress response from worrying over their pain or other conditions.

In research conducted by Vadhan et al. (2007) the complex cognitive functioning during marijuana intoxication under controlled laboratory conditions was examined on regular marijuana users. The subjects were given a controlled dosage of marijuana and were presented with various cognitive tasks and The Iowa Gambling Task, which is said to model real-life decision-making, forcing the participant to balance potential gains and losses. The researchers found that the participants required greater amounts of time to complete the tasks, but their primary performance on tasks of deductive reasoning, cognitive flexibility, and working memory were not altered during intoxication. In regards to the gambling task, the researchers found that marijuana did not disrupt advantageous card selection or money earned.

In Australia, Jones, Blagrove, and Parrott (2009) examined creative responses and self-perception of creativity in marijuana and ecstasy users while they were not under the influence of either drug. They found that marijuana users scored higher on “rare-creative” responses than a control group, but rated themselves as not more creative. Ecstasy users rated themselves as more creative, but rated lower on the creative responses test (Jones et al. 2009). This research begs the question, does marijuana actually lead to more creativity as many musicians and authors have suggested over the years? Perhaps it is the dissociative state which enables a person to remove himself from the immediate physical sensory stimulation and imagine novel ways of looking at things.

In research conducted by Ringen et al. (2009) effects of marijuana use on neurocognitive functioning was assessed in patients with Bipolar Disorder (BPD) and patients with schizophrenia. The researchers found that in the patients with BPD, marijuana use was associated with better cognitive functioning, while the opposite was the case for the patients with schizophrenia. This suggests two things; first, that there may be different neurocognitive mechanisms in play in BPD as opposed to schizophrenia, and second, that something about marijuana’s effect on neurochemistry benefits people with BPD.

Often marijuana is described as a “substance of abuse” and medicinal marijuana patients as “drug abusers.” What effect does the use of this language have on the self-perceptions of patients? Would it not be healthier for these patients to be thought of as people who are undergoing treatment for their various ailments? Does feeling like a patient and not an abuser lead to better health outcomes?

In the words of an acquaintance who has a prescription for medical marijuana in Colorado, “With marijuana you know what you get, you can track it back to the warehouse which is 20 miles away and you know exactly what’s in it. It has to be grown in state; it’s actually a local crop too. Everything a doctor prescribes you; they get a kickback from the prescription or insurance companies. With all the commercials and stuff it makes all these prescription painkillers socially acceptable when it’s just the exact same thing as taking heroin or something.”

I conclude that the cultural construction of meaning regarding the use of marijuana may finally be changing. This reflects the current issues in the U.S. concerning the rising abuse of prescription painkillers and increased recognition of the dangers of alcohol abuse. Hopefully this will open the doors to more scientific studies on the effects of marijuana use, allowing people to form opinions based on facts rather than propaganda.

Chapkis, Wendy (2007) Cannabis, Consciousness, and Healing. Contemporary Justice Review, 10(4):443-460.

Jones, Katy A., Blagrove, M., and A.C. Parrott (2009) Cannabis and Ecstasy/MDMA: Empirical measures of Creativity in Recreational Users. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 41(4):323-329.

Ringen, P.A., Vaskinn, A., Sundet, K., Engh, J.A., Jonsdottir, H., Simonsen, C., Friis, S., Opjordsmoen, S., Melle, I., and O.A.Andreassen. (2009)   Opposite Relationships between Cannabis Use and Neurocognitive Functioning in Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia. Psychological Medicine, 40:1337-1347.

Vadhan, Nehal P., C.L. Hart, W.G. Van Gorp, E.W. Gunderson, M. Haney, and R.W. Foltin. (2007) Acute Effects of Smoked Marijuana on Decision Making, as Assessed by a Modified Gambling Task, in Experienced Marijuana Users. Journal of Clinical & Experimental Neuropsychology 29(4):357-364.

 

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