Clearing the air for marijuana research

Dec 27, 2016

Andrew Selsky, Associated Press (FIle)
A marijuana harvester examines buds as they go through a trimming machine in a rural area near Corvallis.

A couple of recent news stories regarding marijuana use in the United States make the case for continued academic research into the drug — and suggest that educational campaigns aimed at teenagers are having a useful effect.
First, you might recall the half-joking warnings making the rounds as Oregon got set to legalize recreational marijuana: Older adults, who perhaps hadn’t tried pot since their youthful days in the 1970s and 1980s, needed to be careful about trying today’s weed, because it’s so much more potent now.
Those warnings haven’t done much to scare away some adults: Surveys show a small but growing number of older adults are using marijuana. That finding surely doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone watching as state after state legalizes recreational pot use. 
Researchers reviewing data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found a big increase in adults over 50 reporting they had used pot in the past year: A decade ago, only about 2.8 percent of those surveyed said they had used pot. By 2013, the rate had jumped to 4.8 percent. Our guess is that the number would be even higher today.
Here’s a problem with that: Researchers don’t know very much about how marijuana use affects older brains. 
Researchers at New York University recently reported that pot could pose health challenges to older users ranging from memory loss to risk of falling.
But doctors don’t have enough information to offer guidelines to their pot-using older patients. Noted one doctor quoted in an Associated Press story: “When it comes to, for instance, alcohol, there have been a lot of studies about effects on older populations, guidelines on how much older people should be consuming. But when it comes to marijuana, we have nothing.”
Part of the reason why that’s the case is that much of the recent research into marijuana has focused, and properly so, on how the drug might affect developing brains.
But legitimate academic institutions still have too hard a time tackling needed research on marijuana. And that gets us back to the fact that the federal government still lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the designation reserved for drugs with no recognized medical application and which have a high potential for abuse.
The federal government has resisted calls to remove the Schedule I designation from marijuana, and such a move seems unlikely from the Trump administration.
But the designation often serves as a barrier for institutions which might otherwise be working now to fill in the blank spots regarding marijuana use. An institution that relies on federal grant money, such as a university, might well be reluctant to green-light marijuana research if even a slight possibility exists that it might run afoul of federal rules. 
The logical step would be to remove the Schedule I designation.
In the meantime, another recent study caught our eye: Despite worries that legalization would lead to a surge in pot use by minors, that doesn’t appear to be happening: A study from the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse reports a drop among eighth-graders who reported using marijuana in the last month, down from 6.5 percent in 2015 to 5 percent this year. But older teens continue to use marijuana at about the same rate, the survey found, with 22.5 percent of high school seniors reporting pot use in the last month.
Those numbers, of course, still are too high, especially considering new information about marijuana use and developing brains.
So we need to continue outreach efforts to teenagers regarding pot. You know what could help with that? More and better research. (mm)

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