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Blowing Up the Big Marijuana IQ Myth—The Science Points to Zero Effect on Your Smarts

Sun, 08/06/2017 - 11:47
Click here for reuse options! Debunking one of the oldest theories about cannabis.

“Marijuana makes people retarded, especially when they’re young.” So claimed conservative commentator Ann Coulter while speaking at Politicon last week. 

But while such inflammatory claims by culture warriors like Coulter are to be expected – and may readily be dismissed – the notion that smoking pot will have lasting negative impacts on intelligence is a longstanding one, and a claim that is all too often made by those on both sides of the political spectrum. Yet the latest science finds little to no factual basis for this contention.

Longitudinal data just recently published online in the journal Addiction reports that pot smoking is not independently associated with adverse effects on the developing brain. A team of investigators from the United States and the United Kingdom evaluated whether marijuana use is directly associated with changes over time in neuropsychological performance in a nationally representative cohort of adolescent twins. Authors reported that “family background factors,” but not the use of cannabis negatively impacted adolescents’ cognitive performance.

They wrote: “[W]e found that youth who used cannabis … had lower IQ at age 18, but there was little evidence that cannabis use was associated with IQ decline from age 12 to 18. Moreover, although cannabis use was associated with lower IQ and poorer executive functions at age 18, these associations were generally not apparent within pairs of twins from the same family, suggesting that family background factors explain why adolescents who use cannabis perform worse on IQ and executive function tests.”

Investigators concluded, “Short-term cannabis use in adolescence does not appear to cause IQ decline or impair executive functions, even when cannabis use reaches the level of dependence.”

They’re not alone in their conclusions. In 2016, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Minnesota performed a similar longitudinal analysis regarding marijuana’s potential impact on intelligence quotient in a separate cohort of adolescent twins. They reported no dose-response relationship between pot exposure and IQ decline at age 20, and observed no significant differences in performance among those who used marijuana and their non-using twins. 

Investigators concluded: “In the largest longitudinal examination of marijuana use and IQ change, … we find little evidence to suggest that adolescent marijuana use has a direct effect on intellectual decline. … [T]he lack of a dose–response relationship, and an absence of meaningful differences between discordant siblings lead us to conclude that the deficits observed in marijuana users are attributable to confounding factors that influence both substance initiation and IQ rather than a neurotoxic effect of marijuana.”

The UCLA findings mimicked those of separate longitudinal data published earlier that year in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. Investigators in that study assessed IQ and educational performance in a cohort of 2,235 adolescent twins. They too reported that after adjusting for potential confounds (such as the use of tobacco and alcohol), teens who used cannabis “did not differ from never-users on either IQ or educational performance.”

Florida State researchers similarly examined the issue earlier this year. Writing in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, they reported on the impact of marijuana exposure on intelligence scores in subjects over a 14-year period (ages 12 to 26). They concluded, “[O]ur findings did not reveal a significant association between cumulative marijuana use and changes in intelligence scores.”

Nonetheless, political opponents of cannabis policy reform continue to opine that pot smoking “reduces IQ by 6-8 points.” This claim is derived from a widely publicized 2012 New Zealand study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It reported that the persistent use of cannabis from early adolescence to adulthood was associated with slightly lower IQ by age 38. 

However, a followup review of the data published later in the same journal suggested that the observed changes were the result of investigators’ failure to properly control for confounding variables, primarily the socioeconomic differences between users and non-users, and were not unduly influenced by subjects’ cannabis use history.

A later paper by the lead investigator of the New Zealand study similarly reported that the presence of confounders makes it difficult to impossible to attribute changes in teens’ academic performance on pot use alone, finding that the effects of persistent adolescent cannabis use on academic performance are “non-significant after controlling for persistent alcohol and tobacco use.”

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How to Talk to Your Kids About Marijuana in a Society Where It Is Increasingly Legal

Sat, 08/05/2017 - 10:24
Have you had the cannabis conversation with your kids?

Elizabeth D'Amico knows a thing or two about kids and drugs. A clinical psychologist and behavioral scientist at the Rand Corporation who has studied adolescent drug and alcohol use for the past 20 years, D'Amico is the mother of two boys on the verge of adolescence.

In the video below, she brings to bear both her clinical and her maternal experience to make some suggestions about how we can deal with the inevitable questions that arise when, for instance, Junion spots a giant billboard extolling the virtues of somebody's pot product: "It can't be bad if it's legal and they can advertise, right, mom?"

It's not quite that simple. D'Amico explains that the best approach is "to give honest, balanced answers based on facts," which she proceeds to do:


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AlterNet Is Leading the Fight for Drug Reform: We Need You to Help Chip In

Fri, 08/04/2017 - 22:45
Click here for reuse options! Every bit helps.

As a subscriber to AlterNet's drugs newsletter, you know that independent media is a key ingredient for social change when it comes to reform. Whether the issue is legalization or ending mass incarceration, the journey starts with educating people, changing minds, inspiring people to become activists, and breaking through social taboos, racist mind-sets and powerful government agencies and business interests that stand in the way of progress. And media needs to be there every step of the way as reforms and changes begin to happen. 

AlterNet has been a media leader for almost two decades on drug reform issues. Can you make a generous contribution to support our work?

Every day, we push back against the massive onslaught of corporate propaganda that dominates the airwaves. With unique, original reporting, in-depth analysis and editorials, and a curated mix of the best content from select publishers and grassroots organizations around the globe, AlterNet is recognized as one of the best on this issue. 

We are a great bang for your buck. But we simply can't do it without your support. Can you help?

In solidarity,

Phil Smith, AlterNet Drugs Editor



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Jeff Sessions Wants to Fight Opioid Addiction By Criminalizing One of Its Most Effective Treatments

Fri, 08/04/2017 - 10:37
Click here for reuse options! The attorney general's war on medical marijuana could exacerbate a growing epidemic.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced that the Justice Department will focus on “health care fraud and opioid scams" by implementing a pilot program that sends federal prosecutors across cities most affected by addiction and overdoses. Sessions made the announcement in a speech Wednesday in Ohio, where eight people die each day from unintentional overdoses, according to ABC. Meanwhile, he remains a vocal opponent of one of its most proven treatments: medical marijuana.

From 1997 to 2014, the hospitalization rates of people suffering from painkiller abuse dropped 23 percent in states where medical marijuana was legalized, according to researchers from the University of California San Diego. Ninety-two percent of pain patients prefer cannabis over opioids and the rate of mariajuana-related hospitalizations has been unaffected by legalization. Yet Sessions insists there is "more violence around marijuana than one would think," even as experts have found otherwise. He also says smoking pot is "an unhealthy practice" that should be punished like heroin and cocaine use.

"In recent years, some of the government officials in our country have mistakenly sent mixed messages about the harmfulness of drugs," Sessions said, likely referring to the legalization of marijuana around the country. "So let me say: We cannot capitulate intellectually or morally unto this kind of rampant drug abuse. We must create a culture that's hostile to drug abuse."

Democratic officials remain skeptical. If Republicans succeed in repealing the Affordable Care Act, "it will likely make the opioid epidemic worse," DNC spokeswoman Mandy McClure told the Washington Post.

Criminal justice advocates also fear that the attorney general's aggressive tactics might crowd federal prisons with inmates serving longer sentences, unraveling an Obama-era policy that sought to combat excessive jailing and focus on rehabilitation. The legalization of medical marijuana was a step in that direction. 

Sessions has likened his programs to past campaign against tobacco use, which he says, “took time” and “became effective.” The “opioid fraud and abuse detection unit" will purportedly use data analytics to uncover pill mills and “focus specifically on opioid-related health care fraud using data to identify and prosecute key individuals that are contributing to this opioid epidemic.”

Sessions has warned doctors and pharmacists who are "letting these pills walk out the door and onto the streets" that "we are coming after you."

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NFL's Chief Medical Officer Puts Pot Use for Pain Management on the Table

Fri, 08/04/2017 - 10:16
The NFL has long had a stringent policy against marijuana, but that could soon be changing.

The NFL has long had a no tolerance policy when it comes to marijuana. Players who have never violated the policy are only drug tested once a year, but suspensions can be swift and damning once a player is caught violating the protocol. Ricky Williams, a strong prospect and a talented player, basically destroyed his career through repeated use. He’s far from the only NFL pro to wind up on the wrong side of this.

But now the NFL’s chief medical officer says that the league and the NFL Players Association are trying to determine whether marijuana could be an acceptable substance for pain-management.

“I think we have a lot more to learn about that,” Allen Sills, a Vanderbilt University neurosurgeon hired by the NFL in March, told The Washington Post in a phone interview his week. “Certainly the research about marijuana and really more particularly cannabinoid compounds as they may relate to the treatment of both acute and chronic pain, that is an area of research that we need a lot more information on and we need to further develop.”

“I think that’s part of what we hope to accomplish together working together with the Players Association,” Sills added. “I think this is really important because I like to talk about that our approach to caring for players is really holistic. We want to talk about health and safety issues that affect the whole player experience. And certainly pain management is a big part of that.”

The NFL has come under fire in the past decade as more and more evidence emerges about the dangerous consequences of playing the violent game. A recent study found CTE, a degenerative disease, in 99 percent of deceased NFL players’ brains donated to research.

Read more of Sills’ interview with the Post here.

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Is Trump Finally About to Act on the Opioid Crisis?

Fri, 08/04/2017 - 10:08
An emergency declaration would empower the government to expand access to in-patient treatment and negotiate lower prices for overdose reversal drugs.

If Donald Trump declares America’s opioid addiction crisis a national emergency, as a White House commission urged him to do earlier this week, it could mark a dramatic escalation in the administration’s response.

“Think what we would do in this country if Zika and Ebola were taking 100 lives every single day,” said Gary Mendell, the CEO of Shatterproof, a nonprofit working to end addiction.

“We would call it a national emergency and we would marshal all the resources of federal agencies to attack the issue,” Mendell told the Guardian. “And that’s what needs to happen here.”

Formal emergency declarations are rarely used on a national scale, and are typically reserved for natural disasters and infectious diseases such as H1N1 virus.

But Monday’s draft report by a bipartisan commission led by New Jersey governor Chris Christie suggests the situation was serious enough to warrant such a dramatic step, as 91 Americans die each day from an opioid overdose.

An emergency declaration would empower the government to quickly expand access to in-patient treatment services and negotiate lower prices for the overdose reversal drug naloxone, according to the report. It could also cut out some bureaucracy to expedite data-sharing, funds distribution and laws that improve access to treatment.

Six states have used mechanisms similar to a federal emergency declaration to respond to the opioid crisis at a local level. The declarations helped Florida, Maryland, Arizona, Virginia, Alaska and Massachusetts expand access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone, improve reporting of overdose deaths, institute prescription drug monitoring programs and allocate funds for addiction services.

Jay Butler, the chief medical officer of Alaska’s health department, coordinated the implementation of the state’s emergency declaration, which was in effect for 30 days. Butler said it improved coordination between agencies and expanded access to naloxone – something the commission has recommended be done on a nationwide scale.

Butler, who is also president of the Association of State and Territorial HealthOfficials (ASTHO), told the Guardian that a federal state of emergency “nicely puts into context the magnitude of the issue”, but he was not clear how such a declaration would be managed at the federal level.

“If there are no additional resources – funding, personnel – it will be at the price of compromising the response to other priorities, such as Zika virus,” Butler said. “The public health infrastructure cannot bear additional load without upkeep.”

Others are concerned about how a national emergency would be used by the Trump administration, which has so far favored policies that could undermine efforts to curb addiction – such as limiting access to healthcare, harshly penalizing drug users and cutting funds for agencies tasked with addressing the crisis.

“The report issued this week demonstrates how far out of touch the Trump administration has been with respect to its drug policy and its policy towards addressing the opioid crisis,” Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told the Guardian.

The contradictions between the administration’s policies and evidence-based solutions, such as medication-assisted treatment and expanded access to addiction treatment, have plagued the commission since it was organized in March.

At the commission’s first meeting in June, nearly every speaker explained to an audience that included senior Trump advisors Kellyanne Conway and Jared Kushner that the repeal of the Affordable Care Act – something Republicans have so far tried but failed to achieve – would be a “disaster” for the opioid crisis response.

“If we make it harder and more expensive for people to get healthcare coverage, it’s going to make this crisis worse,” said North Carolina governor and commission member, Roy Cooper.

In Maythe US health secretary, Tom Price, said that using medication assisted treatment was “substituting one opioid for another”, prompting nearly 700 researchers and practitioners to demand a clarification of his statement, which he eventually walked back from. The health department also clarified that it supports medication assisted treatment.

Other key agencies tasked with responding to the crisis have been hampered by threats to cut funding and leadership vacancies.

The White House proposed cutting 95% of funding to the Office of National Drug Control Policy in its original budget proposal, but restored most of the funding in a revised budget plan after facing widespread backlash from Republicans and Democrats.

Trump also fired US surgeon general Vivek Murthy in April, months after his office published a nonpartisan report on addiction, and his position has not been filled. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only just appointed a new director after Thomas Frieden resigned from the post on inauguration day.

Outside of the administration’s health infrastructure, drug policy experts are concerned about the policies of attorney general Jeff Sessions. He has long supported punitive drug policies that harken back to the war on drugs, which has been discredited as a failure.

In May, Sessions directed federal prosecutors to pursue the harshest possible sentences for drug crimes, a move seen as a return to drug-war policies.

And two days after the report was released, Sessions advocated for a southern border wall to stem the flow of drugs, an effort promoted heavily by the president, though it was not mentioned in the commission report and is not expected to significantly reduce drug abuse in the US.

Smith, of the Drug Policy Alliance, said: “A national emergency declaration – will it be used in the way that the commission intends it to be used or will it be used to further the agenda that attorney general Sessions pursued?”


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