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Dumb and dumber? Teen marijuana use linked to lower IQ in later life

Published: Saturday, June 21 2014 4:35 a.m. MDT


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Jokes aside about tuned-out stoners who can’t find their car, some experts are asking, what if marijuana actually makes kids dumb?

Earlier this month, three researchers at the National Institute of Drug Abuse published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine surveying the current state of the evidence. According to their report, marijuana use in adolescence and early adulthood may measurably lower users’ IQ decades later down the road.

They conclude there is reason to believe marijuana may permanently harm the adolescent brain. Until the age of 21, the piece notes, the brain “is intrinsically more vulnerable than a mature brain to the adverse long-term effects of environmental insults.”

Given the rapid pace of marijuana legalization, researchers are noting an increased urgency to do research on the developing brains of teen users. Washington and Colorado have both legalized recreational marijuana use, and legalization is actively being considered in 14 additional states. While none of these states propose making pot legal for minors, destigmatization and greater ease of access have already resulted in heavier use among youths in Colorado. As marijuana is increasingly normalized and seen as relatively harmless, some experts doubt whether we know enough to justify rapid shifts in policy and behavior in pot usage.

“There is a lot we know and a lot we don’t,” said Wilson Compton, deputy director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and a co-author of the NEJM paper, in an interview. “We think it’s very important to understand risk and protective factors and to understand how significant any one of them is.”

Mile high

Public opinion, for the moment, may be racing faster than science can keep up.

Last fall, Gallup reported that a solid 58 percent of Americans favored legalizing pot. And an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll this spring found that 49 percent saw tobacco as harmful, while 24 percent said the same of alcohol, 15 percent of sugar, and just 8 percent of marijuana.

Shifting perception is quickly translating to youth drug usage in Colorado, which became ground zero for pot legalization in 2012 when the state voters chose to legalize and tax the drug.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy reported last year that one in four Boulder County high school students now use pot — more than three times the national average.

And the numbers are shifting fast. In Adams County, a Denver suburb, high school marijuana use jumped from 21 percent in 2008 to 29 percent in 2012. Middle school pot use in Adams County jumped 50 percent during that period — from 5.7 to 8.5 percent.

Down under

No one is certain what all of these behavior changes mean for the long-term health of kids who become heavy pot users in adolescence, but some researchers think they have a good hunch.

One of the most critical insights comes from a 40-year, ongoing study in Dunedin, New Zealand, where researchers have for years followed the lives of 1,037 children born there during a one-year span in 1972 and 1973.

The kids, now adults, were tested at two-year intervals throughout their childhood and subsequently at ages 21, 26, 32 and now 38. Retention at each stage of the study has been remarkable: At the last interval, they got to 95 percent of the original group. Every angle of physical, mental and social health is examined, and researchers also interview friends and relatives. The result is an unprecedented data trove.

Arizona State University psychology professor Madeline Meier and several co-authors at Duke University used Dunedin’s data to check the effect of adolescent marijuana use, publishing their findings in 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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