It is a big deal. It is the most prevalent illegal drug used by our children, yet we know little about its effects on their developing brains. WE NEED TO KNOW!
Legal consequences of pot possession
A first time offender who possesses a small amount of marijuana1 is entitled to make a motion to have the case adjourned for one year and then if there are no further arrests during that year the case will be dismissed.2 Even a “dealer” of marijuana is entitled to this motion if he sells less than 25 grams and the buyer is not less than 18 years old.3 This application may be granted without the District Attorney’s consent as long as the offender has not previously been granted an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal under New York State Criminal Procedure Law §170.55; or a marijuana adjournment in contemplation of dismissal under New York State Criminal Procedure Law §170.56; or convicted of any crime; or previously adjudicated a youthful offender on the basis of any act or acts involving controlled substances. Presently most of marijuana offenses where a marijuana adjournment in contemplation of dismissal is applicable are disposed of at the offender’s first appearance.
The legislation described above was the result of the general belief in the 1970’s that marijuana was relatively harmless and not addictive. In fact, until the 1990’s few, if any studies were conducted on marijuana use. Presently, fifteen states and counting have legalized marijuana for medical use. On the contrary, the federal government has not decriminalized marijuana and as marijuana has become more and more potent the scientific community has begun to study it.
But pot is not addictive
Wrong! THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, rapidly increases dopamine levels in the brain, the chemical responsible for feelings of reward in the brain, just as all addictive drugs do. THC, however, “has a long half-life – meaning it lingers in the bloodstream – which in turn prevents the abrupt withdrawal symptoms seen in fast-acting drugs like nicotine,”4 cocaine, and heroin. While the dopamine level drops more gradually with marijuana use, there is still the chemical withdrawal effect as there is with opiates, cocaine and alcohol. In other words, marijuana takes you up and puts you on a “high” plateau that lasts longer than other addictive drugs. Then, rather than dropping you off a cliff, it lowers you down like an escalator still producing the anxiousness, edginess and the coping problems associated with the harder drugs, only more gradually. Thus the heavy user of marijuana experiences the same brain chemistry changes as the heroin, cocaine, amphetamine, nicotine, and alcohol abusers do. It is just not as dramatic for marijuana users as it is for harder drug users.5 It is insidious in that its addictive behavior is less dramatic than hard drugs.
Pot just relaxes me; it has no other significant effects
No! Dr. Daniel G. Amen in studying SPECT scans of inexperienced marijuana smokers found they exhibited “an acute decrease in cerebral blood flow.”6 Chronic users exhibited “overall decreased perfusion [of blood] when compared to a non-using control group.”7 Using more sensitive scanners Dr. Amen was able to find in another study that frequent long-term marijuana use changed the perfusion pattern. He discovered that these subjects had overall less blood flow and brain activity and in addition had focal decreased areas of activity in the pre-frontal cortex and temporal lobes.8 The prefrontal cortex is the command and control center of the brain. Problems associated with a poor functioning prefrontal cortex are: inattention, lack of forethought, procrastination, impulsive and disinhibited behavior, poor judgment, lack of empathy, and trouble learning from mistakes.9 The temporal lobes “are involved with language (hearing and reading), reading social cues, short-term memory, getting memories into long-term storage, processing music and tone of voice, and mood stability. They also help with recognizing objects by sight and naming them. It is called the ‘What Pathway’ in the brain, as it is involved with recognition and naming objects and faces. In addition, the temporal lobes, especially on the right side, have been implicated in spiritual experience and insight … trouble in the temporal lobes leads to both short- and long-term memory problems, reading difficulties, trouble finding the right words in conversation, trouble reading social cues, mood instability, and sometimes religious or moral preoccupation or perhaps a lack of spiritual sensitivity. The temporal lobes, especially on the left side, have been associated with temper problems.”10
The effects of smoking pot are temporary
Wrong again. The changes noted above are physical changes in the brain. Additionally the dopamine cycle of reward/pleasure can become desensitized with constant chemical inducement. In other words it can wear out and thus require more stimulation – drugs to get you to a comfortable feeling.
Studies in Australia have found the hippocampus (the center of emotion, memory and autonomic nervous system) and the amygdala (associated with the sense of smell) tend to be smaller in heavy cannabis users compared with nonusers.11
Additionally, “[a] Harvard Medical School researcher found that young adults who started smoking marijuana as adolescents or teens had greater decreases in cognitive function and more problems with attention and focus than their peers who didn’t use the drug… Brain imaging tests showed changes in activity in the prefrontal cortex of the chronic pot smokers. This is the area of the brain associated with decision-making, attention, impulse control, and executive function… The marijuana users were more impulsive than non-pot smokers … performed worse on card-sorting task and did not learn from their errors, which is one of the signs of impaired executive function [prefrontal cortex]… Pot smokers who began using the drug on a regular basis prior to the age of 16 smoked twice as often and three times the quantity as users who began after age 16.”12
The Office of National Drug Control Policy, Executive Office of the President found in 2008 that teen marijuana use worsens depression.13
In Holland researchers concluded that pot smoking during adolescence is a risk factor in developing psychosis. This study was confirmed in a separate study in Austria that found that pot-smokers developed psychotic symptoms 2.7 years earlier than people who were not pot-smokers.14
What do we owe our young clients?
I believe we should have a discussion with our young clients about how dangerous pot/marijuana is. Whether they are using it or not, they will be exposed to it. I believe in the “Sy Sims” philosophy of the “educated consumer,” that is if they are using marijuana or going to try it, they should know what they are “buying” into before they make that decision. I find it is best to do it one-on-one without the parents present so that it is a conversation and not a lecture. Regrettably, I find most parents do not take marijuana use seriously. You will find out from your young clients that the schools are not providing them with this information.
What should the criminal justice system do?
Considering the cavalier attitude our society has towards marijuana I think the criminal consequences should remain the same, that is no permanent criminal record for possessing or selling a small amount. We should insist on some drug education to make young people aware of the health consequences. Some community service should attach to impress upon the young person that our society attaches consequences to pot use. I would not want a young person to suffer a criminal conviction that would greatly impact their future when 15 states have legalized marijuana and more have decriminalized it. Currently over 40% of colleges do criminal background checks and more employers do everyday. I would not want a client to suffer for a problem we as a society have not educated them properly on. A criminal conviction for a drug offense, including marijuana, can also preclude financial aid.
Pot smoking is a big deal. Marijuana is the most prevalent illegal drug used by our young people, yet they know nothing about its effects on their developing brains. They need to know.
Paul Delle is a solo practitioner located in Garden City and is a former Assistant District Attorney for Nassau County.
1. New York State Penal Law §221.05, §221.10, and §221.15.
2. New York State Criminal Procedure Law §170.56, Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal in Cases Involving Marijuana.
3. New York State Penal Law § 221.35, §221.40, §221.50
4. Sandra Blakeslee, Brain Studies Tie Marijuana to Other Drugs, New York Times, June 27, 1997
6. Daniel G. Amen, M.D. Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, p. 237, 1998.
8. Id. at p. 239.
9. Daniel G. Amen, M.D., David E. Smith, M.D., Unchain Your Brain, p. 274, 2010.
10. Id. at p. 278.
11. Pot Damages the Brain, June 13, 2008, Amen Clinics Blogs, Dr. Daniel G. Amen, www.amenclinics.com/amenclinics/blog/
12. What Marijuana does to Your Teen’s Brain, December 7, 2010, Amen Clinics Blogs, Dr. Daniel G. Amen, www.amenclinics.com/amenclinics/blog/
13. Teen Marijuana Use Worsens Depression, Office of National Drug Control Policy, Executive Office of the President, May 2008.
14. What Doubles the Risk of Developing Psychosis? March 22, 2011, Dr. Daniel G. Amen, Amen Clinics Blogs,
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