Pot Makes Brain Vulnerable to `Hard' Drugs, Studies Say

By 1997, The Washington Post | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), June 27, 1997 | Go to article overview

Pot Makes Brain Vulnerable to `Hard' Drugs, Studies Say


1997, The Washington Post, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Marijuana apparently is a far more insidious drug than generally thought. It alters the brain chemistry of pot smokers in ways that may make them particularly vulnerable to "hard" drugs such as heroin or cocaine, two independent research groups have found.

Long-term marijuana use has been widely regarded as a comparatively innocuous practice with a low risk of addition. But an American-Spanish team reports in today's issue of the journal Science that abrupt cessation of long-term marijuana use causes the same kind of cellular withdrawal reactions in lab rats as "those produced by other major drugs of abuse."

Although they seem fairly mild to the marijuana user, those withdrawal effects can prompt changes in nerve function that "prime" the pot-smoker's brain for greater susceptibility to opiate, cocaine or alcohol abuse, the researchers suggest. In a second report, Italian scientists show that the major active ingredient in marijuana smoke has precisely the same impact as heroin on a key brain site that influences addiction to numerous drugs. If confirmed by further investigation, the discoveries could tip the scales in the national debate over whether marijuana is a relatively harmless recreational drug or serves as a "gateway" to use of other, more dangerous substances. That presumption is supported by the fact that more than 90 percent of hard-drug users say that marijuana was their first drug. The question is urgent because marijuana is the most prevalent illegal drug in America, with about 10 million occasional or frequent users. Nearly 36 percent of U.S. high school seniors smoke or have smoked it, according to the latest federal survey. About 3 million children age 12 to 17 use it, the Department of Health and Human Services has determined, and use in that age group has nearly doubled since 1990. About 100,000 Americans a year seek treatment for marijuana dependence. Neither report immediately alters marijuana's reputation as one of the least hazardous of routinely abused substances. …

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