With the legalization of marijuana for recreational use increasingly seen on ballots across the country, many people are getting the idea that marijuana use is relatively harmless. However, a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience is adding to the body of evidence that supports the idea that marijuana use comes with the risk of numerous dangers, including addiction and brain damage.
Researchers found that participants who smoked marijuana recreationally a few times each week had “significant brain abnormalities in the areas that control emotion and motivation,” according to Mic.
Anne Blood is a co-author of the study. She told TIME: “There is this general perspective out there that using marijuana recreationally is not a problem – that it is a safe drug. We are seeing that this is not the case.”
Other studies have shown that regular or habitual use of marijuana can cause brain abnormalities; this study is unique in that it demonstrates that even occasional use of the drug can have detrimental effects. Of the 27 participants in the study who smoked weed, 20 of them smoked an average of four times each week and seven of them smoked only once per week.
Hans Breiter is another co-author of the study. He said: “We looked specifically at people who have no adverse impacts from marijuana – no problems with work, school, the law, relationships, no addiction issues.”
The nucleus accumbens and the amygdala are the areas of the brain most impacted by marijuana use, according to the neuroimaging used in the study. These areas of the brain are responsible for:
- Determining whether or not a certain activity will be beneficial
- Feelings of pleasure and reward for engaging in different activities
Says Breiter: “This is a part of the brain that you absolutely never ever want to touch. I don’t want to say that these are magical parts of the brain – they are all important. But these are fundamental in terms of what people find pleasurable in the world and assessing that against the bad things.”
Even those who smoked once per week exhibited significant changes in these areas of the brain in terms of size, density, and volume. The more that a participant smoked, the more damage was seen in the neuroimaging.
Treatment for Marijuana
The hope is that early intervention and treatment for marijuana abuse will allow the patient to heal from all damage caused by use of the substance. But not all damage may be reversed during treatment, and a return to use, or use of other substances, may continue to worsen the damage.
Says Breiter: “People think a little marijuana shouldn’t cause a problem if someone is doing OK with work or school. Our data directly says this is not so.”