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An Analysis of Marijuana Policy

National Research Council of the National Academy of Science, 1982


Marijuana is not a harmless drug. Although available evidence suggests that marijuana may be less likely than opiates, barbiturates, or alcohol to induce psychological and physical dependence in its users, it has the capacity to reduce the effective functioning of individuals under its influence, and prolonged or excessive use may cause serious harmful biological and social effects in many users.

The recent report, and Health, of the Institute of Medicine in the appendix concludes:

The scientific evidence published to date indicates that marijuana has a broad range of psychological and biological effects, some of which, at least under certain conditions, are harmful to human health, Unfortunately, the available information does not tell us how serious this risk may be.

Overall, the report concludes (p. 5):

[W]hat little we know for certain about the effects of marijuana on human health--and all that we have reason to suspect--justifies serious national concern.

The complete summary of the Institute of Medicine report appears as the appendix to this report.

Over the past 40 years, marijuana has been accused of causing an array of antisocial effects, including: in the 1930s, provoking crime and violence; in the early 1950s, leading to heroin addiction; and in the late1960s, making people passive, lowering motivation and productivity, and destroying the American work ethic in young people. Although beliefs in these effects persist among many people, they have not been substantiated by scientific evidence.

Concerns about how marijuana affects citizenship, motivation, and job performance have become less salient in recent years as marijuana has moved more into the mainstream of society and has become less exclusively associated with radicals, hippies, or disadvantaged minorities Though there is still widespread belief that heavy marijuana use may be incompatible with a responsible, productive life, evidence that marijuana has not adversely affected either the productivity or the sense of social responsibility of some groups of users (see, e.g., Hochman and Brill, 1973) has tempered earlier fears of a widespread "motivation syndrome." Research that correlates marijuana use with undesirable behavior, such as alienation or inattention to school studies, has not established the direction of causality or ruled out spurious associations (see, e.g., Beachy et al., 1979). This issue, however, continues to be the subject of lively controversy and the Institute of Medicine report (1982:125) concludes that "it appears likely that both self-selection and authentic drug effects contribute to the 'motivational' problems seen in some chronic marijuana users."

Recently, a body of literature has accumulated that reports on links between marijuana use and such health impairments as lung disease, chromosome damage, reduced reproductive function, and brain dysfunction (summarized in Institute of Medicine, 1982, and National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1980). In some areas--for example, effects on the nervous system and behavior and on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems--there is clear evidence that marijuana produces acute short-term effects (Institute of Medicine, 1982:2,3):

With a severity directly related to dose, marijuana impairs motor coordination and affects tracking ability and sensory and perceptual functions important for safe driving and the operation of other machine8. . . . [It also] increase8 the work of the heart, usually by raising the heart rate and, in some persons, by raising blood pressure.

There is as yet no such clear evidence on the possible long-term effects in these areas, or of other potential health consequences of marijuana use; further research is needed. In addition) most studies on human populations have been laboratory studies of young, healthy adult males. Differential effects of marijuana use on the elderly, on pregnant women, on groups that are psychiatrically vulnerable or at risk for disease or dysfunction, and particularly on adolescents have not been studied systematically

In our view, the most troublesome aspects of marijuana use are its potential effects on the development of adolescents. Parents as well as a number of clinicians and researchers are concerned that the social and intellectual development of teenagers may be harmed by chronic marijuana use. There is good evidence that intoxication may seriously impair such important skills as comprehension and retention of newly presented educational materials (Institute of Medicine, 1982). Rapidly growing tissues have been shown to be particularly vulnerable to some, although by no means all, toxic agents, and there is at least a possibility that toxic effects may be subtle and not clearly manifest until adulthood. Scientifically, these are difficult relationships to identify, and the research to date is still insufficient to strongly support any relationship.

Perhaps more significant than any lasting biological effect is the effect of the drug in different patterns of use on emotional development, on the formation of habits, and on the acquisition of coping skills for stress situations. Indeed, although the many issues raised by the use of intoxicants to escape stressful challenge have not been systematically studied, the evident attractiveness of marijuana to many adolescents, and its possible dose-related interference with the study and hard work needed for intellectual development in the crucial high school years, make this a special matter for concern. This is particularly so in light of the fact that, unlike alcohol, marijuana is used by many adolescents during school hours. Finally, reports of the effects of marijuana use on automobile driving skills are worrisome.

This Committee has reviewed the scientific literature surveys of marijuana effects on health and behavior, including the major recent study conducted by the Institute of Medicine (1982) and those by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (1979; 1980), Tashkin et al. (1978), Nahas (1977), and Fried (1977). We agree with the conclusion of the Institute of Medicine report that it is likely that long-term heavy marijuana use will be shown to result in measurable damage to health, just as long-term chronic tobacco and alcohol use have proven to cause such damage. It is evident that the full impact of marijuana use on human health will not be clear without careful epidemiological studies involving substantial populations of users--a matter of some decades--even though it is predictable that this drug--like all others--will cause harm in some of its users, particularly in its heaviest users, and among these, in its heaviest adolescent users. At this time, however, our judgment as to behavioral and health-related hazards is that the research has not established a danger both large and grave enough to override all other factors affecting a policy decision.


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