The Frontal Cortex

Andrew Sullivan

I’ll be filling in for Andrew Sullivan this week, so most of my blogging will be over there. I’ll try to cross-post some of the meatier posts, like this one:

The LA Times profiles the normalization of pot:

After decades of bubbling up around the edges of so-called civilized society, marijuana seems to be marching mainstream at a fairly rapid pace. At least in urban areas such as Los Angeles, cannabis culture is coming out of the closet.

At fashion-insider parties, joints are passed nearly as freely as hors d’oeuvres. Traces of the acrid smoke waft from restaurant patios, car windows and passing pedestrians on the city streets — in broad daylight. Even the art of name-dropping in casual conversation — once limited to celebrity sightings and designer shoe purchases — now includes the occasional boast of recently discovered weed strains such as “Strawberry Cough” and “Purple Kush.”

Public sentiment is more than anecdotal; earlier this year, a California Field Poll found that 56% of California voters supported legalizing and taxing marijuana. Last month, voters in Oakland overwhelmingly approved a tax increase on medical marijuana sales, the first of its kind in the country, and Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn has proposed something similar for the City of Angels. “In this current economic crisis, we need to get creative about how we raise funds,” Hahn said in a statement.

I recently moved to Los Angeles and I’m still adjusting to all the medical marijuana stores – there are two within a mile of my apartment. And it’s not just the dispensaries, with their parking lots full of fancy cars – it’s the Amsterdamesque attitude. Light up a joint and people ask for a hit; light up a cigarette and they give you a dirty look.

My hunch is that the normalization of marijuana is here to stay. In recent years, there’s been increasing interest among scientists in cannabinoid receptors, which are the cell receptors activated when you inhale some THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. (There’s a grand scientific tradition of naming cell receptors after the drugs that activate them, which is why you also have opiate receptors and nicotinic receptors. For some still mysterious reason, a chemical in the tropical shrub cannabis sativa is able to perfectly mimic our natural neurotransmitters. As Roger Nicoll, a neuroscientist at UCSF, puts it: “The brain makes its own marijuana.” Smoking a joint just helps you make more of it.) While these cannabinoid receptors have been targeted for the treatment of a wide variety of ailments and disorders, from obesity to chronic pain, I think they might hold the most promise for the treatment of anxiety. There’s now good evidence that mice lacking a normal cannabinoid receptor have difficulty forgetting or unlearning fearful memories. This suggests that endocannabinoids – the natural molecules in your brain that work like THC – help the brain get over the negative emotions triggered by past trauma. Of course, this shouldn’t be too surprising: Despite the fact marijuana was first cultivated almost 10,000 years ago, modern medicine has yet to find another substance that can melt away our fears with such slick efficiency.

Neuroscientists now believe that a faulty endocannabinoid system might play a part in all sorts of anxiety syndromes, from post-traumatic stress disorder to irrational phobias. The Holy Grail of Big Pharm would be a THC compound targeted to the specific parts of our brain–like the amygdala–that modulate our sense of fear. Such a pill would give us the anti-anxiety effects of pot, but without the giddiness, hunger or irrational urge to watch The Big Lebowski. While scientists still don’t know if such a site-specific pill is possible–can we just get our amygdala high?–experiments done in the next few years should help resolve the issue. If such a pill ever hits the market, of course, I think it would dramatically alter the way in which most Americans (and not just those in my liberal zip code) think about marijuana. Weed would no longer be synonymous with Cheech and Chong, or Jeff Spicoli, or Harold and Kumar. Instead, it just might be the new Prozac.

Comments

  1. #1 Robin Kershaw
    August 31, 2009

    Very interesting as usual, but could you explain – if you know – why sometimes smoking pot increases a sense of paranoia, given that paranoia correlates with an increase in anxiety.

  2. #2 Gilles Beauchamp
    August 31, 2009

    Just to add to the first comment… I used to think it was the weed that is stronger today (than in the ’70s) and that it was for this reason I just don’t like anymore the buzz…

    But maybe it’s my head that have become weaker, and the effect being more of the paranoid type than the relaxation one !

  3. #3 Roger Jordan
    August 31, 2009

    I’d be curious what correspondence there is, if any, between the effect of pot on the amygdala and elsewhere and the effect of meditation practiced over time. Seems to me that they both get to a (very roughly) similar place of relieving anxiety, although meditation isn’t so volatile and has numerous side benefits. On the other hand, it requires diligence, something that a drug doesn’t require.

  4. #4 royniles
    August 31, 2009

    Booze and tobacco are fun ways to legally degrade your health. Will adding another fun way in some way decrease the level of degradation? Is having access to the lesser of three evils an improvement to that of only two? Probably not, but justice in its blind schmusticalensce seems to demand it.

  5. #5 Pierce R. Butler
    August 31, 2009

    There’s a grand scientific tradition of naming cell receptors after the drugs that activate them, which is why you also have opiate receptors and nicotinic receptors.

    Funny, I’ve never heard of lysergic acid diethylamide receptors, nor even of ethanol receptors…

  6. #6 OftenWrongTed
    August 31, 2009

    By way of local media and medical reports, Hawaiian pot is all treated prior to sale, raising a concern that the wash could be damaging to one’s health. These wide-spread reports do not appear to be affecting the rate of consumption.

  7. #7 C-Lo
    August 31, 2009

    In response to the first two comments, I would wager that it’s not necessarily the potency being higher, but rather the strain of marijuana that you’re using. You see, different strains of marijuana contain varying levels of a variety of different cannabinoids, and you may just be getting a certain strain that contains more of the (makes Robin anxious)type of cannabinoids. Unfortunately since marijuana is illegal we don’t generally get the luxury of choosing among several different strains, unless you have a cannabis card in California that is. In that case, I’d ask the clerk to recommend a strain that is known for it’s ANTI-anxiety effects, you may just fall in love with Mary Jane all over again ;-)

  8. #8 CB
    August 31, 2009

    Seems like marijuana has been medicating against anxiety and depression long before Prozac. Maybe it’s becuase I’m still in my 20s, but the ratio of regular pot smokers I know to anti-depressant takers, is at least 10-1.

  9. #9 Lee
    September 1, 2009

    For over 70 years our government has spent our tax dollars to lie to us and to incarcerate us in mass for daring to imbibe marijuana. Decades of lies, distortions and coverups about pot does not constitute good government or good science. If anything, those decades of trying to cram a square peg into a round hole constitute insanity on the part of the prohibitionists.

    The Holy Grail of the fast food industry is wheat, stripped of its fiber, stripped of its nutrients and bleached to “perfection”. Fast foods and fast drugs are great for corporate profits, but like bleached white flour are not advisable for human consumption. So why would the Holy Grail of pot be a pill instead of a plant? It seems we want to go from one ignorant mindset about pot directly to another without lingering long enough to actually ponder the ancient plant in the full light of day.

  10. #10 Niels
    September 1, 2009

    Here in the Netherlands marijuana has been legal for decades. Sounds like California is becoming a little bit like it. Here you buy weed at a Coffee shop (which might also serve coffee, never bothered to ask really ;).

    There is no ‘medicinal value’ implied in a Coffee shop but it’s just for ‘entertainment’. Smoking weed is about as normal as drinking a beer over here.

    Also, we experience NO major health or crime issues related to the legality of weed.

    You might expect the streets to be filled with pizza delivery trucks but no, society didn’t collapse, everybody is working hard and it’s pretty much the nicest, most tolerant country to live in as far as I am concerned.

  11. #11 Niels
    September 1, 2009

    Ah yes, and I forgot to mention that the percentage of Dutch people that use marijuana has not gone through the roof as you might expect.

  12. #12 Jon Heston
    September 2, 2009

    Hey, watching the big lebowski is ALWAYS rational!

  13. #13 Drifjz
    September 3, 2009

    I’m looking forward to the eventual, absolute legalization of marijuana, the eventual, absolute legalization of every other prohibited substance, and that process I take such joy in: ardently avoiding users. In all honesty, I despise it all–alcohol included–but it’s about time to stop initiating violence against those who feel differently. Let’s go ahead and not prohibit tobacco on the way there, though. Pretty counter-intuitive, that.

  14. #14 jb
    September 3, 2009

    My Buddhist teacher did not promote use of any drugs as a shortcut to getting high which can happen in the brain naturally as has been pointed out. Of all the drugs he tried, he came down hardest against marijuana. He didn’t like it because of what regular use does to the brain: it clouds the mind with many thoughts, and because there are no physical side effects after getting high, people easily become addicted and find it hard to stop. So although marijuana may releive anxiety like meditation, in meditation you are trying to have fewer thoughts and be simply present. With marijuana you end up with a bunch of mellow people sitting around thinking lots of thoughts and never accomplishing much except maybe snacking. I get this from another student of this teacher who was a pothead at the time, although our teacher never chastized him in particular. My friend gave it up years later and what I’ve written has been confirmed by his experience and observations of pothead friends. He is not a fan of art that comes from marijuana mind…slovenly, whimsical, silly, conceptual is how he describes it.
    At the same time my friend doesn’t think that making drugs illegal is the solution to the problem and there are some benefits to marijuana, like pain relief for cancer patients. User beware.

  15. #15 tim
    September 3, 2009

    Ah Jeez…sad to see Jonah is allowing himself to be sucked into the black hole of non-accountability known as The Daily Douche.

  16. #16 Kevin
    September 3, 2009

    Pierce, there is a site on the alpha-subunit of the GABA-A receptor complex to which it is believed ethanol attaches, and it is known as the ethanol site (see Carlson’s Physiology of Behavior text). The pharmacodynamics of LSD, and most hallucinogens, is complex and not well understood. However, antagonistic action at serotonergic synapses is believed to play a role, which is reasonable because of LSD’s similar molecular structure to 5-HT.

    The “grand tradition” Jonah describes occurs when the discovery of a molecule or receptor occurs only in direct relation to discovery of the neurophysiology of drug action. It would not make sense to describe an “LSD receptor,” because serotonin and its receptors were discovered long before the pharamcodynamics of LSD began to be unveiled, and, moreover, are involved with many things besides LSD.

  17. #17 suratem
    September 5, 2009

    Your blog is very useful information for me.Thanks…

  18. #18 Moses
    September 6, 2009

    PLEASE WRITE MORE! Except for Patrick, the hacks he has filling in this week are even worse than the ones earlier.

  19. #19 KRMB120
    September 7, 2009

    I found this article to be very interesting. Even where I live, which is nowhere near Los Angeles, I have been noticing more and more people smoking marijuana. In fact, I can probably name more people who regularly smoke marijuana than cigarettes regardless of the legality of each. Although I am not part of the marijuana smoking population and do not plan to be, I do agree with 56% of California voters in regards to the legalizing and taxing of marijuana especially after learning that marijuana only increases something your brain already makes. After all, marijuana, like cigarettes, is a personal decision and (unless smoking around other people or while pregnant) will only hurt one self. I believe the legality of marijuana should be treated the same as a cigarette.
    Learning about the affects marijuana has on someone with anxiety disorder is what struck me the most. I have a friend who started smoking marijuana at a relatively young age and her justification for this was that it gave her a feeling of relief and helped her get over all the trauma in her life (which was a good amount for such a young person at the time). Recently she has been diagnosed with anxiety disorder and everything she was telling me about the effects marijuana has on her now makes sense. If a pill that “gets the amygdala high” is possible I believe it will help people like my friend tremendously and make many people stop smoking marijuana as much since the effect they are looking for will now be available in a pill that is better for the body.

  20. #20 SSB120
    September 8, 2009

    Wouldn’t it be easier, less time consuming, and cheaper to simply legalize marijuana? The fact of the matter is that making a pill that replicates the effects of marijuana would take time, money, and manpower, whereas the substance itself is already abundant, and has never been legitimately associated with any serious health issues.

  21. #21 JSCB120
    September 8, 2009

    After reading the article and some of the posts i agree with post #20 (SSB120) completley. It would seem like a waste of time and money to replicate something that is already available. Whether we legalize marijuana completley or just keep the medical merijuana, it would be easier just to use that. Also, i believe that the legalization and taxing of merijuana would be a great way to raise funds. If we did this, most people would experiment with it and then be over the idea of using it. so it might end up raising money as well as stopping some of the misuse of the drug.

  22. #22 Amanda
    September 9, 2009

    Maybe they could make the pill, but there are always unintended side effects to taking a single molecule drug. Besides the main reason for making a THC pill would be to patent it so they can actually monopolize the market; ‘it’s legal now, but only in pill form.’ Herbs are safer because our bodies can actually metabolize them in the right way, those pesky extra molecules in the plant usually help us utilize/absorb the ‘active’ molecules and often tone down or eliminate side effects. Of course that said, medical marijauna is now so genetically modified safety may be a moot point since we don’t know what all those hybrids do now.

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    September 19, 2009

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  24. #24 C. Flynn
    September 24, 2009

    There’s huge one issue that’s been overlooked in this discussion. Kids– whose brains are anatomically and neurologically different than those of adults. I realize that no one here is endorsing teen dope smoking, and, indeed, a few years ago, I would have found myself in the pro-legalization camp. Not today.

    My daughter attends a high school where drug use is very high. Fifty percent of students are using by junior year, and this is a school with a decent academics and heavily “middle-class”– overall a white, liberal, and relatively “permissive” culture. And guess what? Kids who grow up with parents who indulge tend to think that it’s not a problem for a 14-year old either.

    Now that I have personally witnessed previously healthy fourteen year olds descend into depression and/or experience obvious cognitive and emotional impairment, not to mention getting themselves into a host of risky situations with lifelong repercussions, I have had a change of mind.

    A substantial body of research documents the long-term consequences of adolescent cannabis exposure on the development of cognition, brain structure and function, including adult onset of schizophrenia. Over the last decade there has been a steady increase in the prevalence of frequent cannabis use among teenagers, accompanied by a decrease in age of first use. This has dire consequences.

    I wonder how many parents or teachers of teens are willing to stand up for legalization, with these risks?

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