Does Marijuana Change Young Brains?

Our latest podcast compared the costs of marijuana use to the costs of alcohol use.  A new study in the current issue of The Journal of Neuroscience argues that casual use of marijuana affects the developing brain.  Jason Koebler, writing for Vice, summarizes the findings:

High-resolution MRI scans of the brains of adults between the ages of 18-25 who reported smoking weed at least once a week were structurally different than a control group: They showed greater grey matter density in the left amygdala, an area of the brain associated with addiction and showed alterations in the hypothalamus and subcallosal cortex. The study also notes that marijuana use “may be associated with a disruption of neural organization.” The more weed a person reported smoking, the more altered their brain appeared, according to the Northwestern University and Harvard Medical School study, which was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The finding already has the study’s authors calling for states to reconsider legalizing the drugHans Breiter, the lead author, said he’s “developed a severe worry about whether we should be allowing anybody under age 30 to use pot unless they have a terminal illness and need it for pain.

(HT: The Daily Dish)

The Downside of Smoking Pot?

I am not sure how else to explain this e-mail, received from a reader whose name I shall withhold:

So there is this weird thing going on at CVS that I have to at least make record of, maybe talk about. I am constantly lured there and I walk the wiles, grab a few things, and the bill ALWAYS adds up to whatever amount of money I have in my pocket. If I have $54.32, on three occasions the total added up to exactly the amount I had, and on two other occasions it was within a dollar of being the exact amount. It’s like if I played roulette and always guessed right. Now I can’t talk about it, and these fucks know that, so they do it every time I go to CVS. I boycotted CVS but they lure me there anytime I am even close there. I swore myself to secrecy but the problem is I don’t have a lot of friends and under a condition of secrecy, I get lured to CVS constantly.

Marijuana and the NFL

One of our very first Freakonomics Radio podcasts focused on brain trauma among NFL players. Writing for Vice, David Bienenstock argues that NFL players might benefit hugely from medical marijuana. He points to an editorial in the Washington Post earlier this year, describing research indicating that marijuana could protect player's brains from the long-term effects of traumatic brain injuries:

As it turns out, recent studies are starting to contradict the notion that marijuana kills brain cells. Last year, researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel gave low doses of THC, one of marijuana’s primary cannabinoids, to mice either before or after exposing them to brain trauma. They found that THC produced heightened amounts of chemicals in the brain that actually protected cells. Weeks later, the mice performed better on learning and memory tests, compared with a control group. The researchers concluded that THC could prevent long-term damage associated with brain injuries. Though preliminary, this is just one of many promising studies exploring marijuana’s benefits for the brain.

Who Does Marijuana Legalization Hurt?

In our most recent podcast, "Are We Ready to Legalize Drugs? And Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions," we discussed drug legalization.  Here's what Steve Levitt had to say on the benefits of legalizing marijuana, as compared to crack cocaine:

So crack cocaine is a really devilish drug because it gives you such an intense high for such a short period of time that your desire is just to get high over and over and over. It’s highly addictive, and it’s really hard to function when you’re a crack addict. But what it makes me think is that this experimentation we’re doing now with policy towards drugs like marijuana, and potentially it would be expanded over time is a good idea. Because I think when it comes to marijuana, the social costs of the prohibition of marijuana are just really low. Very few people in the United States are being killed over marijuana. The gangs are not making their money off marijuana. Marijuana in some very real sense is too cheap. It’s too easy to grow yourself and so it isn’t the source of all of the ills that come with prohibition. And so, so the gains of legalizing marijuana for society are much smaller than the gains would be to legalizing cocaine if you could control how the outcome came.

But does marijuana legalization really harm anyone?  Like poor minorities, for example?  Michael Kinsley, Andrew Sullivan, and David Frum recently debated that  question, as well as legalization in general, for Bloggingheads TV.  In an accompanying blog post, Sullivan points to Reihan Salam's recent post on the subject:

FREAK-est Links

1. Is male fertility declining? Or do we need more data?

2. The internet industry is considering adding over 1,000 new domains, but some are worried about infrastructure effects.

3. Harry Potter novelist J.K. Rowling's crime novel hits #1 on the Amazon bestseller list, less than a week after she was revealed as the book's author.

4. So you want to invest in the (legal) marijuana industry?

5. How long is the average PhD dissertation? Econ lands on the short side.  (HT: Eric Jones)

6. The new era of music: how much does Spotify pay its artists? Next to nothing.

Question of the Day: Is Pot Smoke a Good Signal?

From a reader named Ben Doty:

Quick question that may benefit from an economist's perspective, possibly relating to complimentary goods, signaling, expertise, and education:

If you walk into a surf shop and the stench of marijuana nearly knocks you over, does that make you more or less likely to purchase surfing lessons there?

What do you say, readers? I have never been in a surf shop myself; I have, however, been in the pro shop at various golf courses and I can tell you that I have never once smelled marijuana there.

Kids Attracted to Medical-Marijuana Candy?

A new paper in JAMA Pediatrics finds that a small number of children are showing up in Colorado emergency rooms having unintentionally ingested marijuana. It seems they are gobbling up their grandparents' medical-marijuana candy. The paper is gated but Medical News Today summarizes:

As background information, the authors, from the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center, Denver, explained that medical marijuana has higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) than when used recreationally. They added that medical marijuana is sold in candies, soft drinks and baked goods. ... There is concern that parents/grandparents may not disclose their use of medical marijuana because of the perceived stigma associated with the drug.

Dear Marijuana and Crime Researchers: Start Your Engines

Yes, it could all go up in smoke -- legal challenges, including from the Federal government, and all that -- but among the interesting developments from last night's election (do yourself a favor and look at this map) is the news that Colorado and Washington voters chose to legalize marijuana. Here's how the issue was phrased on the Colorado ballot:

Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution concerning marijuana, and, in connection therewith, providing for the regulation of marijuana; permitting a person twenty-one years of age or older to consume or possess limited amounts of marijuana; providing for the licensing of cultivation facilities, product manufacturing facilities, testing facilities, and retail stores; permitting local governments to regulate or prohibit such facilities; requiring the general assembly to enact an excise tax to be levied upon wholesale sales of marijuana; requiring that the first $40 million in revenue raised annually by such tax be credited to the public school capital construction assistance fund; and requiring the general assembly to enact legislation governing the cultivation, processing, and sale of industrial hemp?

Can Marijuana “Brands” Be Legally Protected Against Copying?

In states like California, where medical marijuana is a big business, dispensaries often feature dozens of kinds of marijuana. Each has it own (supposed) qualities, often reflected in the price per gram. And these names, while colorful, are pretty standardized: newspapers like the LA Weekly run pages of ads that list prices for “White Widow,” “Skywalker OG,” “Strawberry Kush,” and “Charlie Sheen”.

Can you trademark a strain of marijuana to keep a competitor from copying your “brand”? The answer is more complicated than you might think. 

First, names like Strawberry Kush are not necessarily brands, but more like plant varieties, such as Meyer lemon or Alphonso mangoes. Plant varieties in general cannot be trademarked. Instead, breeders essentially get a form of plant patent. Growers and breeders can add a trademark on top of that, but the underlying plant variety name ultimately goes into the public domain for all to use. In other words, Fuji apples are a variety; Ranier Brand Fuji Apples is a trademark. A competitor can’t call their Fuji apples “Ranier”, but nothing stops a competitor from identifying their apples as Fujis.

Drug Dealers in the Netherlands Now Selling Marijuana

A few months ago, I discussed the tourist drug ban in the Netherlands, with a focus on my town, Maastricht.  NPR just ran a story on the intermediate term effects of the new regulations.  Some of the “coffee shops” (places where one could buy a pre-rolled or roll-you-own joint for €3) have reopened, as I predicted; others have not. Unsurprisingly, what has happened is that drug dealers, who previously had dealt only in hard drugs, are now also selling marijuana illegally.  While total consumption of weed has probably dropped, buyers are worse off, as are coffee-house owners, with the main beneficiaries being drug dealers.  As always, something that raises price in a legal market will increase demand in the illegal market.