Archive for the ‘marijuana’ category

Neuropsychological Deficits: Fact and Artifact About Marijuana Tests

April 15th, 2014

By Mitch Earleywine, Ph.D
State University of New York at Albany
Chair, NORML board of directors

A new study claims to show small deficits on neuropsychological tests in college students who started smoking marijuana early in life. It might get a lot of press. Prohibitionists love to bang the drum of marijuana-related cognitive deficits, so I’d like NORMLites to know how to make sense of this sort of research. The recurring themes in this literature involve several alternative explanations that never seem to dawn on journalists. These results often arise from artifacts of the study rather than physiological effects of the plant. I’d like to focus on a few: other drug use, dozens of statistical tests, the incentives for performance, and the demands communicated by the experimenters.NWA Canada Prohibition Car

The latest paper of this type is actually pretty good. Researchers studied over 30 people aged 18-20 who started using before age 17 (their average starting age was around 15) and who smoked at least 5 days per week for at least a year. They compared them to a comparable bunch of non-users. I hate to see 15-year-olds using anything psychoactive, even caffeine. Spending full days in high school with less than optimal memory functioning is no way to lay the groundwork for a superb life. I admit that I want these same people to grow up and be the next generation of activists, so feel free to call me selfish when I emphasize NORML’s consistent message: THE PLANT IS NOT FOR KIDS WHO LACK MEDICAL NECESSITY.

OTHER DRUG USE?
First, we have to keep other drug use in mind. Unfortunately, the marijuana group in this study got drunk more than 4 times as much in the last six months as the controls. Given what we know about binge drinking and neuropsychological functioning, it’s going to be hard to attribute any differences between these groups to the plant. It’s just as likely that any deficits stem from pounding beers. Studying cannabis users who aren’t so involved with alcohol would help address neuropsychological functioning much better.

HOW MANY TESTS?
In addition, we should always consider the number of measures in any study. Many of these neuropsychological tasks have multiple trials that can be scored multiple ways. The more statistical tests you run, the more likely it is that you’ll find a statistically significant difference by chance. It’s kind of like flipping coins. It’s rare to flip four heads in a row. But if you flip a coin a thousand times, odds are high that somewhere in the list of a thousand results will be four heads in a row. These investigators got 48 different test scores out of the participants. You’d expect at least 2 of them to be significant just by chance. They found differences on 14 different scores, suggesting that something’s going on, but we’re not sure which results are the “real” differences and which ones arose by accident. (That’s why we replicate studies like this.) And, as I mentioned, it might all be because of the booze.

WHY WOULD ANYONE DO ALL THESE TESTS?
We also have to consider incentives for performance. Most researchers bring participants to the lab for a fixed fee and ask them to crank out a bunch of crazy puzzles and memory assessments. It’s unclear why people would feel compelled to strain their brains. The authors of this study were kind enough to mention some relevant work by my friend (and former student) Dr. Rayna Macher. Dr. Macher showed that cannabis users respond best when you make the effort worth their while. She focused on people who used the plant at least four times per week for a year or more. She read one group some standard instructions for a memory test. The other group got the regular instructions plus an additional sentence: “It is important that you try your very best on these tasks, because this research will be used to support legislation on marijuana policy.”

As you’d guess, this simple sentence fired them up. Compared to cannabis users who didn’t hear that sentence, they performed better on 3 out of 10 measures. (You’d expect less than one difference by chance.) And compared to the non-users, the folks who got the incentive sentence did just as well on all the tests. For those who didn’t hear the incentive sentence, users did less well than non-users on 1 of the 10.

I know that prohibitionists are going to try to call this amotivation. (See my rant on that when you get a chance) I call it putting effort where it pays. But given what we know about how these studies can hamper the reform of marijuana laws, users everywhere should do their best on all tests whenever they get the chance.

WE OFTEN DO WHAT EXPERIMENTERS EXPECT OF US
Last but not least, we have to consider the demands communicated by the experimenter. Decades of data now support the idea that people often do what others expect them to do, especially if they believe the expectation, too. Another friend and former student, Dr. Alison Looby De Young, showed that these expectations are critical in studies of neuropsychological performance and cannabis. She gave a neuropsychological battery to men who had used cannabis at least three times per week for the last two years. One group of men read instructions that said that cannabis had no impact on their performance on these tests. Another group read instructions that said that cannabis was going to make them perform poorly. You guessed it, those men who heard they were going to flub the tests performed worse on 2 of the 4 tests. (You’d expect less than one difference by chance). As you might imagine, some laboratories communicate their expectations about cannabis and cognitive function subtly or not so subtly. Some participants are bound to behave accordingly. So what looks like a cognitive deficit is just an artifact of the laboratory environment where experimenters stare daggers at cannabis users.

In the end, I’m glad that researchers do this work, but these effects are too small and fleeting to justify prohibition. We already know that cannabis isn’t for healthy kids. People who get heavily involved with the plant early in life might not perform as well as those who never touch cannabis even if investigators control for other drug use, AND use a sensible number of tests, AND provide appropriate incentives, AND communicate a reasonable expectation.

But how many people should go to jail for that?

If you said, “None,” you’ve done an excellent job on an important cognitive test.

Maryland House of Delegates Approves Marijuana Decriminalization

April 5th, 2014

Today, the Maryland House of Delegates voted 78 to 55 in favor of Senate Bill 364 which reduces the penalty for possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana from a criminal misdemeanor to a civil offense.

Senate Bill 364 was originally amended by the House Judiciary Committee to simply form a task force to study the issue of marijuana decriminalization. However, this morning, under pressure from the House Black Caucus, the House Judiciary Committee reversed their vote and instead voted 13 to 8 to approve an amended version of SB 364. As amended by committee, the bill would make possession of 10 grams or less a civil offense with the first offense punishable by a $100. The fine for a second offense would be $250, and the fine for a third and subsequent offenses would be $500. The original Senate version set the fine at $100, no matter which offense it was. SB 364 is now expected to go to conference committee to resolve the differences between the version approved by the House and the one approved by the state Senate.

Commenting on today’s vote, NORML Communication Director Erik Altieri stated, “This bill represents a great step forward in reversing the devastating effect current marijuana policies have on communities in Maryland. While the state must now move forward on the legalization and regulation of marijuana, we applaud Maryland legislators in taking action to end the 23,000 marijuana possession arrests occurring in the state every year.”

According to a 2013 ACLU report, Maryland possesses the fourth highest rate of marijuana possession arrests per capita of any state in the country. Maryland arrests over 23,000 individuals for simple marijuana possession every year, at the cost over of 100 million dollars.

NORML will keep you updated on the progress of this legislation.

Majority of Law Enforcement Officers Want to Reform Marijuana Laws

April 5th, 2014

A survey released this week by the publication Law Officer revealed that a majority of law enforcement officers want to see our country’s marijuana laws reformed.

The poll, which questioned over 11,000 law enforcement officers regarding their opinions on drug policy, revealed that just over 64% believed our marijuana laws needed to be relaxed in some form. When asked “Do you believe possession of marijuana for personal use should…” and presented with several options, 35.68% of respondents stated that marijuana be legalized, regulated and taxed, 10.84% chose that it should be be legalized for medical reasons and with a doctor’s prescription only, 14.24% said it should continue to be illegal but only punished via fines (no incarceration), and 3.68% said marijuana should simply be decriminalized. Only 34.7% believed marijuana should continue to be illegal with the criminal penalties that are currently in place.

“This poll reveals that support for marijuana prohibition is eroding even amongst those who are serving on the front lines enforcing it,” stated NORML Communications Director Erik Altieri, “When a majority of the American people and most of those tasked with implementing a law disagree with it in principle, it is time to change that law.”

You can view the full results of this survey here.

“Prohibition cannot be enforced for the simple reason that the majority of the American people do not want it enforced and are resisting its enforcement. That being so, the orderly thing to do under our form of government is to abolish a law that cannot be enforced, a law which the people of the country do not want enforced.” – New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia on alcohol prohibition.

Press Release: Research Confirms Legalizing Medical Marijuana Does Not Increase Crime

March 26th, 2014


RESEARCH CONFIRMS LEGALIZING MEDICAL MARIJUANA DOES NOT INCREASE CRIME

Yet More Proof Fears of Legalization Remain Unfounded in Science

Researchers at the University of Texas Dallas published an article in PLOS ONE today that indicates that despite opponents’ fears, legalizing medical marijuana does not increase crime and may actually lower some types of violent crime. The study examined FBI Uniform Crime Report statistics on murder, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, larceny and auto theft from all 50 states, including 11 states that legalized medical marijuana during the course of the study, over a 17 year period from 1990-2006. Controlling for confounding factors, they found no increases in any category of offense and even saw a slight decrease in homicides and assaults.

The study is reminiscent of a University of Chicago study that came out last year showing that, despite opponents’ warnings about increases in unsafe driving behaviors, legalizing medical marijuana was associated with a drop in traffic fatalities. In addition, preliminary figures in Coloradoand Washington, the two states to have legalized marijuana for recreational use, show traffic fatalities in those states have slightly decreased the first year of full legalization.

“It must be difficult to be an opponent of marijuana reform. They can’t make arguments against legalization based on logic and facts so they must constantly resort to fear-based hypotheticals and anecdotes that keep getting proved wrong by systematic study. I feel for them. I really do,” said Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), a police officer for 34 years who now heads Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials opposed to the war on drugs.


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Contact: Darby Beck: darby.beck@leap.cc 415.823.5496

NORML PAC Endorses Tommy Wells for Mayor of DC

March 14th, 2014

NORML-Endorse-SuareThis morning, NORML PAC announced its endorsement of Councilman Tommy Wells for mayor of Washington, DC.

“Councilman Wells is a passionate crusader for the cause of marijuana law reform,” stated NORML PAC manager Erik Altieri, “Wells showed his skill and acumen for the issue when he championed the District’s marijuana decriminalization measure, which was overwhelmingly approved by the DC City Council just this month. The District of Columbia would greatly benefit from having his compassion, knowledge, and strong leadership in the mayor’s office. Under a Tommy Wells administration, DC will continue to roll back its failed prohibition on marijuana and move towards a system of legalization and regulation.”

“Decriminalization is the first step in ending the failed War on Drugs that has unfairly affected our minority communities and ruined countless lives,” stated Councilman Wells, “We still have much to do to bring about common sense changes – like legalization – so that DC can set an example for the rest of the country.”

A large majority of Washington, DC residents agree with Wells’ position. A poll of District residents released by the Washington Post in January revealed that 63% were in favor of legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, only 34% were opposed. Legalization had majority support amongst every single demographic surveyed.

The District of Columbia currently leads the rest of the country in marijuana arrests per capita, with 854 individuals arrested for every 100,000 residents. These arrests are also disproportionately impacting people of color. While only accounting for about 51% of the population, African Americans constitute 90% of all marijuana possession arrests. This is despite the fact that African Americans and whites use marijuana at similar rates. Councilman Wells’ recently approved marijuana decriminalization measure will be a great first step in rolling back this social injustice.

The Democratic primary for the DC mayor’s race will be held on April 1st. DC voters can get more information on how and where to vote in the primary on the District of Columbia’s website here.

You can learn more about Tommy Well’s campaign on his website or Facebook page.

New Hampshire House of Representatives Votes Overwhelmingly in Favor of Marijuana Decriminalization

March 12th, 2014

Today, the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted 215 to 92 in favor of House Bill 1625. This legislation to significantly reduce marijuana penalties in New Hampshire.

Under present law, possession of any amount of marijuana is a criminal misdemeanor, punishable by up to 1 year of incarceration and a maximum fine of $2,000. Passage of this act would eliminate criminal penalties for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana and replace them with a civil fine of $100 — no arrest and no criminal record. It would lower the classification of cultivation of six marijuana plants or less to a Class A misdemeanor. You can read the full text of this measure here. House Bill 1625 now awaits action in the state Senate.

New Hampshire Residents: Click HERE to quickly and easily contact your member of the state Senate and urge them to support this important legislation. You can also view how each member of the House of Representatives voted here.

Maryland House Committee to Hear Decriminalization and Legalization Bills, Advocates to Rally in Support

March 12th, 2014

Tomorrow, the Maryland House Judiciary Committee will be holding a public hearing to discuss House Bill 880 (legalization) and House Bill 879 (decriminalization) at 1:00pm in Annapolis.

Maryland residents can click here to contact their legislators in favor of decriminalization and here to contact them in favor of legalization. It only takes a few minutes, so please take a moment of your time to let your voice be heard.

Please also consider calling both House Judiciary Committee Chairman Delegate Vallario and Speaker of the House Delegate Busch to let them know that Marylanders support reforming the state’s marijuana policies. These two will be key in seeing these measures advance and have had prior history of opposing such efforts. Their contact information is below:

House Judiciary Committee Vallario
P: 301-858-3488

Speaker of the House Delegate Busch
P: 301-858-3800

Prior to the hearing, marijuana law reform advocates will be rallying at Lawyers Mall outside of the state house at 11:00am to show support for these important pieces of legislation. They will be joined by legalization and decriminalization bill sponsor, and NORML PAC endorsed candidate for Maryland Governor, Delegate Heather Mizeur. More information on the rally is available here.

Thank you for supporting our efforts to legalize marijuana in Maryland. Together, we can bring about great change in the state this legislative session!

Reefer Madness Continues: Can Marijuana Kill You?

February 28th, 2014

(Dr. Mitch Earleywine was elected as the Chairman of the NORML Board of Directors in February 2014)

A recent headline reads: “Can Marijuana Kill You? German Scientists Say Yes.” The article focuses on a study of two (count ‘em, two!) young men who died while they had detectable levels of THC in their blood. I take a lot of pleasure in this kind of melodrama. If prohibitionists are stooping this low, we must really be frightening them. (It’s not completely pharmacologically ridiculous. Marijuana does increase heart rate. In fact, it can jack up heart rate almost as much as an espresso or energy drink. Maybe if you already had a weak heart and a coffee and a bong hit, well, something might happen.)

But I want to point out that we should actually expect literally thousands of reports like this. We should hear about lots of people who have heart attacks on the same day that they commune with the plant. It’s not because cannabis causes heart attacks. It’s simple chance.

I hate for my first blog as Chair of The Executive Board to be this nerdy, but I’ve been teaching statistics for more than 20 years. If that doesn’t make me a nerd, I’m not sure what would. But given how many people use cannabis daily and how many heart attacks occur in the United States, it’s actually a miracle that we haven’t heard about this kind of thing before. We also should expect to hear it a lot more often.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, roughly 7,600,000 Americans (over age 12) used marijuana daily or near daily in 2012. In addition, the Center for Disease Control suggests that about 715,000 of us have heart attacks in a year. (Let’s assume those under age 12 are probably not grabbing their chests with a myocardial infarction too often.) In addition, let’s guess that the United States has about 280 million people over age 12. It’s hard to know the exact number, but that’s probably in the ballpark.

With this in mind, we can predict how many people should have a heart attack the same day that they used cannabis simply by chance. That is, even if these two things had nothing to do with each other, we should expect some folks to have a heart attack the same day that they used cannabis just by accident.

Okay. It’s going to get nerdy here, but this is comparable to asking simpler questions. If I had a dime and a nickel, I might want to know what the chances are that I’d flip heads on both. I flip heads 1 out of 2 times on average for the dime, for a probability of .5. Then I flip heads on the nickel 1 out of 2 times on average, also for a probability of .5. So the chances of flipping heads on both is .5 * .5 for .25. So we’d expect to get heads on both coins about 1Ž4 of the time. If I flipped both coins 100 times, I’d get around 25 pairs of heads. Note that there’s nothing causal here. The nickel doesn’t know what the dime did. It doesn’t want to be like the dime. It’s not that the dime caused the nickel to flip heads.

So it’s the same deal for the cannabis-related heart attacks. If 7.6 million people use cannabis daily out of 280 million relevant Americans, that’s a probability of .0271. And if 715 thousand of 280 million have heart attacks, that’s a probability of .0026. Multiply these the same way we did with the probabilities for flipping heads (.0271 * .0026 = .00007). Now .00007 is a dinky number. If there were only 100 people in the country, we wouldn’t expect any of them (well, .007) to have a heart attack and smoke cannabis on the same day. But we’re talking about 280 million people here. So we’d expect .00007 * 280,000,000, = 19,600. That’s over 19,000 heart attacks.

So the question isn’t, “How did these two guys die of a heart attack with THC in their blood?” It should be, “Where are the other 19,598 guys who should have had heart attacks with THC in their blood?” In fact, the absence of this many cannabis-related myocardial infarctions inspired my wife to ask, “Does cannabis protect the heart?”

If we repeal prohibition, we’ll get to find out.

Go AS, Mozaffarian D, Roger VL, Benjamin EJ, Berry JD, Borden WB, Bravata DM, Dai S, Ford ES, Fox CS, Franco S, Fullerton HJ, Gillespie C, Hailpern SM, Heit JA, Howard VJ, Huffman MD, Kissela BM, Kittner SJ, Lackland DT, Lichtman JH, Lisabeth LD, Magid D, Marcus GM, Marelli A, Matchar DB, McGuire DK, Mohler ER, Moy CS, Mussolino ME, Nichol G, Paynter NP, Schreiner PJ, Sorlie PD, Stein J, Turan TN, Virani SS, Wong ND, Woo D, Turner MB; American Heart Association Statistics Committee and Stroke Statistics Subcommittee. Heart disease and stroke statistics—2013 update: a report from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2013 Jan 1;127(1):e6-e245.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings, NSDUH Series H-46, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 13-4795. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2013.

NORML Argues Police May Not Question Citizens Based on Marijuana Odors

February 25th, 2014

NORML filed an “amicus curiae” brief with the Massachusetts Supreme Court on Tuesday, February 18, urging the court to place more limits on police questioning and searches for possession of small amounts marijuana. Attorneys Steven S. Epstein, of Georgetown, and Marvin Cable, of Northampton, authored the brief.

In Western Massachusetts, a judge ruled that based on the odor of raw marijuana an officer could question the defendant about the presence of marijuana and seize a bag of marijuana at the direction of defendant in response to those questions. She reasoned, “a strong odor of marijuana to the officers training and experience triggered a suspicion that there was more than one ounce present.” That suspicion justified asking the Defendant about it and police entering his car to retrieve the marijuana he told them was there.

She further ruled that once police retrieved that bag they lacked the authority to search for more marijuana. She reasoned that a belief the bag was “probably” a criminal amount alone and combined with an officer’s characterization of the odor as “strong” amounted to nothing more than a “hunch.” She ordered the “other bags and the statements subsequently made by the defendant” could not be used at trial. The state appealed.

In its friend of the court brief, NORML reminds the Court of the precarious constitutionality of marijuana prohibition. It then proceeds to ask the Court to rule that: a police officer may not question a person about possible marijuana in his possession or control based only on the officer’s perception of odor, a civil violation in Massachusetts; and, that absent objectively reasonable evidence derived from weighing a bag suspected of containing over an ounce police may not detain, arrest or search a person or their possessions.

NORML argues the citizens of Massachusetts by voting to decriminalize an ounce or less of marijuana do not want police bothering people with anything more than a ticket when there are no articulated facts that a suspected possession of marijuana is criminal in nature. One of the intents of the decriminalization law was to free police to pursue more pressing issues than marijuana possession.

Oral argument in the case of Commonwealth v. Overmyer is scheduled for March 3, with a decision possible before the summer of 2014.

Ohio: Majority of Voters Want to Legalize Marijuana, Nearly 9 out of 10 Support Medical Use

February 24th, 2014

Polling data released today by Quinnipiac University revealed that a majority of Ohio voters support legalizing marijuana for recreational use and nearly 9 out of 10 support legalizing marijuana for medicinal use.

When asked if they supported or opposed allowing adults in Ohio to legally possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use, 51% said they would support this policy and only 44% were opposed. Support was strongest amongst voters age 18-29 (72%), Independent voters (61%), and Democrats (54%) and weakest among Republicans (33%) and voters over the age of 65 (31%).

Essentially all voters stated they supported legalizing marijuana for medicinal use. 87% said they supported allowing marijuana for medical use and just 11% were opposed. No demographic had less than 78% support.

Rob Ryan, Ohio NORML President, is not surprised by the favorable Quinnipiac poll response. In his experience speaking to various non marijuana groups, even the most conservative citizens in south west Ohio, where Mr. Ryan lives, readily agree that marijuana is not a deadly, addictive drug with no medical use as it is defined by to be in the same class as heroin by state and federal law.

You can view the full results of the poll here.