By Adrienne Law
For those living outside of California, it is not uncommon for the state to have a blissful reputation for its sun, surf, and recreation. At the same time, the Golden State has been considered to be the marijuana capital of the country.
In the last decade, Marijuana has been involved in California legal policy changes. Perhaps due to its prominent legal status as well as its effects behavior, the science behind marijuana has been an area of great interest, especially among the scientific community.
According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, in California, those caught with recreational marijuana are fined $100 due to a bill passed last January. Only medical marijuana is legal in the state, and that requires a license indicating physician approval.
Proponents of legalizing marijuana think that people without a license should stop invading dispensaries with medical marijuana. On the other hand, opponents point to a moral issue: will legalization cause young people to think drugs are okay?
Marijuana has actually been used for a variety of ailments, such as anxiety and nausea. Additionally, it is a cannabanoid, a type of drug known to stimulate appetite–one medical use is treatment for anorexia nervosa. Thus, marijuana is clinically relevant.
“Some patients find it more helpful than conventional drugs… for example, people in chronic pain can find that they are unresponsive to typical pain treatments like morphine and anti-inflammatories (and) can find help in marijuana,” said Dr. Anna Taylor, a postdoctoral neuroscience student in the laboratory of Dr. Christopher Evans, the director of UCLA’s Opioid Research Center and the Shirley and Stefan Hatos Center for Neuropharmacology.
Marinol, the medical form of marijuana, has different biological effects compared to recreational marijuana.
“[Marinol] is in a pill form and takes a longer time for the effects to be felt by the patients,” Evans said.
However, smoking marijuana has a quicker effect.
“Patients who are in pain, would prefer to have a faster onset of effects that happen in smoking as they would like to get rid of the pain quicker,” Taylor said.
According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, which classifies drugs by their potential abuse and medical benefits, Marinol is a schedule III drug. Schedule III drugs have a greater medical use and less chance of being abused.
“But there are still consequences of chronic use,” Evans said.
General scientific studies cited in The Neurobiology of Addiction by George F. Koob and Michel Le Moal suggests that marijuana causes various harmful effects from impairment in driving to schizophrenic symptoms. However, it is not as physically addictive as other drugs.
“Brain images taken of drug addicts show that marijuana addicts have less brain damage than addicts in other drugs,” Taylor said.
Drug researchers also know that there is minimal to no withdrawal effects for marijuana compared to alcohol and cocaine withdrawal.
But does medical marijuana really work? There have been studies published where patients with chronic pain rate their pain level before and after smoking marijuana. Results show they actually rate the pain levels the same.
“Marijuana is not necessarily effective in taking away pain,” Taylor said. “It helps with the coping of pain.”
Taylor mentioned that there are big industries that are trying to develop drugs mimicking marijuana’s medicinal effects.
“Chronic pain patients tend to respond less to drugs, so researchers are trying to discover alternative treatments,” Taylor said.
But finding medical marijuana equivalents is not easy because it is difficult to target specific types of pain.
“The problem of chronic pain is that it is diverse and different medications [are used] for the specific type of pain,” Taylor said.
A few examples are nerve disease, side effect of diabetes, and HIV AIDS. Other general treatments for these diseases include gabapentin (an antiepileptic), tricyclic antidepressants, and other cannabanoid agents. Morphine and oxycontin are also sometimes used.
Besides relieving chronic pain, marijuana is also known to decrease stress due to the release of dopamine in the brain, a neurotransmitter associated with the sensation of reward.
“A reason why marijuana is addictive is that it causes dopamine release in the brain and puts you in a different state of mind,” Evans said. “There (are) a lot of people who try it once or twice, but it’s a matter of taking it again and again that it becomes problematic.”
Research shows that marijuana is related to neural circuitries that, when aroused, give the patient a euphoric effect.
“Marijuana inhibits specific neurons that prevent dopamine release, which is why it takes away stress,“ Taylor said.
Since marijuana has caused controversy, funding for its research has been known in the scientific community to be hard to obtain, causing a scarcity of research on the topic.
Regardless, Evans thinks that young people should be aware of differences between different drugs.
“In universities, hopefully there are less marijuana abusers because of the population’s higher level of education,” Evans said. “But young people generally should still be aware of the drugs out there.”
One of the ways UCLA neuroscience could assist with Evans’s cause and our cause is to find ways to educate students about the biological effects of drugs like marijuana. It is then up to college educated individuals to raise awareness, especially in underserved communities. Perhaps then we’ll be known for more than just sun and surf.