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Studies show marijuana affects memory, can cause ‘cognitive chaos’

Updated: December 5, 2011 8:01AM

For college students in the 1970s, “Reefer Madness” was a hilarious cult classic.

The 1936 propaganda movie portrayed marijuana as a tool of the devil that led to suicide, rape, killings — and ultimately madness.

But in the 1970s, the film was widely screened as a comedy on college campuses, helping to bankroll a budding film company, New Line Cinema. Students who smoked pot laughed at the notion that it could induce serious mental problems — as harder drugs did.

Three decades later, much of the nation’s focus on marijuana is on the benefits of using of the drug to curb nausea from anti-cancer drugs; to reduce eye pressure from glaucoma; to offer pain relief to those with multiple sclerosis and other diseases, and to reduce stress. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation allowing for the medical use of marijuana.

Yet some in the medical and law enforcement worlds say the growing use of marijuana — especially among young people — is becoming a serious health problem.

Reefer madness is a reality for some users, they say.

“It’s not the devil,” said Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director of Hazelden Center for Youth and Families in Plymouth, Minn. “It’s not going to save society and it’s not going to be the downfall of society. But I have seen more young people coming in with psychotic symptoms related to marijuana.”

Lee emphasized that only a small percentage of young pot smokers appear to be predisposed to suffering from mental problems related to the drug.

Still, with marijuana use rising, Lee said he’s seeing more of those patients in his clinic and some are coming from Chicago for treatment.

Memory and productivity suffer among kids who abuse marijuana, Lee said. “Some kids come in with government conspiracy stories, mild levels of paranoia or disorganized thinking,” he added.

Lee said more research is needed about the effects of marijuana on kids’ health.

“But research is conclusive that people who smoke pot are at a higher rate of developing psychotic symptoms,” he said. “It is still relatively small, but significant. It is twice what you would find in non-pot smokers.”

Over the last 30 years, marijuana growers have engineered stronger strains, Lee said. Some marijuana grown today is five times more potent than the “Cheech and Chong” pot of the ’70s, experts say.

Peter Bensinger, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in the 1970s and early 1980s, pointed to recent studies showing marijuana use among motorists doubles the risk of car crashes and that pot causes “cognitive chaos” in the brains of rats.

Bensinger said he opposes proposed legislation to allow medical use of marijuana in Illinois. He also doesn’t like the idea of issuing tickets to people in Chicago caught with small amounts of pot. On Wednesday, several aldermen introduced such an ordinance as an alternative to officers making misdemeanor arrests — because most of those cases are dropped in court.

Chicago ought to have a system that allows the courts to waive a misdemeanor pot possession charge if a person successfully completes six months of drug tests, Bensinger said.

“Marijuana is not just illegal, but unhealthy and dangerous,” he said. “You need a sanction with a bite — and a ticket won’t do it.”

Bensinger said only 16 percent of the people who go through a drug-testing program become repeat offenders, compared to more than 45 percent who are processed through the courts and are sent to jail or prison.

“Drug tests work great,” he said.

Bruce Talbot, a drug expert and retired Woodridge police officer, said not enough has been done to educate the public on the hazards of smoking marijuana.

Talbot lectures about drugs and trains law enforcement officials in identifying motorists who have been using them.

“Smoking tobacco and drinking have become less glamorous with years of public education about the dangers of tobacco and drunken driving,” he said. “We are seeing the exact opposite with marijuana. Social scorning of marijuana use is being replaced by the idea that it is medicine and not that bad for you. Based on the evidence I’ve seen, it is dangerous.”

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