There’s an editorial in the current Science concerning how very little we know about the effects of marihuana on the developing adolescent brain [ Science vol. 344 p. 557 '14 ]. We know all sorts of wonderful neuropharmacology and neurophysiology about delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (d9-THC) — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetrahydrocannabinol The point of the authors (the current head of the Amnerican Psychiatric Association, and the first director of the National (US) Institute of Drug Abuse), is that there are no significant studies of what happens to adolescent humans (as opposed to rodents) taking the stuff.
Marihuana would the first mind-alteraing substance NOT to have serious side effects in a subpopulation of people using the drug — or just about any drug in medical use for that matter.
Any organic chemist looking at the structure of d9-THC (see the link) has to be impressed with what a lipid it is — 21 carbons, only 1 hydroxyl group, and an ether moiety. Everything else is hydrogen. Like most neuroactive drugs produced by plants, it is quite potent. A joint has only 9 milliGrams, and smoking undoubtedly destroys some of it. Consider alcohol, another lipid soluble drug. A 12 ounce beer with 3.2% alcohol content has 12 * 28.3 *.032 10.8 grams of alcohol — molecular mass 62 grams — so the dose is 11/62 moles. To get drunk you need more than one beer. Compare that to a dose of .009/300 moles of d9-THC.
As we’ve found out — d9-THC is so potent because it binds to receptors for it. Unlike ethanol which can be a product of intermediary metabolism, there aren’t enzymes specifically devoted to breaking down d9-THC. In contrast, fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) is devoted to breaking down anandamide, one of the endogenous compounds d9-THC is mimicking.
What really concerns me about this class of drugs, is how long they must hang around. Teaching neuropharmacology in the 70s and 80s was great fun. Every year a new receptor for neurotransmitters seemed to be found. In some cases mind benders bound to them (e.g. LSD and a serotonin receptor). In other cases the endogenous transmitters being mimicked by a plant substance were found (the endogenous opiates and their receptors). Years passed, but the receptor for d9-thc wasn’t found. The reason it wasn’t is exactly why I’m scared of the drug.
How were the various receptors for mind benders found? You throw a radioactively labelled drug (say morphine) at a brain homogenate, and purify what it is binding to. That’s how the opiate receptors etc. etc. were found. Why did it take so long to find the cannabinoid receptors? Because they bind strongly to all the fats in the brain being so incredibly lipid soluble. So the vast majority of stuff bound wasn’t protein at all, but fat. The brain has the highest percentage of fat of any organ in the body — 60%, unless you considered dispersed fatty tissue an organ (which it actually is from an endocrine point of view).
This has to mean that the stuff hangs around for a long time, without any specific enzymes to clear it.
It’s obvious to all that cognitive capacity changes from childhood to adult life. All sorts of studies with large numbers of people have done serial MRIs children and adolescents as the develop and age. Here are a few references to get you started [ Neuron vol. 72 pp. 873 - 884, 11, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 107 pp. 16988 - 16993 '10, vol. 111 pp. 6774 -= 6779 '14 ]. If you don’t know the answer, think about the change thickness of the cerebral cortex from age 9 to 20. Surprisingly, it get thinner, not thicker. The effect happens later in the association areas thought to be important in higher cognitive function, than the primary motor or sensory areas. Paradoxical isn’t it? Based on animal work this is thought to be due pruning of synapses.
So throw a long-lasting retrograde neurotransmitter mimic like d9-THC at the dynamically changing adolescent brain and hope for the best. That’s what the cited editorialists are concerned about. We simply don’t know and we should.
Having been in Cambridge when Leary was just getting started in the early 60’s, I must say that the idea of tune in turn on and drop out never appealed to me. Most of the heavy marihuana users I’ve known (and treated for other things) were happy, but rather vague and frankly rather dull.
Unfortunately as a neurologist, I had to evaluate physician colleagues who got in trouble with drugs (mostly with alcohol). One very intelligent polydrug user MD, put it to me this way — “The problem is that you like reality, and I don’t”.