Recent studies performed on rats lend little support to the notion that marijuana may act as a “gateway” to harder drugs in humans, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) announced today.
Two independent studies reported in this month’s edition of Science Magazine revealed that marijuana-like synthetic agents induced chemical changes in the brains of rats that are commonly associated with drugs of dependence. The first study, conducted by a team of researchers in Italy, demonstrated that THC — one of the active ingredient in marijuana — stimulated the release of a neurochemical called dopamine in the so-called “reward pathways” of the brain. The second study indicated that rats suffered effects of mild withdrawal from the chemical HU-210, a potent substance that mimics the effects of marijuana, when administered a blocking agent directly in the brain. Some scientists speculate that the findings from these two studies, when examined together, show that marijuana manipulates the brain’s stress and reward systems the same way as more potent drugs.
While NORML does not question the actual science of these latest studies, the organization sharply criticizes the “real-world application” of their findings. “Many substances have some dependence liability, including legal ones like chocolate, sugar, and caffeine, and illegal ones, such as cocaine and heroin,” NORML Executive Director R. Keith Stroup explained. “The issue is not whether or not marijuana has any dependence liability, but its relative dependence liability compared to other drugs. This research further supports, rather than challenges, the assertion that marijuana does not have sufficient abuse potential for Schedule I status because it explains the neurological basis the mild withdrawal symptoms that occasionally occur and emphasizes the chronic levels of use necessary to induce them.
“Furthermore, these two studies must not overshadow the decades of epidemiological research that fails to demonstrate that marijuana has the kind of serious dependence liability of heroin, alcohol, or nicotine, or that it leads to the use of other drugs. Even if this rat research is replicated, it is a large leap to suggest that it proves that marijuana is either a drug of dependence or a “stepping-stone” to harder drugs, two assertions which have not been convincingly demonstrated either clinically or epidemiologically after decades of research. The limitations of these studies are suggested by the fact that it is possible to demonstrate the reinforcing properties of opiates and cocaine with rats by self-administration studies. Animals will not, under any circumstance, self-administer THC.
“Lastly, NORML reaffirms that there are no conclusions drawn from these studies that in any way support the government’s current policy of arresting and jailing otherwise law-abiding citizens who smoke marijuana. Marijuana has never demonstrated the criteria necessary to mandate its Schedule I prohibited status and that remains unchanged.”