Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Reefer Madness!

As Captain of a large 44 ton vessel, I don’t smoke Pot, and I have to be regularly drug tested by the Coast Guard, so I won't be able to smoke it in the future. But in the past, I've imbibed on occasion. When I say occasion, I'm saying several times a year and only a hit or two. So you can imagine that I was very concerned when this was blasted across Facebook, Twitter, and the front page of almost every news source on planet Earth:

Occasional Light Use of Marijuana Damages the BRAIN FOREVER!!!!!

I panicked because the first thing I do is believe everything I read in the news, and then I run around like a turkey spewing blood everywhere from the place on my neck where my head just popped off. Then I post my pre-formed opinion from reading the news article that supports everything I've been saying for years. Yeah I did that, and then I had wild, hot, soulful man sex with George Clooney, and then James Franco dropped by my ultra-cool pad and they made me the meat in their Star-f*ck Sandwich... Oh... sorry that was my marijuana damaged brain talking. Yeah, that didn't happen.

For most of my life, I've been surrounded by really, really smart, successful people. My friends and associates are scientists, engineers, intellectual property attorneys, doctors, psychologists, artists, filmmakers, architects, writers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Owing to this, I live in constant fear that one day at one of my frequent dinner parties, the conversation is going to flow toward something that I know absolutely nothing about and I'll be exposed for the idiot that I frequently suspect I am. So I read constantly, between 50 and 100 books a year, everything from a few likely prize candidates from each of the Pulitzer, Man-Booker, National, Hugo, and Nebula Awards to the latest New York Times bestseller list, often slurping up a juicy biography or memoir for dessert late at night. I'm usually prepping a project like a script for a Civil War biopic about Clara Barton for DreamWorks, or my current project: a script about an inter-racial couple driving a VW MicroBus from Long Island to Berkeley in the late spring of 1963. So for the past year or so, I've been studying the American Civil rights movement of the mid 1950's to early 1964. I'm devouring approximately twenty books on that subject, everything from Taylor Branch's Pulitzer Prize winning, Parting the Waters  or Interracial Intimacies, by Randall Kennedy, and Rebecca Walker's Black, White and Jewish. On top of that, I spend at least 12-14 hours a week reading from major newspapers, again mostly Pulitzer prize winning sources. No garbage, definitely nothing owned by Rupert Murdoch, the most garbage producing information source on the planet. That means no Fox News and the Wall Street Journal gets a huge amount of fact checking from multiple sources.

What I'm leading up to here is that I love a good argument with a well informed opponent. I love the back and forth of passionate debate and the enlightenment I gain from the process. This runs counter to our dumbed-down culture in this country where the majority of folks cannot stand the scrutiny of fact checking, and when debated, turn to hurling insults or turn away in sullen anger, stewing privately forever.

My spouse of 27 years, Michael Shuster is a neuroscientist that was part of Eric Kandel's Nobel Prize winning team of neuroscientists at Columbia University, so I noticed that the Marijuana study was posted in the 10th most prestigious Journal of Neuroscience. I know that Journal. My husband and a friend Jon Levine have published together a few times in that journal. What I've learned from science is that a result from any study has to be replicated time and again by other teams of scientists for that finding to be accepted as fact. So far, no other study has corroborated that occasional marijuana use causes any damage to the brain.

What does the data in this study actually claim? It claims that it's slightly possible that a group of twenty users had some very small changes to the shapes and size of a few portions of their brain. Oh, and these were not occasional users.

Looking more closely, the twenty subjects smoked between 10 and 30 joints a week. Think about this. That's four hours of being high from a whole joint ten times per week. A recreational smoker might take a few hits and pass the joint along, or stub it out and take a few hits on a another day. Pot these days is really strong, so that's enough for a light user. A whole joint is going to get you extremely high, so that you can't really do much but sit around and watch TV, or more than likely you're just going to nod off and fall asleep. But these users were high for the same number of hours that they're working, assuming a forty hour work week. These are professional smokers, not occasional users as the study's language proclaims, and that's the lowest use group. The others used twice to three times as much! The group that smokes 30 joints, they're pretty much high all the time. That's enough for me to question the peer review policy of the Journal. That's an obvious screw up, allowing for the dishonest, misleading title and shoddy analysis.

Weekly alcohol consumption among the tokers was twice the amount of the non-tokers, and alcohol consumption has a well known causative affect on the brain. This is another shoddy example of the study design. The study buries this fact in a short sentence:
Early exposure to alcohol may have also affected brain structure.
So, what they've downplayed here is that they selected to look at the brains of users who, as children,  drank 5-6 alcoholic beverages per week. The non-tokers were not childhood users. The scientists stacked the deck with unequal control subjects.

Unlike the many newspaper headlines, the study itself say says nothing about damage, either. The word used is "brain morphology" or "brain structure", but compare the language used in the study:
The study demonstrates that different aspects of brain morphology may be affected by cannabis.
 Now compare the claims made by Hans Breiter, the studies' principle investigator, when interviewed by the Washington Post:
People think a little recreational use shouldn't cause a problem, if someone is doing OK with work or school. Our data directly says this is not the case.
Breiter claims that the subject's brains were adversely affected yet the study itself says nothing of the kind. Breiter is inferring a negative effect when for all we know, the affect may be highly positive. Neither can be proven by this one study. And the study says exactly that:
This preliminary study has several caveats. First, the sample size does not provide power to examine complex interactions... .Because this is a cross-sectional study, causation cannot be determined.
This again refutes Breiter's claims.

There is one surprise that I found buried in the data. I'm not a biostatistician but when I looked at this Figure:

I saw something that they missed. Note the control group 0, and compare their data set with the data set of the lightest user group 1. These two group's data sets are virtually indistinguishable from each other. Saying it another way,  there is no difference between the brains of the lightest users and the non-users. This is the exact opposite conclusion from the same data.

You may make your own conclusions from the study. What I conclude is that we deserve better science done by unbiased scientists, whose political motivations are beyond question. We also deserve a better press whose reporting accurately captures the critical limitations of small preliminary forays into controversial subject matter.