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Marijuana and the Human Brain

The future of marijuana laws

Advances in neurobiology are redefining the scientific basis for addiction. These advances have important ramifications for addiction treatment, and for the treatment of numerous organic diseases and conditions. More importantly for marijuana users, these advances in neurobiology will ultimately force changes in the law.

The law is constantly being modified in response to technological changes. The passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1972 was in part due to a greater understanding of drug abuse brought about by the medical research of the time.

The law instituted a policy by which regulation and criminal penalties regarding controlled substances were to be correlated with the harmfulness of the substance. Specifically, the law lists the "actual or relative potential for abuse" as the first matter to be considered in determining the appropriate scheduling of a drug. Schedule I is for drugs which have a "high potential for abuse."

While the scheduling of marijuana and its subsequent availability for research and medical use was the subject of a 22-year unsuccessful court battle spearheaded by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the question of marijuana's abuse potential was never addressed during the litigation and related proceedings. The suit over medical marijuana sought to reschedule marijuana as a Schedule II drug, which also implies a "high potential for abuse." This made the abuse question irrelevant to the court proceedings.

However, the abuse question is the pre-eminent issue in attempts to reform marijuana laws, and it is the weak link upon which the entirety of marijuana prohibition rests. The most recent research indicates that marijuana does not have a high potential for abuse, especially relative to other scheduled drugs such as heroin, cocaine, sedatives and amphetamines.

The medical-marijuana petition was rejected by the administrator of the DEA because of the lack of scientific studies detailing marijuana's medical value. The court appeal essentially concerned whether or not this was a reasonable standard in light of the government's historic disinterest in funding such studies. While courts have ruled that DEA can rely on research studies, or the lack thereof, in its decision-making about the scheduling of marijuana, they have not ruled on the actual issues which determine the proper legal scheduling of marijuana.

The discovery of cannabinoid receptor sites, and their relevance to the understanding of the pharmacology of THC in the brain, provides the basis for a new challenge to the legitimacy of marijuana's Schedule I status, a pivotal event in marijuana's eventual legalization.

Read next part Your brain is programmed to process pot

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