Congressional briefing highlights research on health and social impacts of marijuana use

Friends of NIDA sponsor event for policymakers.

On June 19, 2014, the American Psychological Association organized a briefing for members of Congress and their staffs on “Marijuana: Health Effects, Changing Patterns of Use and Societal Impact.” The briefing was sponsored by Friends of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and 23 organizations including APA, in conjunction with the Congressional Addiction, Treatment and Recovery Caucus.

Speakers from the briefing

Speakers were Wilson Compton, MD, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse; Robert Booth, PhD; professor of psychiatry, University of Colorado School of Medicine; and former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, co-founder of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana).

The presentations began with Compton who spoke on the physical and behavioral effects of marijuana . According to a National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted in 2012, over 111 million Americans have tried marijuana at least once, making it the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States. Although popular perceptions are that marijuana is harmless and non-addictive; research shows that changes in the brain, decreases in IQ and negative social outcomes can occur as a result of prolonged and regular marijuana use, particularly when use is initiated in adolescence. These and other findings were summarized in a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine ("Adverse Health Effects of Marijuana Use" co-authored by Compton and NIDA Director Nora Volkow).

Booth presented on changing patterns of medical and non-medical marijuana use, specifically in the state of Colorado. As of January 2009, 495 people in the state had applied for permission to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. By February of 2013, the number of applications grew to 210,368. At that time, 108,951 patients were already receiving medical marijuana in the state. Colorado has also seen a spike in the non-medical use of marijuana; by 2008-2010, the percentage of marijuana users in Denver had reached twice that of the entire nation. In addition, Colorado has seen an increase in school drug-related suspensions and expulsions since 2009, to an all-time high for the state. The Colorado Department of Health has also found that the number of individuals testing positive for driving under the influence of THC, the chemical responsible for most of marijuana's psychological effects, has significantly increased since 2009 and is more prevalent than drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines and other opiates.

The audience and speakers

Interviews with physicians found that most were opposed to medical marijuana, some saying, “It’s embarrassing to the profession of medicine,” but some doctors still believed it to be beneficial for treating their patients. At the same time, medical marijuana patients felt it helped with a variety of conditions, including nausea, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, pain management and for reducing use of prescription opiates.

The final presentation, by former Congressman Kennedy, questioned the commercialization of marijuana to the public. His concern is that, where it is permitted, many products containing marijuana are marketed to youth and adolescents. Kennedy explained that among the goals of Project Sam are to reduce the unintended consequences of current marijuana policies, prevent the establishment of “Big Marijuana” and promote research investigating marijuana’s medicinal properties.

This briefing was the 20th in the Friends of NIDA’s Charles R. Schuster Congressional Briefing Series. Reflecting broad interest in issues surrounding marijuana use, the briefing drew an audience of nearly 150, including staff from 38 Senate and House offices, as well as federal agency staff and members of the research advocacy community. Among those attending were Rep. John Fleming, MD, R-La., and Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., co-chairs of the Addiction, Treatment and Recovery Caucus, and Rep. Andy Harris, MD, R-Md.

For more information, please contact Geoff Mumford of APA’s Science Government Relations Office