Marijuana Goes Mainstream

by Jonah Lehrer

First of all, I'd like to thank Andrew for letting me borrow his soapbox for the week. As as a longtime reader, it's a great honor to be here.

The LA Times profiles the normalization of pot:

After decades of bubbling up around the edges of so-called civilized society, marijuana seems to be marching mainstream at a fairly rapid pace. At least in urban areas such as Los Angeles, cannabis culture is coming out of the closet.

At fashion-insider parties, joints are passed nearly as freely as hors d'oeuvres. Traces of the acrid smoke waft from restaurant patios, car windows and passing pedestrians on the city streets -- in broad daylight. Even the art of name-dropping in casual conversation -- once limited to celebrity sightings and designer shoe purchases -- now includes the occasional boast of recently discovered weed strains such as "Strawberry Cough" and "Purple Kush."

Public sentiment is more than anecdotal; earlier this year, a California Field Poll found that 56% of California voters supported legalizing and taxing marijuana. Last month, voters in Oakland overwhelmingly approved a tax increase on medical marijuana sales, the first of its kind in the country, and Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn has proposed something similar for the City of Angels. "In this current economic crisis, we need to get creative about how we raise funds," Hahn said in a statement.

I recently moved to Los Angeles and I'm still adjusting to all the medical marijuana stores - there are two within a mile of my apartment. And it's not just the dispensaries, with their parking lots full of fancy cars - it's the Amsterdamesque attitude. Light up a joint and people ask for a hit; light up a cigarette and they give you a dirty look.

My hunch is that the normalization of marijuana is here to stay. In recent years, there's been increasing interest among scientists in cannabinoid receptors, which are the cell receptors activated when you inhale some THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. (There's a grand scientific tradition of naming cell receptors after the drugs that activate them, which is why you also have opiate receptors and nicotinic receptors. For some still mysterious reason, a chemical in the tropical shrub cannabis sativa  is able to perfectly mimic our natural neurotransmitters. As Roger Nicoll, a neuroscientist at UCSF, puts it: “The brain makes its own marijuana.” Smoking a joint just helps you make more of it.) While these cannabinoid receptors have been targeted for the treatment of a wide variety of ailments and disorders, from obesity to chronic pain, I think they might hold the most promise for the treatment of anxiety. There's now good evidence that mice lacking a normal cannabinoid receptor have difficulty forgetting or unlearning fearful memories. This suggests that endocannabinoids - the natural molecules in your brain that work like THC - help the brain get over the negative emotions  triggered by past trauma. Of course, this shouldn't be too surprising: Despite the fact marijuana was first cultivated almost 10,000 years ago, modern medicine has yet to find another substance that can melt away our fears with such slick efficiency.

Neuroscientists now believe that a faulty endocannabinoid system might play a part in all sorts of anxiety syndromes, from post-traumatic stress disorder to irrational phobias. The Holy Grail of Big Pharm would be a THC compound targeted to the specific parts of our brainlike the amygdalathat modulate our sense of fear. Such a pill would give us the anti-anxiety effects of pot, but without the giddiness, hunger or irrational urge to watch The Big Lebowski. While scientists still don’t know if such a site-specific pill is possiblecan we just get our amygdala high?experiments done in the next few years should help resolve the issue. If such a pill ever hits the market, of course, I think it would dramatically alter the way in which most Americans (and not just those in my liberal zip code) think about marijuana. Weed would no longer be synonymous with Cheech and Chong, or Jeff Spicoli, or Harold and Kumar. Instead, it just might be the new Prozac.