Who’s Really Making Marijuana Users ‘Lab Rats’?

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

The state of Colorado has just launched an asinine campaign to keep kids off marijuana. The initiative’s first tack, unveiled Monday, involves a cadre of nine-foot-tall rat cages staged around Denver, “with messages communicating the potential damage marijuana has on a teen’s brain and the notion that Colorado’s youth are the test subjects for continued observation,” according to a press release.

The “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” campaign will also feature television commercials (example above) and a website with warnings like the following:

Is Mother Nature’s miracle plant as harmless as most teens think? Maybe not. In fact, many early studies have shown the exact opposite. Scientists from Duke to Cambridge have uncovered a laundry list of troubling side effects.

Schizophrenia. Permanent IQ loss. Stunted brain growth.

Still, some people question this research. Claiming the studies need to go deeper. Look further. But who will be their guinea pigs?

Who’s going to risk their brains to find out once and for all what marijuana really does?

Don’t be a lab rat.

Marijuana Policy Project communications director Mason Tvert obviously disapproves of the ads. He told CBS Denver:

You don’t have to say, ‘You’re going to become a lab rat and it’s going to destroy you.’ This is the same type of fear-mongering that’s failed to prevent teen marijuana use for decades.

Seeing as many teens know older adults (possibly even their parents) who smoked pot as young adults and didn’t become developmentally-stunted schizophrenics, the warnings probably won’t ring too true. But the thing is, anyone who uses marijuana – medically or recreationally – is essentially a “lab rat” right now.

We don’t have a ton of research on how marijuana affects teen brains, glaucoma patients, veterans with PTSD, or anyone else. And there is precisely one reason we do not: because of federal drug policy.

American doctors and scientists have been clamoring to study marijuana’s health benefits and risks more closely. Yet the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance with “no accepted medical use,” which makes it incredibly hard for researchers to study it. (Other Schedule 1 drugs – including LSD and Ecstasy – also face regulatory hurdles that limit their medical potential, though studying these drugs is slightly less difficult than studying weed.) Among other things, would-be marijuana researchers must get special dispensation from multiple federal agencies and buy their supply from a federal grow facility that’s perpetually understocked. The New York Times recently detailed the hoops these researchers must jump through:

To obtain the drug legally, researchers … must apply to the Food and Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse — which, citing a 1961 treaty obligation, administers the only legal source of the drug for federally sanctioned research, at the University of Mississippi. … The process is so cumbersome that a growing number of elected state officials, medical experts and members of Congress have started calling for loosening the restrictions. In June, a letter signed by 30 members of Congress, including four Republicans, called the extra scrutiny of marijuana projects “unnecessary,” saying that research “has often been hampered by federal barriers.”

(…) Despite the mounting push, there is little evidence that either Congress or the Obama administration will change marijuana’s status soon. In public statements, D.E.A. officials have made their displeasure known about states’ legalizing medical and recreational marijuana.

When state governments and anti-drug crusaders warn folks not to be lab rats, let’s remember who’s keeping them that way.