Teens Considered Lab Rats


By Michele Bacigalupo

Photo courtesy of Brooke Hoyer.

Colorado is currently in the midst of a campaign dedicated to deter teens from smoking marijuana. The central message of the advertisements advise teens against turning into experimental statistics. “Don’t be a lab rat,” the website warns.

However the campaign is perhaps too honest, admitting that no definitive evidence exists showing marijuana use harms the teenage brain. The purpose of Don’t Be a Lab Rat is to raise awareness and caution young adults not to put their health at risk.

In order to emphasize the point, Sukle, the ad agency behind the campaign, has built human-sized rat cages near areas where teens are known to congregate such as skate parks, libraries, baseball stadiums, and concert venues. One oversized rat cage sits outside the renowned Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

Recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado last January. Since then, it has been extremely difficult for public health officials to explain to teenagers the potential consequences of cannabis use on mental health. While parents are legally allowed to smoke marijuana at their leisure, it is tough to argue why their teenage children should abstain.

Before the campaign’s launch, focus groups were conducted to measure how much young adults knew about the possible harms of marijuana. Individuals living in Colorado between the ages of 12 and 20 were surveyed. The results found that perceptions on marijuana use were widely skewed and confused. Many older teenagers viewed the drug as “organic” and considered it to be “good for you.”

The confusion may stem from the varying legal statuses of the drug throughout the United States between legalization of all marijuana or just for medicinal purposes as well as decriminalization in other states. A common misconception among children in Colorado is that medicinal marijuana cures cancer, since the substance is often prescribed to cancer patients.

Despite the lack of evidence against marijuana use, it is commonly believed that excessive use of any drug will contribute to detrimental effects on health. The mental and physical capabilities of a person are bound to take a toll.

New research, in particular, shows that chronic marijuana use has a negative impact on memory. A study published in 2013 by researchers at Northwestern Medicine found that memory problems persisted in individuals who smoked marijuana frequently as teenagers, even two years after they had stopped smoking.

The individuals evaluated had previously smoked cannabis on a daily basis for approximately three years. The study found that brain structures associated with memory had shrunk in size and collapsed inward. This shows that heavy marijuana use during teenage years may cause permanent damage on memory functions in the brain. The researchers also reached the alarming conclusion that heavy cannabis use may affect changes in brain structure associated with schizophrenia.

Those with a history of daily marijuana use who participated in the study scored poorly on tests that measured working memory, also known as short-term memory. Working memory allows people to process and remember information. It also grants us the ability to transfer knowledge to the long-term memory when necessary. A weak working memory is likely to coincide with low academic marks and a struggle to perform everyday tasks.

The study also determined that the younger an individual began using marijuana frequently, the more abnormal the individual’s brain structure appeared. The participants in this particular study began chronic marijuana use at age 17, a critical period for brain development.

Despite the findings of the Northwestern researchers, there is still a great deal unknown about marijuana use and its correlation to mental health. Not enough participants were involved in the study for the findings to be considered reliable. The researchers also cannot say for sure that marijuana effected the brain abnormalities observed, since they did not study the individuals prior to chronic cannabis use. Marijuana is suspected to be the cause, but it cannot be proven. More research on the effects of cannabis use on the brain is necessary before any finite conclusions can be drawn.

Due to the fact that marijuana remains illegal throughout most of the United States, it is tough for researchers to acquire federal funding for studies on the substance. It also proves challenging for researchers to obtain significant amounts of the drug required to complete scientific objectives.

Many of the advertisements attached to the large rat cages in Colorado list detrimental side effects of marijuana, but the warning is often phrased as a question. The uncertainty in the punctuation lessens the severity of the words preceding it.

One advertisement reads “Could marijuana really cause schizophrenia in teenagers? Volunteers, anyone?”

Although the information has scientific research behind it, the interrogative–almost daring–attitude makes it seem like more of a throwaway statement. Schizophrenia should be treated as a legitimate mental health concern, but the message simply doesn’t convey the weight that it intends. The website also fails to provide any information about reducing the risks of marijuana use for teens who already use the substance.

The adults behind the campaign are finding it difficult to talk to young people. Don’t Be a Lab Rat is a work in progress, and the results have yet to be evaluated.