Marijuana, new evidence, and changing views

I haven’t written about the legalization of marijuana very much on FTSOS, but I have long been in favor of it. No study has ever established a causative link between marijuana and cancer (or any other major disease), and I don’t think it is particularly detrimental to society to allow people to smoke it. Moreover, criminalizing the plant only creates an atmosphere of violence and real crime, not to mention the creation of criminals from the non-criminals who get locked up for using or selling it. That said, however, some new evidence has forced me to reel my views back at least a little:

Researchers found persistent users of the drug, who started smoking it at school, had lower IQ scores as adults.

They were also significantly more likely to have attention and memory problems in later life, than their peers who abstained.

Furthermore, those who started as teenagers and used it heavily, but quit as adults, did not regain their full mental powers, found academics at King’s College London and Duke University in the US.

Those who started later in life – usually during their college years – also experienced a drop in IQ, but were able to recover relatively soon after quitting.

I don’t particularly have a horse in this race – believe it or not, I do not smoke anything and I have no desire to ever start – but I’ve seen plenty of promising people lose track of their lives because of weed. Some have gotten things back on track and the others certainly could do the same, but that’s lost time and productivity. I think the world would simply be a better place with legalization and regulation of marijuana, especially where minors are concerned – and there’s good evidence behind that view.

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Awesome videos

I don’t really have any good context for posting these three videos other than that I find them neat and it’s my blog. So there.

First up is a 1000fps video of a slinky being dropped:

I love this next one. A Montana man was caught with about enough weed on him to roll a joint. For whatever reason he was going to be put on trial instead of given a pat on the butt and a reminder to buckle up. However, it was not possible to proceed with any due process because the judge was unable to find a jury willing to convict. And I don’t mean there was a hung jury or something like that. No, no, no, it’s even greater. When asked if they would be willing to convict someone of such a crime, potential jurors simply said “no”.

This last one is great, even if I did find it by clicking a link with that odious word “patriarchy” in it. I suspect this little girl will go far:

Why quacks should be more cautious

One of the hallmarks of quacks is that they’re willing to latch on to any bit of science that shows even the most remote, most distant promise. One familiar quack did this for a preliminary study not too long ago. And other quacks do it all the time. They hear about some result which indicates some positive benefit from something – usually a berry or herb – and they go nuts. Forget that they reject just about everything else science has to tell us. If it fits into their paradigm, it must be true.

But of course they’re jumping the gun. Again and again a study will come out which shows promise for some substance that will help in the fight against this or that disease, but once a few more groups start taking a look, things fizzle out. Often studies will even get to the clinical stage, only to turn out to be failures. (“Failures” in the sense of not working, not in terms of science.) Companies usually are decent at protecting themselves from getting that deep if there is no benefit to be had, but they aren’t perfect.

I go on about this because I am currently reading a review article about the protein p53. It is a protein which is involved in tumor suppression. When it mutates, usually by missense mutation, it becomes involved in tumor growth by virtue of loss of function, though evidence strongly suggests that it also confers a gain of function in terms of cancer growth. I’ve written about other tumor suppressing proteins here.

I had to stop when I got to a section about post-translational modifications of the protein:

Post-translational modifications of p53 such as phosphorylation, acetylation or sumoylation have been shown to be essential in determining and regulating p53 activity in vitro. However, their effects in vivo remain difficult to assess. Sabapathy (S1) generated a ‘knock-in’ mouse strain replacing the serine 312 residue, equivalent to the human serine 315, by alanine (S312A) to abolish phosphorylation. This residue has been proposed to have a role in the regulation of p53 protein stability. p53S312A/S312A knock-in mice are viable, fertile and not –pre-disposed to spontaneous tumor formation. In addition, the p53S312A protein was found to be activated as efficiently as wild-type p53 and its turnover rate was not affected, suggesting that despite in vitro evidence this phosphorylation event may not be critical for in vivo suppressive functions.

Let’s get some of the terms out of the way. “Phosphorylation”, “acetylation”, and “sumoylation” all refer to the addition of certain chemical groups (such as phosphates) to the protein – it’s basically attaching stuff to p53. “In vitro” pretty much refers to the testing of cells in a test tube (or Petri dish, or whathaveyou) whereas “in vivo” refers to testing done on whole organisms. “Sabapathy” is a person, not a biological term. “Knock-in” refers to a type of genetic engineering. “Wild type” means the default protein, or the protein as it “normally” would appear, unmutated. (I’ve always found the term counter-intuitive.)

Now, presuming anyone is still with me here, the important aspect of the above excerpt is where it says, “In addition, the p53S312A protein was found to be activated as efficiently as wild-type p53 and its turnover rate was not affected, suggesting that despite in vitro evidence this phosphorylation event may not be critical for in vivo suppressive functions.” In other words, the genetically altered ‘test tube’ results showed that the addition of a chemical group was important, but further evidence showed otherwise. One thing this means, as all scientists know, is that we ought not jump the gun.

Another way to think of these results is to compare red hots dogs and apples. Each one is known to contain nitrites, which is a chemical compound linked to cancer. However, whereas red hot dogs have a small connection to tumor development, apples have no connection. Why? There is a complex interaction between meat and nitrites which results in the production of the actual carcinogenic compound. Apples, on the other hand, even if they did interact with other chemicals (probably ones within the body), have components which would help the immune system and thus help prevent cancer, at least to some degree. Or to use another comparison, tobacco cigarettes and marijuana contain a ton of carcinogens, but only one (cigarettes) has a causative link to cancer. Presumably some other chemical(s) in marijuana counteracts the carcinogens. But however the cancer is prevented, it happens through a complex interaction that needs to be studied. Lab results are wonderful and they’re a major reason why we live so healthy and so long today, but they aren’t the final word. In fact, we ought not think of anything within biology as being the final word. We have large scale statistical results that will be true in virtually all cases, but there are no hard and fast rules for how organisms will interact with their environments. We need to test and test and test – and science will always do that – but the real solution here is that we need to be sure we aren’t jumping the gun. After all, no one wants to be a quack.

Maine bill to legalize it

You know what “it” is:

A bill unveiled Wednesday would legalize the personal use and private and commercial cultivation of marijuana and tax consumer purchases at 7 percent. Democratic Rep. Diane Russell of Portland, who is sponsoring the bill, said it’s time to stop turning otherwise law-abiding citizens who use marijuana into criminals…

Russell’s bill would allow Mainers 21 and older to possess up to 1 pound of marijuana and legally smoke or ingest it in nonpublic places, including private residences. People could grow pot within 75 square feet of space for personal consumption and within 2,000 square feet of space for commercial cultivation.

I say do it. Telling people they can’t do something only makes them want to do it more. Besides, the war on drugs is a dismal failure. Time to move on.