The Original Hysteria over Marijuana and Brain Damage

Here is how science works: Scientific theories produce predictions. Reality, in terms of experiments or actual experience, proves whether or not those predictions were accurate.

Marijuana prohibition was based on a prediction that marijuana use was not just harmful, but catastrophically harmful to the people who used it.

Reefer Madness is used today to refer to the hysteria over marijuana use in the late 1930s when marijuana prohibition was enacted as federal law in the United States, but at the time, it referred to what occurred when people used marijuana.

Dr. James Munch was a pharmacologist at Temple University who testified at the hearings of the House Ways and Means Committee on April 28, 1937 as Congress was preparing to pass the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Munch had excellent credentials, having been in charge of the pharmacology laboratory at the Food and Drug Administration. Here is what he reported to Congress about the effects of marijuana use. His observations were based primarily, but not exclusively, on the effects of marijuana on animals.

First of all, Munch reported that large doses, “very nearly poisonous doses,” are required to produce effects. In other words, “small doses have little effect.” First the cerebellum of the brain is affected, causing a “disturbance of equilibrium” that resembles the effect of alcohol. He stated that “larger doses tend to depress the heart,” and continued use leads to the “degeneration of one part of the brain, the part that is useful for higher or physic reasoning, or the memory.”

Next Munch reported on the standard practice of evaluating drugs through observing their use on animal subjects—in this case, on dogs. These efforts in the early 20th Century were related to marijuana’s use as medicine. Munch testified that medical use was introduced by O’Shaughnessy in 1838 and that marijuana was used in the past to treat sleeplessness and to comfort people at their time of death.

However, Munch reported that marijuana was not used much by the medical community in the 1930s, and he then returned to the subject of how harmful it is. He noted that “it is a harmful drug” because it causes “the degeneration of the brain.” Answering questions from the committee, Munch confirmed that it causes “violent irritability” in some cases, in addition to the “disintegration of the personality of the person who uses it.”

Then, Munch’s testimony returned to the animal studies he conducted at the FDA, in which dogs were given doses of marijuana regularly for extended periods. Referring to personality disintegration, he said that “we see the effect after about 3 months, while in others it requires more than a year, when they are given the same dose.”

When pressed further, Munch acknowledged “the recognition of the effects of the use of this drug is only of comparatively recent origin” and then explained this was because prior to the 1930s the drug had not been used very much.

This is a rather incredible claim. If true, it would be of great importance.

Put it in a scientific context. Today, we distinguish between the acute and the chronic effects of a drug. The acute effects are what happens when the drug takes effect. The chronic effects are the long-term effects of taking the drug on a regular basis.

Most of the anti-marijuana scare stories—not all of them, but most—are about the acute effects of the drug. Smoking marijuana makes people a bit crazy; people take the drug, lose inhibitions and engage in reckless and/or violent behavior.

Here is a report, a claim actually, that using marijuana regularly for three months to a year causes degeneration of the brain, the destruction of memory and the disintegration of personality. Only no one had observed these effects in humans historically because marijuana use was comparatively recent. Incredible!

There are obvious problems with these claims.

We now know that marijuana use does not depress heart rate, nor does it produce brain damage—or any of the effects observed or predicted by Munch. We also know more about using observational criteria for evaluating psychological and psychiatric conditions and that many such evaluations in the past were based on purely subjective criteria.

So, to the modern critic, evaluating Munch’s claims relies a lot on what he meant by “the disintegration of personality.”

Another problem here concerns the actual environment in which animal subjects were held during the early 20th Century. It’s fair to guess that the dogs in Munch’s lab were kept in rather depressing conditions that, should he himself be forced to live there, would produce a disintegration of his personality.

Nonetheless, what is evident in his testimony is a prediction of what happens when people use marijuana. Indeed, a rather alarming prediction.

Why, then, was there no follow-up to see if this actually happens to people? You would think that brain degeneration, memory destruction and personality disintegration could be confirmed or rejected over time through careful and unbiased observation and research? Oh wait, that’s now.

Modern science has disproved the hysterical claims used to justify marijuana prohibition when it was enacted by Congress in 1937. But these claims could have been disproved long ago. They weren’t. Because it didn’t matter.

They were just a pretext—an excuse—to expand the power of the police.

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