Good Drugs

Researchers discovered that chemicals from marijuana rejuvenate an area of the brain linked with learning.
My favorite news bump of the past couple of months started in one of my favorite Canadian cities: Saskatoon.

Researchers there at the University of Saskatchewan demonstrated that marijuana rejuvenates cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with learning and memory. Neuroscientist Xia Zhang and his team injected rats with a superpotent chemical synthesized to resemble a chemical found in a typical puff of pot. And, under the influence of this mega-marijuana, the rats started growing new brain cells.

Please tell me this means that all those annoying PSAs with Rachael Leigh Cook smashing things and talking about "your brain on drugs" will have to be rethought – or possibly just erased from the nation's cultural memory. Then again, with all those new brain cells we'll be growing, it might be hard for us to forget.

I don't want to jump on the I-told-you-so bandwagon about this, because the U of S study comes with all the usual disclaimers: Rats aren't the same as people; the drug the rats took wasn't exactly the same as marijuana; the drug was administered in ultradoses; don't do this at home; etc. But it's still hard not to dance around a little when I find a good, solid scientific study that doesn't just reiterate all the old propaganda about how pot rots your brain and turns you into a zombie.

There are a lot of weird historical reasons for that propaganda, not the least of which is racism. Alcohol, a drug that is arguably more debilitating and socially destructive than pot, is a European vice. Pot, on the other hand, was used by Natives across the Americas.

It was outlawed in the United States during the 1930s – roughly around the same time that young Natives were being rounded up and put into orphanages to be "civilized." It was also around this time that black jazz musicians were enjoying the weed as well.

But no group was more closely associated with marijuana than Mexicans. In 1935 a representative from a California antidrug group told the New York Times, "Marihuana, perhaps now the most insidious of our narcotics, is a direct by-product of unrestricted Mexican immigration." Legislators chose to use the Mexican word for the drug to intensify this connection. And pot regulation started in states near the Mexican border – where it was being imported at a rapid clip – and culminated in the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, a federal law that made nearly all pot trafficking a crime.

None of the legislation that prohibited marijuana sales was motivated by health concerns. In fact, the hearings leading up to the 1937 law dealt very little with "this is your brain"-style issues: The main evidence used to demonstrate the ill effects of marijuana (other than its connection with Mexicans) was a few sensationalist articles from Hearst newspapers about how pot turned upstanding citizens into criminals.

After the Marihuana Tax Act went into effect, law enforcement gradually cracked down on all the US citizens trying frantically to grow their hippocampi. But people interested in bringing scientific fact into this mystified kerfuffle were also there trying to remind everyone that drugs weren't the problem.

I was reminded of this quite forcefully the other day when I picked up a first edition of Aldous Huxley's 1946 monograph Science, Liberty, and Peace on the street in New York City's East Village. In it, Huxley argues that the government uses science to keep its citizens in line, thus perverting science from its aim of enlightenment. Huxley is also the author of another famous monograph, The Doors of Perception, a very eloquent defense of mescaline and other banned drugs as tools for mind expansion. As his novel Brave New World makes clear, Huxley was well aware of the negative uses to which drugs could be put, but he still argued that people should be free to try them, because they might also have educational properties nobody understood yet.

The guys with stoned rats over at the U of S are scientists in the Huxley tradition: They refuse to be cowed by propaganda that prevents us from discovering the possible benefits of drugs. I don't know about you, but I'm feeling kind of high on science right now.
Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who once got her cat stoned but didn't notice any intelligence-enhancing side effects.
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