07/01/2014 12:53 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2014

Marijuana: Thief of Human Promise?

I am among a number of educators who intuitively believe drugs like pot are more insidiously harmful -- at least to kids -- than presently realized. Now a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience gives data to support this view.

Richard Hawley, in his long career as headmaster of the University School in Cleveland, observed what happens to student drug users: 1

  • They do poorer school work and less of it.
  • They drop team and other organizational commitments.
  • They initiate less activity not connected to getting and using drugs.
  • They are harder to interest and arouse.
  • They care less about non-drug-taking friends, about family, and about others in general than they did before their involvement with drugs.
  • They do not perceive or attach feelings to dramatic personal and academic losses and may even claim that they are functioning better and thinking more clearly than before.
  • They increasingly organize themselves socially around drug taking and associate predominantly with other drug-taking friends, even when there is no other basis of shared interest than drugs.

In short, they alter their minds. You don't get something for nothing in this world, and altered states of reality have their price.

Because of brain research, we understand the price of mind alteration from alcohol. We understand the deadly toll it has upon our kids. Adolescent brain research has clearly established the serious long term risks of teenage alcohol abuse and how these risks dramatically drop if they were to begin their abuse of alcohol in their 20s.

We haven't had the slightest idea of what mind alteration just from pot will cost us, or cost our kids... until now.

The recent Harvard-Northwestern study published in the Journal of Neuroscience should rattle any pot user -- and slow down our haste to legalize marijuana.

The study deliberately sought recreational pot users, ages 18-25, including four-times-a-week users and once-a-week users. It avoided those who had adverse impacts from marijuana --problems with work, school, the law, relationships or addiction issues. It also utilized a control group of non-users.

Shockingly, every pot member had noticeable brain abnormalities, with the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala parts of the brain.

The researchers reported: "This is a part of the brain that you absolutely never ever want to touch... these are fundamental in terms of what people find pleasurable in the world and assessing that against the bad things."

While the study is relatively small, it is consistent with other studies and certainly will inspire larger ones.

To me, the real problem is our need to alter reality.

Scott Peck opened his seminal book The Road Less Traveled with three words: Life is difficult. Once we accept this basic truth, life takes on a different meaning. Challenge, hardship, struggle, and even failure, all become part of our path to fulfillment, joy and happiness.

So if we teach our kids to appreciate the challenge of adversity, maybe they'll learn to get high on life -- and not try to alter their thoughts and feelings about it.

1. Hawley, Richard. The Headmaster's Papers. September 1, 2002.