Lenny Ramsey earned her PhD in Neurosciences from the Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences, at Washington University in St. Louis. As a student in the Neurosciences program, she focused on recovery after stroke. A stroke damages the brain, causing many different behavioral deficits. These behaviors can recover, but little is understood about the underlying changes in the brain. The disruptions in communications between regions of the brain can be measured in patients that have suffered a stroke using neuroimaging techniques. The changes over time can be linked to behavioral recovery to investigate what changes in communication are important for regaining good behavioral functions. Lenny earned her undergraduate degree in psychology, and a masters in Cognitive Neuroscience from Utrecht University, the Netherlands. She is currently Assistant Professor in the Physical Therapy Department at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin, USA.
Outside of her graduate school studies, Lenny was a competitive triathlete. She spent a summer competing in several Olympic distance triathlons and placed second in her age group and third among women in a half ironman at the end of that summer.
“The McDonnell Academy lets you expand beyond your field of study, both by providing speakers and discussions with people in politics, industry and academia, as well as giving us the opportunity to meet students from all over the world, in a wide range of graduate programs. Moreover, the McDonnell Academy has given me the opportunity to assist in teaching a class, which has become something I would like to do more of in the future.”
On the Legalization of Marijuana
Mentioning the Netherlands, and especially Amsterdam, often evokes responses related to cannabis. While Prop 19 in California has heated up the debate on the legalization of cannabis and the discussions about medical marijuana have not subsided, the rules in the Netherlands are becoming more and more strict. Should marijuana be legalized in the United States? Is there another way to deal with the current drug problem?
The Dutch drug policy is aimed at controlling use and reducing harm instead of banning recreational drug use completely. Many people don’t know that cannabis is not fully legalized in the Netherlands. Large-scale dealing, import and export of soft drugs are illegal, but because of a tolerance policy, these rules in many cases are not enforced. This tolerance policy sets written guidelines as to when offenders should not be prosecuted. Further, since 1983, coffee shops are licensed to sell small amounts of marijuana under certain restrictions.
Contrary to opponents’ expectations, tolerance policies did not lead to extremely high use of cannabis when they were instated in 1976, and this continues to the present day.
Average use across the Netherlands is lower than in many countries, including the United States, and so is the drug-related mortality rate.
Compared to alcohol, a much more widely used and less debated substance, the dependence and intoxication risks from cannabis are lower, and it
leads to fewer violent crimes. While studies on the effects of THC (the active substance in marijuana) in adults have shown that cannabis temporarily affects memory, after one week of abstinence, no changes in performance or brain structure can be detected. It is even well established that cannabis can be helpful as a treatment for symptoms of many medical conditions, most commonly for decreasing pain, nausea and insomnia.
Decriminalizing marijuana in the United States could have potentially positive effects by decreasing the criminal network involved in circulating the drugs, which could in turn decrease the number of people in already over-full prisons and decrease the money spent on the “war on drugs.” Current incarceration rates for drug-related crimes in the United States are estimated to be between 7 and 10 times that of the Netherlands.
Going a step further, by fully legalizing a drug like cannabis, the control and supervision of the amounts used and the quality of the drug are increased. Over the past years, the THC content of cannabis has increased significantly, raising its potency and addictiveness. Legalization would increase governmental control and thus create the opportunity to set rules about THC content. It would also make the sale taxable, leading to extra governmental income, and would make research on the potential medical uses of cannabis easier.
But does this mean that decriminalization or legalization solves all problems? One of the main worries of legalizing cannabis is that it may increase use and increase the number of people struggling with addiction. While we can’t predict the effects of legalization, the evidence we do have from trials with decriminalization seem to suggest that usage wouldn’t significantly increase as a result. Cannabis would be accessible to the general (adult) population, but does this mean that people will indeed start using the drug on a massive scale? And even if more people decide to try it, does this mean more people will end up with an addiction? In general, people who frequently smoke marijuana now will probably still smoke once it is legalized. The groups of interest are the people who do not or have not yet used cannabis. An alluring possibility is that the people who use cannabis for the thrill of it being illegal, especially teenagers, would no longer be attracted to it. The people that now stay away from it are likely not the group of people at risk for addiction, and they still are not likely to become frequent users.
Something that should not be overlooked however, when trying to legalize or decriminalize a drug, is its potential effects on bordering countries or states. One of the reasons for the current stricter regulations in the Netherlands is to try to restrict trafficking across borders with neighboring countries that do not share the same tolerance policies.
As cannabis seems relatively harmless to the adult brain, one of the main dangers of its use could be in teenagers who are still developing mentally and emotionally. Animal studies have shown that extremely high dosages of cannabis during development have emotional and cognitive effects in later life. Even though the long-term consequences are not yet clear in humans, cannabis has been shown to affect and possibly delay the development of psychosocial adjustment, decision making and problem solving in youth. So, whichever path is chosen for the future of cannabis regulations, protection and education of teenagers should remain a central concern.