California, Canada, 63 percent of Americans and even former GOP Speaker of the House John Boehner had backed the idea of legalized marijuana, but Professor Judy Grisel isn’t so sure.

In a frank commentary published May 25 in The Washington Post, Grisel opened with her own adolescent experience with marijuana.

Her overarching message cautioned against oversimplifying marijuana’s effects on the brain, particularly on adolescents’ developing brains. She called for scientific examination so sound decisions are made regarding legalization. Doing so, she struck a nerve where she least expected it.

“I woke to over 100 emails from kids 12, 13, 17 years old — with no idea what was going on,” she says. “The Post had reformatted it and put it on a feed for young people. It was really surprising — they were the most heartfelt, honest, sad emails I’ve gotten.”

Grisel says younger people were especially interested in the neuroscience behind marijuana, and many identified with the idea that regular use reduces marijuana’s enjoyable effect and locks users into unproductive cycles.

“One kid said he got a medical card when he was 15: ‘What you said is true for me — all I did was sit on the couch and smoke, feeling helpless and depressed, so I’ve decided to give it up. I’m more scared of life with it than without it.’”

Grisel has tried to answer each email — an overwhelming task taking her from the sterile world of addiction science to its real-world victims, some of whom referenced suicide.

Grisel’s Washington Post commentary sparked candid responses about marijuana use Bucknell
Grisel’s Washington Post commentary sparked candid responses about marijuana use.
“There are a lot of kids in a lot of pain,” she says. “I think they feel like they’ve been betrayed by adults who have modeled their own drug use, so they’re cynical about marijuana being good for them. The data resonated with them. One kid said, ‘I feel lost — I don’t have any dreams anymore.’ These are humans who are suffering, in many ways, far from the empirical studies I conduct in the laboratory.”

Within just a few days of its publication, the commentary also had more than 3,000 online comments — many of them negative.

“One person said, ‘I’m too stoned to understand this.’ That’s cute,” Grisel says, “but I think some of them were thankful for what I wrote. At the very least, it helped stimulate discussion. I was able to say it in a way that people heard it. That’s been really gratifying.” — Susan Lindt

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Read Judy Grisel’s Washington Post commentary