The science of why smoking cannabis screws with your memory is kind of fascinating. Memory itself is kind of fascinating. The current understanding is that our brains are kind of like computer processors that take immediate, short-term data and processes it during sleep's REM-cycle to be stored as long-term memories. Cool, huh? Anecdotally, we might have observed that heavy pot smokers can have memory problems, which has been backed up by several scientific studies. A 2015 study published in the scientific journal Molecular Psychiatry also indicates a relationship between heavy cannabis use and susceptibility to false memories. (If you haven't been following the science on neuroplasticity, false memories are totally a thing, although they are usually less like those crazy kindergarten sex cult tabloid stories from the '90s and more like your belief that you definitely used your blinker before the cop pulled you over.) Cannabis' impact on memory is directly related to one of its more pleasurable effects, specifically the stimulation of CB1 receptors in our brain's amygdala, which increases the novelty of items or ideas that you might otherwise think are boring (e.g. reruns of Xena: Warrior Princess).
Which is all to say, I am over the novelty factor in reports of people getting ill/dying/having psychotic breaks after smoking fake weed. The latest story, which comes from a May 6 alert from the Centers for Disease Control and was reported by CNN, hinges around some horror movie-type bleeding that sent 94 people in Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri and Wisconsin to the emergency room. Three people died. The connection all seems to hinge on heartlanders smoking synthetic weed, which is often sold in gas stations or online, not subject to any federal oversight (it's sometimes labeled as "incense") and contains a number of nasty chemicals that potentially include rat poison.
A lot of how we do our job ethically as journalists hinges on what we choose to report, when and why. So this isn't to say that if a wave of deaths or illnesses related to synthetic weed hit Humboldt County (unlikely, considering the abundance of the real stuff) I wouldn't cover it. I just feel as though the stuff's temporary presence at the top of the internet charts does a disservice to the real, systemic and more challenging issues that remain below the fold. According to the CNN article, it isn't kids who are dying from fake weed. Thanks in part to a robust public awareness campaign, use of synthetic cannabis by minors has dropped drastically in the last decade. The people addicted to, using and getting sick from synthetic weed in Illinois are the same people who our system consistently fails in most other respects — the homeless and mentally ill.
The fact that we have a large population of underhoused, chronically homeless people in the United States, a population that overlaps with a large, underserved population of mentally ill people, is not new news. But it is one of the most pressing and challenging issues of our times. The fact that while a handful of people are dying after smoking synthetic weed, scores more are dying each day from our nation's opiate epidemic is also not new news. As the aphorism goes, "Dog Bites Man," is not news, but "Man Bites Dog" might be. Still, I feel compelled to keep these issues in our consciousness.
Oh, you thought this was the Week in Weed? Nope, this week you're getting the synthetic Week in Weed, complete with a toxic frosting of depressing facts about some of our most intractable social problems. It's not Fake News, it's just news that has, sadly, lost its novelty.
Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.