Has Lady Gaga’s Marijuana Habit Damaged Her Brain?

“Lady Gaga says she’s addicted to pot, so be on the lookout in case she starts exhibiting any odd behavior.” Stephen Colbert

A performer who wears raw meat knows how to get attention, so it was no surprise that Lady Gaga would announce this week that she’ll be the first singer in space. What got more ink was her admitting that she’s addicted to marijuana and smoked up to 20 joints a day to cope.

For years, Gaga said, she believed she had to be high to create, and leaned on drugs including pot for anxiety and for pain from an on-stage hip injury, which forced her to cancel much of her “Born This Way” tour. During an interview on Elvis Duran’s Z100 Morning Show to promote her new album, Gaga said she is still struggling with dependence and wanted kids to know that weed is addictive.

But scientists would say Gaga’s warning didn’t go far enough, that her “little monsters” should also know marijuana use during adolescence can cause lasting damage to their intelligence, attention and memory.

A groundbreaking 2012 study by scientists from King’s College in London, Duke University in North Carolina and the University of Otago in New Zealand found that marijuana is especially damaging to brain development in users younger than their mid-20s. The researchers, who followed 1,000 people from birth to age 38, call their findings the first convincing evidence that cannabis has a more harmful effect on young brains than on those of adults.

The authors of the study, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), say that young people tend to think that cannabis is harmless. “Increasing efforts should be directed toward delaying the onset of cannabis use by young people, particularly given the recent trend of younger ages of cannabis-use initiation in the United States and evidence that fewer adolescents believe that cannabis use is associated with serious risk,” says the paper.

Recent estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that more teens are smoking marijuana than cigarettes. Dr. David Sack, CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, who treats addicts of all kinds, views pot as a gateway drug that may lead to other substance abuse.

Brain Under Construction Until 20s

“As professionals,” Sack said, “we’re especially concerned about the adolescent use of marijuana, because there’s good evidence that marijuana affects brain development, and brain development is not really completed until someone’s in their 20s. So when kids as young as 10 or 12 start smoking pot on a regular basis, it’s going to have long-term effects on their memory, concentration and behavior.”

The PNAS report’s lead researcher, Dr. Madeline H. Meier from Duke University, says: “Our study shows that adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the effects of cannabis. The brain undergoes important maturational changes during adolescence. For example, it is thought that certain developmental brain changes that occur during adolescence make the brain more efficient. Adolescents who use cannabis may disrupt these critical maturational processes.”

It didn’t matter that users gave up cannabis later, according to the findings. What mattered was the age at which young people started using it. Gaga did not say specifically when she began getting high, but her references to seven years of heavy pot use and a decade of drug abuse would put it at somewhere between her teens and age 20.

In reports from People magazine to CBS News, Gaga’s outer space trip took a backseat to her drug trips. Even Stephen Colbert focused on her in one show opening, deadpanning, “Lady Gaga says she’s addicted to pot, so be on the lookout in case she starts exhibiting any odd behavior.”

In this week’s wide-ranging radio interview with Duran, Gaga, who in 2012 dressed as a marijuana plant for Halloween, initially said she no longer smoked pot. When the New York radio host commented, “But you figured it out, you opened the hood and you fixed it,” she responded thoughtfully: “Well, you know, it’s a struggle every day — I don’t want to lie about it, because there’s no reason to lie about it. But it’s very hard (pause) it’s very hard to be famous. It’s wonderful, because I have amazing fans. But it is very, very hard to go out into the world when you are not feeling happy and act like you are, because I am a human being, too, and I break.”

The 27-year-old recording star talked about the February hip injury that crippled her and about using painkillers; and she spoke about depression and the belief that she could be a true artist only if she were high on drugs. In her latest album ARTPOP, released Sunday, Gaga sings about her marijuana-toking alter ego on “Mary Jane Holland.”

‘I Want to Live’

But in the radio show conversation, Gaga, whose real name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, was asked if she got high because she thought she needed it for creativity, which even the late Apple founder Steve Jobs has addressed. Gaga said: “I do put that pressure on myself [that] I have to be high to be creative, [that] I need that. That’s an error in my life that happened for over 10 years.” She said she’s been riddled with the question, “Can I be brilliant without it? I know that I can be and I have to be, because I want to live.”

The woman of outrageous wigs and costumes nicknamed Mother Monster has talked about drug use before. In 2010 she told US magazine that she did cocaine, regretted “every line I ever did, had to hit rock bottom, and cautioned kids against trying it, “So to any of the little sweethearts that are listening, don’t touch it; it’s the devil.”

Now, she is “speaking out” about her marijuana abuse to counter the claims that it is not addictive, she told Elvis Duran.

“I’ve been addicted to various things since I was young, most heavily over the past seven years, Gaga said. “And I kind of lily pad from substance to substance when I can’t go any further with a substance, so I move to another,” she said, acknowledging that can be frightening. “But with marijuana, I actually decided to speak about this because … I just want young kids to know that you actually can become addicted. And there’s this sentiment that you can’t, and that’s actually not true. Because I have been addicted to it and its ultimately related to anxiety, coping, and it’s a form of self-medication. I was smoking up to 15 or 20 marijuana cigarettes a day with no tobacco.”

Debate endures about whether marijuana is addictive or causes dependency. Some view it as less physically addictive than opiates, but say it can cause psychological dependence. Most public health officials say that it is both. The National Institute on Drug Abuse calls marijuana addictive: “Contrary to common belief, marijuana is addictive. Estimates from research suggest that about 9 percent of users become addicted to marijuana; this number increases among those who start young (to about 17 percent, or one in six) and among daily users (to 25 percent to 50 percent). Thus, many of the nearly 7 percent of high-school seniors who report smoking marijuana daily or almost daily are well on their way to addiction, if not already addicted (besides functioning at a sub-optimal level all of the time).”

Gateway Drug

Sack added: “The thing about addictions is that anyone who’s ever been addicted to one drug has somewhere between eight and 12 times the risk of becoming addicted to another drug,” he said during a radio interview with KFI’s Tim Conway Jr. He noted that legalizing it or not, marijuana is easily available anywhere in California, for instance. But it’s not your 1980s strain. “The kind of marijuana that’s available is, on average, five times more potent than the marijuana that was around 30 years ago. “We’re especially concerned about the adolescent use of marijuana.”

And young tokers were Gaga’s target audience. As to the messenger, Gaga is prone to behavior that buzzes up social media internationally, and in a review of her latest album, Los Angeles Times music reviewer Mikael Wood wrote: “More than any of her A-list peers, Lady Gaga makes a spectator sport of the entire pop-star experience, from her music to her pronouncements on social issues to her determination to wear the wackiest outfit possible every time she steps in front of the paparazzi.

No one plays the mass media as cleverly as she has since she emerged in 2008 with “The Fame,” the smash-hit debut that foretold its own success.”

And indeed, she drew big coverage in the run-up to her latest album release. She confirmed to Us Magazine in early November that she’s been invited to be the first singer sent to space aboard one of Virgin Galactic’s planned commercial flights due in 2015. But the marijuana message may have overtaken news of her space flight –- perhaps her biggest high yet.

There is still hope.

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