Renowned Alzheimer’s researcher Dr. Vincent Fortanasce says marijuana use may lead to the disease
An estimated 200,000 people in the United States under age 65 are living with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. And hundreds of thousands more are coping with mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
“It’s beyond epidemic proportions. There truly is a tidal wave of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr. Vincent Fortanasce, a clinical professor of neurology in Southern California who is also a renowned Catholic bioethicist, author and radio host.
Fortanasce, a member of Legatus’ San Juan Capistrano Chapter, for several years has studied Alzheimer’s disease, its underlying causes and treatments. Through his research, he believes there may be a link between chronic use of marijuana — especially when started at a young age — and Alzheimer’s.
Finding the link
Fortanasce notes that medical research shows chronic users of marijuana, in particular the kind with high quantities of THC, have reduced volume in the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for memory and learning. In Alzheimer’s disease, Fortanasce said, medical researchers have also noticed reduced hippocampus volume with increased B-amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles.
Taking into account other factors, such as skyrocketing obesity rates and lack of exercise, Fortanasce argues that chronically smoking marijuana and consuming products laced with cannabis are harming the long-term mental health of millions of young Americans. He is trying to convince the American Academy of Neurology to conduct a major survey to see if people diagnosed with dementia have also smoked marijuana.
“And if we find out — especially for people under 65 — that 50% of them were smoking pot, that’s a huge indication that marijuana is responsible for Alzheimer’s disease,” said Fortanasce, who was a leading figure in the fight last year to defeat a California ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana.
Voters in California chose to legalize recreational pot, as did their counterparts in several other states last November, raising the total number of states that permit recreational or medical marijuana to 28.
The marijuana lobby has been active in recent years in pushing ballot measures to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, or to legalize medical marijuana and fully recreational pot, which is now legal in eight states and the District of Columbia.
The Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit that supports legalization, boasts on its website that it is “devoting significant resources” to ending marijuana prohibition in eight more states in 2017 — and that it’s lobbying and building coalitions across the country to regulate marijuana like alcohol.
In addition to the money and organizing efforts driving the legalization campaigns, Fortanasce said widespread ignorance has enabled the marijuana lobby to obfuscate the issue. While marijuana may have some medicinal properties (cannabidiol in pot, for example, can help decrease nausea and be used to treat seizures), Fortanasce noted that there are already medications on the market that are far more efficacious than marijuana.
“It takes the average drug about 10 years to get on the market — an anti-inflammatory, simple drugs like aspirin,” Fortanasce said. “You have 10 years of painstaking research, averaging $1 billion spent by pharmaceutical companies. Before they can give it to people, it’ll have to pass between three and five stages of scrutiny.”
“Marijuana has not had to go through any of these stages,” Fortanasce said, “and the question is why?”
Father Michael Orsi, who serves on the board of directors at St. Matthew’s House, which runs a drug recovery program in Naples, Fla., said the drug lobby has been successful because of wealthy donors and advertising that suggests that legalizing medical marijuana is a matter of compassion.
“It’s a real tragedy for society because it’s going to affect people who are using and not using marijuana — especially people who are going to be hurt while driving,” said Fr. Orsi. He last year spoke out against a medical marijuana ballot initiative in Florida. The initiative passed.
“The law is designed to legalize pot. Don’t let anyone be fooled that this is something done out of compassion,” said Fr. Orsi, who added that 99% of the clients in the St. Matthew’s House recovery program started smoking marijuana before becoming addicted to harder drugs like cocaine and heroin.
“There is a moral issue involved with anything that’s harmful to human beings,” Fr. Orsi said.
Death and addiction
There is no defined, specific Catholic teaching on cannabis. But Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Church documents condemn drunkenness and recreational drug use that impair the mind and body. The Catechism describes the use of drugs, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, as a grave offense (#2291).
With those principles in mind, the nation’s Catholic bishops have frequently spoken out against marijuana-related ballot measures. In Massachusetts, where voters legalized recreational pot last November, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, held press events with elected officials and interfaith leaders to speak out against the initiative.
“There was real effort to get the word out, but unfortunately the voters didn’t go in that direction,” said James Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.
Driscoll highlighted several problematic aspects of marijuana legalization, noting that it is happening at the same time that a national opioid epidemic is ravaging communities across the country. He referenced scientific studies indicating marijuana use hampers brain development in youth and can be traced to increased rates of school dropouts and highway deaths in states like Colorado that have legalized recreational pot in recent years.
“The proof is in the pudding,” Driscoll said.
Fortanasce agrees with Driscoll, adding that marijuana promotes isolation and a decrease in socialization, making its users more apathetic and distracted. Noting the brain chemistry involved, Fortanasce also argues there is a direct association with the use of marijuana, pornography and violent video games.
“In marijuana the fear centers of the brain, the anxiety centers, are built up, while the cognitive center, the hippocampus, loses 20% of its volume,” Fortanasce said. “Therefore the sense of morality and self-control, motivation, is lost, as is what we call executive functioning, the ability to follow through. That is, you find these kids who are into marijuana aren’t very motivated.”
Arguing that the brains of chronic marijuana users resemble those of Alzheimer’s patients, Fortanasce believes heavy drug use could bring about “a perfect storm” for Alzheimer’s disease when combined with poor diet and other factors. He added that drug use can also hasten the onset of mental illness — or intensify it. And schizophrenia is a well-known example.
“Cannabis has not been clinically studied to the extent that is needed before approving its use in the general population,” Fortanasce explained. “The bottom line: Marijuana is dangerous. It’s not candy.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.