Does Jeff Sessions Hate Laughter?

The government’s disjointed cannabis laws might be hurting your laughter.

Posted Jan 05, 2018

DonkeyHotey/Flickr
Source: DonkeyHotey/Flickr

OK, I admit it: I don’t know if Jeff Sessions really hates laughter. For all I know, he performs improv every Friday night with his favorite comedy troupe. But I doubt it.

However, I do know that this country’s cannabis laws have a decidedly anti-laughter bias. On Thursday, January 4, Sessions rescinded what is known as “The Cole Memo.” That’s the direction put forward by former president Obama telling the federal government to place a higher priority on enforcing national marijuana laws pertaining to trafficking, underage use, and gang activity. Implicit in the direction is that money shouldn’t be spent on shutting down medical marijuana programs until these other problems are solved. In other words, your grandmother needn’t worry about her “medical use” card until organized crime somehow disappears.

By rescinding this guidance, essentially replacing it with no guidance at all, now federal agencies are free to go after easy yet harmless targets first. (Sorry, Nana.) Still, I don’t want to get into the legal consequences of this decision. I want to address what this has to do with laughter.

The first thing to recognize is that the cannabis plant is loaded with chemical compounds called cannabinoids, which include THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). The latter has been shown to reduce nausea for cancer patients and eliminate debilitating seizures, among other great things. But most recreational users enjoy cannabis due to THC, which has its own health benefits, along with giving the familiar “high.” This occurs through the brain’s endocannabinoid system, which naturally produces its own similar chemicals.

People laugh after ingesting THC because the brain’s endocannabinoid system is responsible for what scientists call “positive emotional processing.” As just one example, research at the Rudolf Magnus Institute of Neuroscience found that giving subjects THC not only made them more tuned to positive emotions, it limited the impact of negative ones. Other research has shown that such positive affect not only leads to laughter, it improves our health, work performance, and even marriage.

THC also increases blood flow to brain regions responsible for appreciating humor. This includes frontal and temporal regions, areas we know are responsible for “getting the joke.” One huge meta-study found that the most consistent effect of THC on the brain is increased pre-frontal and anterior cingulate activity. The anterior cingulate is especially important for humor because it’s the region that recognizes jokes. Then it works through the punchline and tells us to laugh if the joke is worth it.

The discovery that cannabis is linked to laughter isn’t new. For over a hundred years journals have been publishing case studies of cannabis users breaking into laughter. Even Marco Polo noted during his travels to Asia that sultans who enjoyed hashish often broke into giggling fits. Since then, researchers have worked diligently, despite government restrictions, trying to break down how our endocannabinoid system works. Still, much more research is needed.

“But what about other drugs like cocaine?” you might ask. “It makes us feel good too, so why not advocate for that as well?” It’s a fair question because cocaine affects the brain too, namely by increasing dopamine. Dopamine also feels good, though research shows that dopamine provides joy from having gotten the joke, rather than the drive to seek it out. It’s a consequence, not a cause, though it’s worth noting that cannabinoids increase dopamine levels too. Just not as directly or strongly.

The biggest difference, however, is that cocaine wrecks our dopamine system. After consuming the drug, our brains adapt to make dopamine harder to process. We need more, and without it we go through withdrawal. Fortunately, the endocannabinoid system shows no such neuroadaptation. You can’t overdose from cannabinoids, and you can’t ruin your brain’s internal chemistry either. You can laugh and eat too many Doritos.

Which raises the question: Why does the government consider cannabis a Schedule I drug, the most dangerous there is? Even cocaine is only Schedule II (“some medical benefit”). Alcohol, which kills 2.5 million people every year, doesn’t even warrant a category.

Could it be that laughter is subversive, just like psychoactive drugs, making cannabis doubly dangerous? Is it possible that Jeff Sessions associates cannabis with cocaine because he doesn’t get jokes? I doubt it, but it’s hard to justify any law which prohibits laughter. I suppose that laws prohibiting treatments for cancer and debilitating seizures are pretty awful too. But that’s another problem altogether.

References

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803-855. 

Bossonga, M., van Hella, H., Jagera, G., Kahnd, R., Ramseya, N., Jansma, J. (2013) The endocannabinoid system and emotional processing. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 23, 1687-1697. 

Grotenhermen, F. (2003). Pharmacokinetics and Pharmacodynamics of Cannabinoids. Clinical Pharmacology, 42, 327-360. 

Martin-Santos, R., Fagundo, A., Crippa, J., Atakan, Z., Bhattacharyya, S., Allen, P., Fusar-Poli, P., Borgwardt, S., Seal, M., Busatto, G., and McGuire, P. (2010). Neuroimaging in cannabis use: a systematic review of the literature, Psychological Medicine, 40, 383-398.