It can be hard to sort out what’s true, what’s hype, and what’s blatant prohibitionist propaganda when mainstream news skips over the details.
While in school for my biology degree, I knew a chemistry student we’ll call Susan. Last time I spoke with “Susan,” she worked for the government, so I won’t include her real name here.
Susan was a top-performing student. She consistently scored over 100 percent on her quizzes and exams (extra credit). She conducted research in the laboratories, worked as a student instructor, and tutored chemistry. Many chemistry students envied her. Other top students competed with her – but could never beat her scores.
And Susan was a total stoner.
I don’t mean she toked occasionally on the weekends after she completed her studies. No, Susan started her day off with a smoke. She studied while stoned. She even admitted to me that she would toke before some of her exams, just to take the edge off.
Susan’s not alone. Some of our greatest minds consumed cannabis. The astronomer and science-promoter Carl Sagan wrote essays praising cannabis as a source of inspiration under the moniker Mr. X. Tech. Entrepreneurs, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, both hit the bong in college and possibly well into their adulthoods. Co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, Francis Crick, “experimented” with weed as a college student, too. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould blazed his entire adult life. Nuclear-bomb designer and physicist Richard Feynman claimed he wrote his book Surely, You’re Joking Mr. Feynman while ripped. Novelist Stephen King has always praised Maine’s dank. And there’s even some evidence that The Bard himself, William Shakespeare, consumed cannabis – purely for medicinal purposes, of course.
Yet, we continue to hear the warning that cannabis can compromise our mental faculties, and worse, cannabis may harm the developing minds of teens and children.
How do we make sense of this? What’s true and what’s prohibitionist propaganda?
In April, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a review study by J. Cobb Scott, a psychiatry professor at the University of Pennsylvania. TIME magazine reported on his findings with the headline, “How Smoking Pot May Harm the Teenage Brain.”
The TIME’s introduction to Scott’s study sounded the usual alarm bells:
Studies so far have found that marijuana can affect short-term thinking skills in adults, including attention, memory and other higher cognitive functions. In the latest review of the studies on younger people, scientists found similar effects, but also revealed some surprising hints about how lasting those effects might be.
Based on the headline, one may think the study’s “surprising hints” discovered that cannabis caused brain damage to some degree. Instead, this is what the study found:
…these effects seemed to wane if the users stopped using marijuana for about three days. “That was the biggest surprise,” says Scott. “There is biological plausibility that cannabis could cause changes in the brain that is still developing. But the abstinence data we have indicates that while those effects are detectable, they seem to go away after more than three days of abstinence.”
From Scott himself, cannabis-induced cognitive impairment largely disappeared after subjects stopped smoking for three days.
Furthermore, Scott’s concluding remarks on the JAMA paper appear to contradict the TIME headline yet again. He wrote:
Associations between cannabis use and cognitive functioning in cross-sectional studies of adolescents and young adults are small and may be of questionable clinical importance for most individuals. … [R]esults indicate that previous studies of cannabis in youth may have overstated the magnitude and persistence of cognitive deficits associated with use. [emphasis mine]
In other words, Scott’s massive review of nearly 40 years’ worth of studies found that cognitive impairment from cannabis was relatively minor – and temporary. He’s not even being shy about calling out other researchers and saying they exaggerated the so-called dangers of using cannabis. Again, his statements don’t quite jive with the TIME headline, which erroneously suggested that his study concluded that cannabis may “harm the teen brain.”
But That’s Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man
I’m not going to argue that cannabis never makes us a little stupid sometimes. Can you honestly say you’ve never torched a pipe then forgot where you put your car keys? Or your phone? Or the pipe you just hit? You’re fine. It happens.
The problem with a lot of these “cannabis and intelligence” studies is that intelligence, learning, cognition, etc. are incredibly complex and damn near impossible to accurately model in a two-dimensional fashion. If you’ve ever read the methods sections for these studies, you’ll find that many of their experiments include things like catching a dropped ruler or recalling a sequence of random numbers – basically, tests that don’t reflect real-world mental challenges.
Worse, some of these cannabis studies will equate IQ scores or school grades with “intelligence” or “memory,” when IQ measures nothing but how well an individual performs on a culturally biased test, and grades measure nothing more than a teacher’s semi-subjective scoring system that likely reflects classroom attendance over actual smarts.
Should everyone hit the bowl before hitting the books, like my friend Susan would? I don’t recommend it. Not everyone can handle their highs as well as she did. But cannabis’s ability to help us forget can actually improve our memory and cognition. Also, we shouldn’t ignore cannabis’s power to stimulate or facilitate creativity and problem-solving, two abilities often neglected by memory and intelligence research.