Here in Colorado we recently legalized recreational marijuana. I think that was a good decision. Grownups don’t need babysitters, and on my list of societal ills pot falls somewhere between stray dogs and people who drive slowly in the fast line.
I have no moral objection to pot; I have a moral objection to outlawing it. But that doesn’t mean I like the stuff. As a psychologist, I have developed a powerful distaste for pot’s effect on the human spirit. It spawns inertia, harms relationships, fuels anxiety, and snuffs out potential. It should come with a warning label:
If marijuana were a person, he would be the kind of guy who makes you flinch whenever his name appears on caller ID. You know he’s going to ask for something—he never calls simply to say hello. He’s a petty saboteur, and he’ll chip away at your soul.
I know: pot is not a person. It doesn’t plot against people. But if you do my job long enough, it can begin to seem as if drugs have personalities. Everyone who is addicted to a given substance seems to be stuck in the same hellish marriage with the same miserable spouse.
Some of those marriages are more hellish than others. Take meth, for example. If it were a person, he would be a thought-disordered, psychopathic killer. Meth addiction is like being married to Charles Manson.
Meth looks fun at first, and he says such interesting things. But he infects people with malice and self-destruction. It is the ideal drug if your ambition is to drive a stolen Camry through your grandmother’s living room, microwave her poodle, then rape her toaster. Otherwise, you’ll want to steer clear of this nut job.
Heroin is another destroyer of lives. Opening the door to this drug is like marrying Tony Soprano.
Heroin looks like a big, warm teddybear who promises to banish all your troubles. Who doesn’t love that puppy-dog smile and the warm reassurances? He’s just so darned comforting and charismatic. But soon enough he’ll be pounding on your door demanding today’s payment. You will spend every waking moment trying to meet his demands.
Oh, and he might kill you in your sleep for no particular reason.
Let’s not forget booze: benign looking, but high on my list of scoundrels. If alcohol were a person it would be Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius.
Alcohol is a manipulator and an occasional killer. Sure, he can be the life of the party, but keep him at arm’s length lest you become entwined in his secret shame. You’ll find yourself lying to cover his sins; you’ll be awash in his guilt. Some poor souls who marry this swine will suffer a long and painful struggle to the death.
And Then There’s Pot…
Pot is no psychopath, or midnight murderer, or even a corrupt 17th-century king. He lacks the ambition of those monsters. Instead, pot is the smelly, unemployed freeloader living on your couch. He’s draining your soul one peanut butter sandwich at a time.
Pot isn’t necessarily a bad guy. He’s usually good for a laugh. Just don’t give him the key to your house. He’ll clean out your freezer, empty your gas tank, and leave all the lights on. He won’t kill you in your sleep, but he will slowly siphon away your life force.
Freedom is grand, and pot is a freedom-stealing thief. I think he’s a jerk. Here’s why.
1. Pot makes people stupid.
You may have heard marijuana evangelists rapturously extoll its rejuvenating qualities: “I smoke it every day and I’m functioning better than ever! It keeps my mind clear!”
There’s a difference between a clear mind and a sedated mind. Regular pot-smokers tend toward the latter, which, ironically, blinds them to the possibility that pot may be weakening their brains.
Let me toss out a few numbers for the non-stoned reader: regular, long-term pot users have shown a full-scale IQ decline of 0.38 standard deviations from the mean, which equals a loss of about 6 IQ points (Meier et al. 2012). The earlier a person starts, and the more frequently they use pot, the more their faculties will decline. Teenagers are especially vulnerable.
Pot also damages memory. Regular use causes difficulty encoding, storing, manipulating, and recalling information (Solowij and Battisti, 2008).
If that’s not enough, pot damages focus and executive functioning, especially among teenagers. That’s precisely the time when people should be strengthening their focus rather than weakening it. (I told you pot is a saboteur.) Regular pot smokers show poorer decision-making skills and response inhibition, which means they’re likelier to do stupid things. They also have a higher incidence of ADHD than the general population (Tamm et al. 2013; Block et al. 2000).
I am not suggesting that people are stupid if they have cognitive difficulties or perform poorly on IQ tests. I don’t believe that to be true at all. I’m saying that voluntarily downgrading one’s own brain is a stupid decision.
Stupid behavior compounds itself because one stupid decision can create many problems. When those problems are approached with the same pot-addled thinking that created them, they snowball into even more problems. Pot is great at drowning people in an avalanche of shoddy decisions and painful consequences.
Some researchers say that this cognitive damage is permanent, but I don’t believe that. IQ is just a sloppy numerical representation of ability. If a person replaces pot with physical activity, a quest for knowledge, and an active engagement in life, then they will become more resourceful, skilled, and capable. In other words, they will improve their IQ. Anyone can do it.
2. Pot makes people lazy.
There are at least two important mechanisms by which pot dissolves motivation.
First, THC (pot’s intoxicating molecule) down-regulates dopamine in a way that reduces a person’s ability to identify benefits and initiate action toward desired outcomes (Treadway et al. 2012).
That means, for example, that the pot-addled brain has a reduced likelihood of making a sandwich when hunger sets in because A) it is less sensitive to the fact that a sandwich would satisfy a need, and B) it is less likely to initiate sandwich-making behavior.
If life is a series of metaphorical sandwich-making opportunities, it’s easy to imagine how this little bit of biology would cumulatively hobble a person.
Second, THC inhibits spontaneous action and lowers sensitivity to the environment (Smirnov and Kiyatkin 2008; Bloomfield et al. 2014). That means that a pot addict is more likely to tolerate the couch spring poking him in the ass rather than do something about it.
If life is a series of metaphorical couch springs in the ass… well, you know the rest.
There’s no denying that some pot addicts are able to hold jobs, raise kids, keep relationships, and otherwise meet adult responsibilities. They’re simply doing it all with an anchor around their neck. It’s easy enough to find a handful of go-getters who rely on pot, but very few pot-heads are go-getters.
3. Pot makes people anxious.
I’ve met dozens of people who have received marijuana “prescriptions” from “doctors” for the treatment of anxiety. Now there are plenty of empirically-validated reasons to prescribe marijuana—glaucoma, neuropathy, low appetite, and migraines, to name a few—but prescribing marijuana to treat anxiety is a like prescribing alcohol to treat depression. It might help for a few hours, but the problem will rebound with a vengeance after the effect wears off.
Pot doesn’t make everyone anxious all the time, but people who are prone to anxiety seem to be especially vulnerable to it. For example, the rate of panic attacks in the general population is 5-8%, while as many as 40% of weekly pot users report at least one panic attack associated with their habit (Zvolensky et al. 2008).
That may be due to the fact that pot has an unpredictable effect on the amygdalae, which help regulate arousal, stress response, and emotional learning (Ramikie et al. 2014). People who possess high-strung brains may be throwing fuel on the fire when they use pot (while people with a tendency toward tranquility and inertia may turn themselves into veritable sleepwalkers).
There are no free lunches with neurochemistry. If you fight them, they’ll fight you back. That means that if we suppress anxiety by artificial means, it will rebound beyond its baseline. That creates the desire to crush it by even stronger means, which is the very definition of a vicious cycle.
Beyond neurochemistry, marijuana inflames anxiety by creating anxiety-provoking social problems—the kind of problems that are especially troubling to anxious people:
- Low self-confidence
- Feelings of shame about pot use
- Financial difficulty
- Memory loss
- Decreased productivity
- Family neglect
Interestingly, people who use pot specifically to manage anxiety experience more of these problems than non-anxious pot users (Van Dam et al. 2012). That makes marijuana a very counterproductive anxiety-management tool.
There’s one more wrinkle: the more heavily an anxious person relies on pot, the more anxious they will be after they abstain for a few days or weeks (Bonn-Miller and Moos 2009). They are likelier than other pot users to relapse in order to quell the anxiety, which leads to more anxiety.
The good news is that pot-related anxiety passes after a few weeks of abstinence. Don’t give up hope if you’re stuck in that vicious cycle. I’ve helped lots of anxious people break the cycle by building more reliable anxiety management skills.
4) Pot makes people sick.
I’ve had a handful of young patients—all heavy pot smokers—who reported the same awful, daily gastrointestinal problems.
They each had heard that marijuana can soothe an upset tummy (which is true in certain cases), and so they smoked more pot in order to alleviate their symptoms. It never occurred to them that pot was actually causing the problem. It’s called cannabis hyperemesis syndrome.
It’s a relatively obscure effect of pot, so let’s not focus on it. My point is that pot is a stealthy saboteur. Whether it’s stomach problems, anxiety, paranoia, or damaged memory, marijuana is a master at hiding its effect from the person it’s harming. It can even trick you into using more in the service of solving the very problem that it is creating.
Here’s a more serious example: pot has been tied to suicide attempts among young adults (Pedersen 2008). I know what some of you are thinking: those people must be depressed, which is why they smoke marijuana in the in the first place. For all you know, pot might save their lives!
Not true. Pedersen factored out pre-existing depression. He even went so far as to say, “cannabis use makes a causal contribution to the development of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.” That is stern and unequivocal language coming from a stoic researcher.
I’m sure people would stop using pot if they realized it was making them suicidal, just as my patients stopped when they realized it was making them sick. But I’m telling you: pot is a tricky, sneaky bastard.
5. Pot makes people addicted.
Marijuana is addictive, and I don’t care how many stoners eventually wake up from their naps to deny it. Yes, it is less addictive than heroin, booze, or meth, but “less addictive” doesn’t mean “not addictive.” Willie Sutton was less violent than Jeffrey Dahmer, but he was still a criminal.
If you’re looking for evidence, here’s one biological component of pot addiction: THC down-regulates cortical cannabinoid CB1 receptors. (That happens to be one of the a mechanisms by which pot damages motivation.) The pot-addicted brain therefore depends on the input of THC to function normally.
It takes about four weeks of complete abstinence for the brain to recover its baseline receptor density (Hirvonen et al. 2011), during which time the user can look forward to irritability, anxiety, insomnia, and nightmares.
Like it or not, that’s physiological addiction. Don’t make me bore you with more biology. And I won’t even discuss the number of people who are unable to get through their day without pot—another grand hallmark of addiction.
Addiction is nothing to be ashamed of. It happens to the best of us. Unfortunately, pot causes people to become masters of denial. It’s a strange thing: heroin makes people lie and steal; alcohol turns people sneaky and evasive. Pot, who obviously has a different playbook, turns people in to defense attorneys who sit on the couch and argue on its behalf:
“Sure, you can assert that pot is addictive, but those experiments were conducted in the ‘70s by The Man. And you know what? They were experimenting on Weber rats. Everyone knows that Weber rats have highly addictive personalities. Wake up and smell the oppression, man!”
Marijuana tricks people into defending it in a way that other drugs do not. Yes, I know: pot is not a person. But it sure is consistent.
The Sixty-Day Experiment
I’m probably starting to sound like a moral scold, but I’m in no position to be holier-than-thou. Just ask my probation officer.
Besides, to argue that pot is always bad would be just as erroneous as arguing that pot is always good. Pot simply needs to be kept on a leash—just like wine, red meat, and buying shoes. If you count it among your daily pleasures, then perhaps pot is stealing your freedom and blunting your potential. (Get it? Blunting?)
True freedom includes both the freedom to use pot, and the freedom to step away from it. If you’re not sure where you stand, you could always try setting it aside for 60 days—a month for your brain’s physiology to recover, and a month to find out what life is like without marijuana.
That kind of experiment is beautiful because it illuminates a situation in a relatively painless way. You can begin the experiment secure in the knowledge that you can always start using again. By the end of the trial, you’ll know whether pot is enhancing your freedom or clipping your wings.
Personally, I opt for freedom at every opportunity.
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