This is Your Brain on Cannabis

October 22, 2018

Confession: I recently tried cannabis for the very first time. My back had been in spasm for five days – five days in which I’d levelled up from hot baths and ibuprofen to prescription anti-inflammatories to prescription narcotics, without even the slightest improvement. I had three days more days to go before I could get in to see a therapist, so in desperation, I tried the pot.

Why had I waited until I was 40 to do a thing a lot of people experience as teenagers? First of all, until last Wednesday (October 17, 2018), cannabis was illegal in Canada. Second of all, I am “the smart girl” and have been my entire life. Being “the smart girl” – and a writer – requires a functioning brain, and the idea of deliberately ingesting things that could mess with my brain made me deeply uncomfortable.

So what does science tell us about the impact of cannabis on the brain?

Teens who use pot have to engage more brain resources to complete complex tasks.

There aren’t a lot of conclusive studies, in part because it’s hard to do controlled research on illegal substances. Our knowledge will probably improve over the next few years. That said, the data we do have on impacts of young brains is troubling, to say the least.

Studies suggest that smoking pot during pregnancy can influence the baby’s brain development. Possible effects include poor impulse control and difficulty evaluating possible consequences of different decisions. Brain scans show that kids whose mothers smoked use their brains differently than kids whose mothers didn’t. The implications of this aren’t entirely clear, but we do know that THC and other cannabis compounds can pass through a mother’s breast milk to her child, which could compound the problem.

Our brains continue developing until we’re about 25 years old, which means cannabis use in young people could also have long-term consequences. Research on teens who use pot suggests similar impairments to “executive function” – decision making, goal setting, impulse control – as in babies exposed in the womb. But there are also troubling links to altered brain anatomy, permanent reductions in IQ, and an increased risk of developing schizophrenia. In fact, some studies suggest that teens who smoke pot are six times more likely to develop the mental illness. This link might be due to genetic mutations that are risk factors for both drug-use and schizophrenia – more research is needed.

Conclusive data or not, lighting a joint seems a whole lot like playing with fire.

As for my first experience? My back spasm improved… for all of 15 minutes. Then the pain rushed back in. Making matters more irritating, I didn’t feel the slightest buzz. In other words, not even remotely worth it. Your mileage may vary.

How do you feel about the legalization of marijuana?


6 Comments on ‘This is Your Brain on Cannabis’

  1. I enjoyed hearing about the poll in Canada that said 80% of Canadians couldn’t care less about smoking pot. Anyway, from your non pot smoking neighbor to the south (Vermont! Yay us) I can speak to why I am very glad we’ve also legalized it. Money. Tax coffers will gain. And (theoretically) expenses of chasing after pot smokers will decline. The brain studies are troubling, but no more do than the impact of alcohol. That pot and alcohol have been treated so differently over the years is boggling. Regulate it all. And tax it all. Then maybe we can beef up our teachers salaries.

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    1. Yeah, I certainly don’t feel the need to repeat the experience! But if Prohibition taught us anything, is that people are going to do a thing, and if they are going to do a thing, we might as well tax a thing – and pay for teachers and health care.

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  2. It sounds like you didn’t really try hard to challenge your assumptions. Most of this post isn’t even about you, it’s about kids shouldn’t do drugs. I’m pretty sure we all agree on that. Literally not the point of the post. But moving into the actual subject…

    I won’t try to persuade you of anything. Just question your efforts here.

    You say you didn’t feel relief for long. Ok – how much did you try? If it was a small dose, maybe that’s why it didn’t last. No medication lasts all that long anyhow. Tylenol helps me for like 2 hours, then passes. You felt no buzz? That suggests you used too little. You won’t get much relief from 1/4 of a tylenol either, or a shot of beer… but also, if you mean a physical sensation that people sometimes say is like a ‘body buzz’, not all weed has that affect. That would be a strong sativa with high THC.

    Given how long it has been legal (a couple days), I wonder if you acquired it from a legal source? I don’t care, but knowing what you smoked when judging its affects is critical. One of the key advantages of legal weed is knowing what you’re using. For example, how potent was it? Was it sativa or indica? What was the ratio with CBD – very important factor because it has been shown to have many useful medicinal properties, and is sometimes taken medicinally on its own and itself causes no intoxication. Notably, most illicitly grown weed (also plenty of legal weed) has little or no CBD because it is grown to maximize THC.

    I think you know this because you say “lighting a joint seems a whole lot like playing with fire” – way overdramatic, given there is hundreds of years of history and millions of people using the substance. We do know quite a lot. But if you don’t know what you used, it’s much harder to know whether marijuana really isn’t going to help you, or whether you didn’t try the right strain or the right dose.

    All I’m saying is that you may not have given this an earnest effort. I’m not saying ‘try again’, but I am saying it seems you’ve drawn far too many conclusions from far too little information. If you try again, I’d suggest at least a strain that is a roughly 1:1 THC:CBD from a legitimate source, and take enough of a dose that you feel something.

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    1. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your knowledge, Stella. I definitely agree with you that everyone’s body is different, so what works for some won’t work for others. A lot of people have great results with prescription medications, and those don’t work for me, either. I think I will be sticking with manual therapies, as I get the best results from those.

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  3. I stumbled on this post while working on your upcoming website renovation. I wanted to say a few things regarding your remarks here, as someone who tried cannabis for the first time in high school and has been a regular user for pretty much the last two decades.

    I was “the smart girl” too. Not as “smart” as you in school, but pretty damn smart. Also a writer. My cannabis use has never interfered with anything I’ve wanted to do that requires a “functioning brain.” It didn’t stop me from getting an English degree or teaching myself how to code and do graphic design or building a career on those skills without any formal training in the field. It hasn’t stopped me from continuing to learn new techniques or gain knowledge with every project I tackle in my work, or from writing hundreds of poems. I understand the point you are trying to make, and I’m not attempting to impart a malicious intent onto what you said where there probably isn’t one, but I have to tell you that shorthand generalizations like this irk me. Most cannabis users do not fit the “reefer madness” stereotype of the burnout loser who can’t think or string a sentence together. I’m betting you know more people who use it than you think, most of whom are likely highly functional, intelligent, productive people with a multitude of talents and abilities, as well as a range of mental health concerns that have their roots in a whole host of complex sources.

    The studies you note regarding the effects of cannabis on fetal development and on a developing brain do indeed give pause. I did not use during pregnancy/breastfeeding, just as I abstained from alcohol. I would not encourage or permit my child to use cannabis before he is an adult capable of evaluating the risks and making an informed decision about his own body, however I do think honest education based on sound and proven science is called for, rather than the campaign of fear the “War on Drugs” has been pushing for the last century.

    While your words “lighting a joint seems a whole lot like playing with fire” are pithy as hell, they are also melodramatic beyond measure. As far as legalization is concerned, I for one am thrilled that as a functional and productive cannabis-using member of society, I no longer have to skulk around like a criminal and degenerate. I would also add that a very close friend of mine was recently diagnosed with MS, and cannabis has improved her quality of life immeasurably. While your one single experience did not indicate that it would help you with your back pain, this substance helps people with chronic and debilitating health conditions every day. I respect your decision to abstain from using cannabis, but I would also ask you to challenge your own bias here a little bit more.

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge and experiences. You’re absolutely right, I know a lot of brilliant, high-functioning people that use cannabis, and I’m 100% in favour of people with chronic pain or illnesses, of any type, having safe access to effective treatments.

      You noted education based on sound and proven science in your comment, and really, that’s the heart of my concern. We have a lot of evidence that developing brains are affected by the substances they’re exposed to (or in the case of malnutrition, not exposed to), but to my knowledge (which may very well be incomplete), we don’t yet have a lot of scientific evidence on the effects of this particular substance on young brains. A lot of anecdotal evidence, definitely, but not a lot of controlled studies.

      So I’m totally with you – adults who are capable of making informed decisions should have the right to do so. And I hope that legalization will lead to better information on which to base those decisions, particularly as it relates to young users.

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