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?
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?