It isn’t often that science and pop culture overlap, but the two fields are in agreement when it comes to the familiar trope of the forgetful stoner.
A recent study published in Schizophrenia Bulletin is the latest to reveal the detrimental effects that cannabis can have on memory. The authors report that people dependent on the drug – both healthy individuals and patients with schizophrenia – show impairments in memory compared with healthy volunteers and non-smoking schizophrenia patients.
Even more striking, the cannabis-using groups had significant decreases in the volume of two brain areas that are important for processing rewards, learning and working memory – the thalamus and striatum – and these changes were linked to their memory problems. There was no evidence to connect cannabis use and schizophrenia – the authors simply compare the two groups. However, previous studies have found a higher prevalence of psychosis among regular cannabis smokers.
Reports of memory loss with long-term cannabis use are nothing new, and an influential paper published last year provided evidence that smoking marijuana has a deleterious effect on intelligence. In the investigation, the cognitive abilities of participants were tested several times over the course of 25 years. The researchers found that heavy cannabis users had significant decreases in intelligence and memory ability as they aged, not only compared with non-smokers, but also compared with their younger selves. Additionally, the earlier they started smoking pot, the bigger the cognitive decline.
Obviously these findings are worrying, especially given the recent spate of cannabis legalisations in states across the US and in countries such as Uruguay. However, before we all start worrying about the good people of Colorado and Washington, it might be helpful to look closer at what’s actually in the cannabis we’re smoking nowadays, and what ingredients are contributing to these cognitive deficits.
THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis and is what causes the subjective “high”. This includes changes in perceptual sensations, a feeling of contentedness and increased appetite. However, THC is also linked to many of the potential negative consequences of cannabis use, such as dependence, psychotic symptoms, and impaired memory and cognition.
Another important component, CBD (cannabidiol, which works by increasing natural cannabinoid levels in the brain) is associated with the calming, anti-anxiety effects of the drug. In addition, CBD is thought to protect against many of the potential negative effects of marijuana, including dependence, psychotic symptoms and cognitive impairments.
The THC concentration in cannabis has increased by as much as 12% over the past 30 years, making the drug much stronger than it used to be. At the same time, there has been a significant depletion of CBD, sometimes to levels as low as 0.1%. “Skunk”, as this new strain of high-THC/low-CBD marijuana is called, is flooding the illegal marijuana market, and it is this variety that is thought to be behind the rise in cannabis dependence diagnoses, links to schizophrenia, and cognitive deficits seen over the past decade.
The changing chemical make-up of cannabis appears to be partly accidental and partly deliberate. New strains are often bred to have higher levels of THC in them, increasing the drug’s potency. However, modern growing techniques have also affected these chemical levels. For example, illegal growers have turned to indoor marijuana farms to avoid detection. Growing cannabis locally in such farms also circumvents the need to import the drug, and guarantees a more reliable harvest. However, the 24-hour lighting used in these farms inadvertently reduces CBD levels in the plant. Thus, these new strains are not only bred for higher potency, with elevated THC content, they are also lacking the protection provided by CBD against the drug’s negative effects.
It should be noted that the majority of research into cognitive deficits and cannabis use has focused on heavy or dependent users, and there’s little evidence that occasional smokers show any of the problems mentioned above. But with the recent changes in drug policy, the chances are that more people will be smoking cannabis than ever before, and the more potent and more popular high-THC/low-CBD marijuana that is available today will increase their risk of dependence.
The recent legalisation of recreational and medicinal marijuana in parts of the US has the potential to reduce significantly the harms caused through incarceration or criminal records for minor drug-related offences. However, it also provides an opportunity to reduce the cognitive and psychiatric harms linked to cannabis use. With this shift in drug policy, it is now possible for states to monitor the commercial production of cannabis, regulating the levels of THC and CBD present in the drug. To facilitate this, they could force growers to use strains with higher levels of CBD, and revert to more old-fashioned farming methods that don’t use round-the-clock lighting.
These changes could help protect individuals from the damaging effects of the drug, prevent the development of dependence in new users, and maybe even help our favorite Hollywood stoners remember where they left their car.