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Does Marijuana Make You Stupid?

Full disclosure: I smoked marijuana, often on a daily basis, for 26 years, from 1967 to 1993. During the lean years of the mid-1980s, I grew the stuff to supplement my income, and sold a few pounds to the drug dealer who would later help write Proposition 215, the medical marijuana ballot measure that started California on the road to full legalization. And in 1968, my life was upended by an arrest that today might not be a big deal, but at the time had me facing a minimum of 20 years in prison.

Those are some of my credentials, in case you want to dismiss me as a know-nothing puritan ranting from the peanut gallery. And, of course, if you want to accuse me of being ignorant or stupid, bear in mind that it could very possibly be marijuana that made me that way.

I jest, but not completely. Whenever I mention my suspicion that marijuana impairs brain functions, it’s inevitable that someone will respond with “But so-and-so smokes constantly, and s/he is one of the most gifted musicians/artists/scientists/whatever alive.”

It’s hard to dispute that. I’d estimate between a quarter and a third of my considerably brighter than average friends are at least occasional dope smokers, yet some of them still manage to excel in their careers or to produce art and literature superior to anything I have accomplished. On the other hand, if you knocked 10 or 20 points off Albert Einstein’s IQ, he’d still be a really smart guy, even if his Theory of Relativity turned out to be slightly less on-point.

I’ve mused on the effects of marijuana on intelligence ever since, three or four years after I stopped using it, I noticed myself being able to think, speak, and write more articulately than I had during my drug-infused decades. The counterpoint to that, of course, is that when I first tried marijuana, and for a number of years afterward, I was convinced, with an almost-religious zeal, that getting high was the best thing that had ever happened to me, that it had put me in touch with a deeper understanding of the universe and turned me into something of a minor – no, make that major – genius.

Like many wide-eyed young people in the 1960s, I had been drawn in by the promise that marijuana and other psychedelic drugs would produce a profound spiritual experience, perhaps allowing me to see God – if, of course, there was one. Instead, it soon convinced me that, for all intents and purposes, I pretty much was God.

I suspect this is the foundation of marijuana’s appeal: it encourages people to believe they know far more than they do. Since the getting of all knowledge relies on the opposite realization (“All I know is that I don’t know nothing”), you can see where that might be a problem.

My latest musings on the subject have been prompted by spending a lot of time in Asian countries where the 1950s attitude toward marijuana is still in full effect. There are some, including my present location of Singapore, where possessing or selling large quantities of cannabis can net you the death penalty.

While I try to refrain from telling other countries how to run their judicial systems, I obviously don’t advocate treating marijuana users in this way, and not merely because if I had tried my 1960s stunt in Singapore, I probably wouldn’t be here to talk about it. But at the same time, observing countries where strict laws have kept marijuana usage to a minimum has enabled me to draw a sharp contrast with my own, where the growing acceptance and approval of marijuana has rather neatly coincided with America’s descent into idiocracy.

Correlation is not causation, of course, and some marijuana advocates will no doubt protest that liberalized attitudes toward the drug have in fact lessened the damage caused by our deteriorating political and social systems. This would be premised on the long-held and too-seldom-challenged belief that marijuana, unlike alcohol, causes its users to be less violent and aggressive, more inclined toward tolerance and social justice.

I’m not sure about that. Or, to put it more succinctly, I think that it’s a load of old bollocks. It’s true that most people I know don’t get in brawls or even loud arguments when they get high, but most people I know wouldn’t do that regardless of what substance they were or weren’t consuming.

But my experiences of living and traveling in areas populated by a different demographic than I usually hang out with lead me to think marijuana is hardly the “love” or “peace” drug it’s often touted as being, but instead magnifies and reduces the inhibitions on a person’s usual character traits.

In other words, if you’re given to quiet philosophizing or strumming heartfelt folk songs on your guitar, you’ll do more of that when you get high. If, on the other hand, your idea of a life well lived involves stabbing, shooting, raping, or killing, marijuana can just as easily enhance that experience.

My years in the Emerald Triangle, ground zero for America’s marijuana industry, certainly caused me to question some of my previous assumptions. I highly recommend the documentary Murder Mountain, currently showing on Netflix and set not far from my old home, if you still think marijuana is the sole province of thoughtful, sensitive hippies.

But what to do? Obviously, we as a society are not be going back to the prohibition era, nor do I think we should. I do believe we’re presently being given the opportunity to observe a massive chemistry experiment, where one part of the world – the Americas and Western Europe in particular – increasingly views reality through marijuana-beclouded eyes, while another – mainly East Asia – remains relatively pot-free.

Again, correlation is not causation, but given the way that Asia – and China in particular – is rapidly overtaking the West, one has to wonder. Yes, there’s much to criticize about Asian systems as well, but they seem to possess a sense of purpose and discipline that has largely deserted Donald Trump’s America. I see far less of the cynicism and disillusionment that has prompted so many bright Americans to disengage from civic participation – and to a considerable and frightening extent – from a belief in society itself.

All this could be half-assed speculation on my part, perhaps the residual effect of too much marijuana consumption in my own youth. It’s also possible that the Asian countries will eventually follow the Western path toward liberalization and everyone will get stoned together, for good or ill.

But for now I’m more convinced than ever that the effects of marijuana on the brain and consciousness are more deleterious than helpful. Will marijuana invariably ruin your life or render you useless? Of course not. Will it decrease the odds of your reaching your full potential, of living a meaningful and happy life? I’m inclined to say yes.

But if we’re not going to reinstate the punitive marijuana laws of yesteryear – and we’d be insane to try – what can we do? If it were up to me, I’d treat marijuana like any other drug: as a medical issue. I think it’s been amply demonstrated that it’s ineffective and cruel to throw someone in prison for using or abusing a substance, yet if it becomes clear that the substance is harming them and/or society, can we afford to simply ignore it?

What I don’t think we should do is treat pot with a nod-and-a-wink approval that presupposes its being legal means it must be good for you. Adults may enjoy a joint at a party or after work just as they would a cocktail, and with no more harm done. But increasing numbers of adults are chain-smoking or consuming extracts containing nuclear-bomb levels of THC, in some cases turning them into little more than babbling zombies.

And when kids or teenagers, whose brains are not fully formed or developed, follow a similar course, their futures in all too many cases go straight out the window. “It’s heartbreaking,” I was once told by a London schoolteacher whose students were mostly minorities from an economically depressed area. “Up to when they’re 13 or 14, these kids are so full of energy and enthusiasm, just really eager to learn. Then they start showing up reeking of cannabis and it’s like their brains have gone walkabout. I might as well be lecturing to a brick wall. They don’t remember anything I’ve told them from one day to the next.”

The horse may have long since bolted through a wide-open door, but there are a couple things I would recommend that might mitigate the harm. The first would be to stop glamorizing or trivializing the effects of marijuana. Treat it the way we do cigarettes: make those who are hooked on it objects of derision and pity. When I was growing up, taking up smoking was a rite of passage pursued by the majority of teenagers; now most kids consider it kind of dumb. Similarly, make resources readily available for those who want to quit.

Second, although I think marijuana has to remain legal, it needs to be far more strictly controlled. Alcohol and cigarettes are also legal, but there are numerous restrictions on how they can be produced and sold and where and by whom they can be consumed. A big part of the rationale behind legalizing marijuana was to do away with the damage caused by the black market, yet the black market continues to flourish, in some cases – as depicted in Murder Mountain – doing more damage than ever.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe a stoned America is actually getting smarter than ever, and I’m the dumb one. But the harrowing, ongoing collapse of our political, social, and physical infrastructure would seem to indicate otherwise. Whether you’re pro- or anti-marijuana, whether you’re a confirmed user or a devout abstainer, I beg you to at least think about it. Science may overcome this difficulty in the future, but at present I think it’s safe to say that our supply of brain cells is not limitless.


  1. Michael Koepf January 11, 2019

    Well said.

  2. Iggy Ignoffo January 13, 2019

    Reefer is most definitely not a magic elixir, but you must have known a better class of drunkards than I have. I’ll take stoners any day ( assuming they are not also drunkards). FYI I am not above having a toke or a brew to pass the time. Self medication is nothing to be proud of, but it is a very small part of our species’ existential dilemma!

  3. Eleanor Cooney January 15, 2019

    Problem is, pot can be intensely fun. The notion of treating pot smokers the way we do cigarette smokers–making them “objects of pity and derision”–ain’t gonna fly (not to mention just being wrong-headed), for that very reason. Cigarette smoking, once you’re deeply hooked, has just about zero redeeming value, and is a genuinely useless, stupid addiction (and I speak as an ex-smoker) that gives you nothing but yellow teeth, a hacking, phlegmy cough, bad breath, Georgia O’Keefe skin, and if you really hit the jackpot, emphysema and/or lung cancer/heart disease.

    Sure, pot has a downside, but its upside is undeniable. Artists and musicians know this. Would we, for instance, have jazz if not for reefer? The mere fact that Jack Webb railed against pot over and over in “Dragnet” tells us all we need to know about how “the man” views pot as a path to “sedition.” Harry Anslinger himself put it succinctly: “Marijuana,” said Anslinger, “leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing.”

    If we’re gonna tolerate alcohol (and I think we should), with its massive record of death and destruction, we can certainly tolerate pot. I detect a leftover whiff of “Reefer Madness” hypocrisy. Do we ask if we should treat chronic drunks as “objects of pity and derision” as a way to deter them from drinking? We don’t. First, because we know it won’t work, and second, because alcohol is very much the official sacramental fluid of the “establishment,” whereas pot is the wild, witchy Dionysian element that threatens that order and hierarchy.

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