S2E37. This Is Your Brain On Pot

In the interest of full disclosure:

I first tried pot at the end of my freshman year at Brown. The following semester was when I indulged the most. I was not considered a ‘head’ or ‘freak’ by any stretch of the imagination, but I would take a hit when offered and my longish hair and goatee fit the profile of those who merited an offer. 

I was terrified of getting busted, so I never bought any of my own, but always made contributions to the kitty. 

There was no real research about marijuana usage at the beginning of the 70s, just strong opinions based on folklore and urban legend. ‘Reefer Madness’ taught us that pot was a gateway drug to heroin, but whenever someone told me that junkies started with pot, I’d reply that pot users all started with milk. End of conversation!

I smoked enough to have a decent complement of weed stories to tell over the course of the coming decades, but I cut back dramatically during the second half of my sophomore year when I had a close encounter with depression and my therapist advised me to give it up.

I used pot sporadically over the course of my last two years at Brown as I settled on beer as my go-to party drug. In the 50 years since graduating, I think I’ve gotten high maybe 15 times, at most.

Which brings us from the 70s to my 70s where the marijuana world has changed dramatically.

Pennsylvania has legalized cannabis for medical use and so Sally got a prescription to treat her insomnia. For reasons unknown, edibles are not offered in PA, so we drive over to New Jersey where both medicinal and recreational pot is available, including edibles in the form of gummies. Would it surprise you to learn that we picked up some recreational edibles while we were there?

Getting high is different from what it was lo those many years ago. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still fun: music packs a strong emotional wallop, ripples on the surface of the pool are infinitely interesting, and the food is…well…you know!  Nonetheless, it’s different. It’s no longer part of a cultural movement. It doesn’t hold the same promise of self-discovery and revelation.

And some things just plain suck. For example, back in the day, you’d start to tell a story and then forget what you were going to say. That didn’t happen when you weren’t stoned and so it was really funny when it did. Now, though, I can lose my train of thought when I’m stone-cold sober, which is irritating enough, but when it happens while I’m trying to have a good time, it really pisses me off!

There was concern back in the day about possible long-term cognitive effects of regular marijuana use, but the research hadn’t been done yet. Fifty years later, there is still a dearth of information, but a few studies stand out.

Long-term chronic use is associated with reduced prefrontal brain volume. Heavy use has also been found to lower cognitive performance among teenagers several weeks after their last high. However, it appears that the effects of marijuana use among older Americans have been largely ignored. A 2019 review of the literature summarized the thin evidence this way:

“Marijuana (with chemical compounds THC and CBD) causes impairment in short-term memory; increases heart and respiratory rates, elevates blood pressure; and contributes a fourfold increased risk for heart attack after the first hour of smoking marijuana. These effects may be pronounced in older Americans with compromised cognitive or cardiovascular systems.”

These effects, though, are experienced while you are stoned. There is next to nothing to be found about long-term effects on the brain. Interestingly—and counter-intuitively—there was one study I came across suggesting that marijuana use might be helpful in recovering from brain injury, as it appears to have neuro-protective qualities!

Other articles mentioned the problem of driving under the influence because reaction times are impaired which leads to more accidents, as well as the respiratory problems associated with smoking pot which, while not as damaging as cigarette smoke, are still rough on your lungs.

So what’s a Baby Boomer to do? 

First, edibles appear to be easier on your body than smoking weed, but it will take a lot longer to get high, so be careful about dosing. 

Second, don’t drive or operate heavy machinery while stoned! 

(Learn more about these 2 points here: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/12/well/live/driving-while-high-marijuana.html )

Third,  although ‘chronic’ usage (apparently more than 16 times per month) has been shown to be harmful, there are no reported studies about occasional use. That doesn’t mean that it’s not bad for you, it just means that it hasn’t been studied. But if you have to choose between alcohol (which is a known neurotoxin) and marijuana (which isn’t), well, that appears to be a no-brainer. 

Of course, you always have the option of abstaining from mood-altering chemicals altogether, which is probably the safest position you can take when it comes to maintaining brain health.

__________

3 Comments

  1. Jim Kennedy says:

    W: I very much enjoy your notes. I’m 73 and use gummies a couple of times a week. So far no obvious mental effects but it’s only been a few months. I’m not saying do it or not. Individual decision.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for coming along on the journey, Jim! You’re right: it’s not for everyone, but at least now it’s nice to have the option without having to worry about getting busted. 😀

      Like

  2. M.C. McCoy says:

    Right on man!

    Liked by 1 person

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