Virtually all stoners have been stereotyped as forgetful and prone to losing things. From lost car keys and cell phones, to forgotten words, there is no doubt those under the influence of marijuana experience immediate short-term memory loss. However, this effect is far less intense than that of alcohol and other drugs. Those getting high on marijuana do not experience blackouts or spells of amnesia. Rather, things simply seem to slow down. While high, stoners often have trouble recalling words and events and may have trouble forming new memories. Many opponents of the legalization of cannabis argue the plant’s effect on memory goes far deeper than just the short-term.
Most research on the long-term effects of marijuana has been largely inconclusive. Most studies suggest frequent marijuana use does negatively affect memory function to some degree. However, more recent studies suggest the benefits may outweigh the negative. Depending on a person’s starting age and frequency of use, different parts the memory are affected to varying degrees. Particular strains can also affect memory in various ways.
Many of the cognitive effects of marijuana are only temporary. When you are high, and for a couple of hours afterward, you may struggle to remember that word on the tip of your tongue. Alternatively, the next day you may find yourself struggling to remember details about the events from the night before. Luckily, most marijuana users return to normal short-term memory function after abstaining from pot. Though you may live up to that forgetful stoner stereotype, you will not black out or enter unconsciousness. Marijuana will not entirely erase memories of events experienced while high.
Working memory is the part of short-term memory needed to help form new memories. Your working memory allows you to integrate new information with existing information. While high on cannabis, a smoker can sometimes struggle to make these connections. When memory function is altered, and new memories are not properly saved. You may have trouble recalling these events later. With continued use, a smoker develops a tolerance to these short-term effects.
Another cognitive function affected by cannabis use is spatial memory. Impaired spatial memory can prevent you from properly processing your surrounding environment. You might fail to notice peculiar details about your surroundings which others recognize immediately. In new surroundings, stoners are sometimes less likely to remember these particular details.
Marijuana use can also make it surprisingly difficult to navigate your immediate surroundings. As a stoner, you have probably lost your keys and then struggled to recall the last place you saw them. Studies about the effects of THC consumption by mice illustrate this spatial distortion. The THC-treated mice face exceptional difficulty in navigating a maze.
There is a lot of conflicting data about the long-term effects of frequent marijuana use. Because pot smokers do not experience unconscious blackouts, there is no risk of cannabis use causing a total wipe out of the memory. Strains with high levels of CBD have an exceptionally low potential for memory loss.
Research suggests excessive pot use can lead to a loss of five or more IQ points over time. This is particularly the case when discussing a still-developing adolescent brain. A long-held stigma assumes frequent marijuana use during adolescence causes irreversible cognitive damage. Studies attempt to link teen pot smoking to higher school dropout rates, lower employment rates, and general discontent. However, there is not a ton of supporting evidence for these claims. Other factors (alcohol, hard drugs, stress, peer pressure) often play a fundamental role in these unfortunate situations.
A study at Lausanne University in Switzerland observed 3,400 people over the course of 25 years. At the conclusion of the study, participants were asked to perform various cognitive tests (memory, speed, and function.) Marijuana users and non-users performed on the same level in all categories but one: verbal memory. When asked to recall a list of 15 words, daily tokers remembered 8.5 out of 15 words. Nonsmokers were marginally superior, remembering 9 out of 15 words.
Considering the fairly small window of risk involved, it is easy for cannabis lovers to justify daily use. While memory function may suffer minimally, processing speed and ability to focus do not. For many, marijuana’s positive qualities far outweigh the risk of dropping a few IQ points.
Both THC and CBD are effective at treating the side effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Former combat vets and victims of sexual assault—among others—can suffer from recurring memories of these experiences. These crippling thoughts can be insufferable, PTSD often must be treated with prescription drugs like Valium and Xanax.
Why take these powerful drugs when a much milder alternative is available? A cannabis high interferes with the brain’s hippo campus. This interference makes it harder to reinforce existing memories. For this reason, marijuana can prove effective in treating PTSD by literally blocking negative memories.
Preventing and Fighting Disease
You might be surprised to learn marijuana use can actually benefit memory function. Recent studies suggest THC is a vital component in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. A study at the University of South Florida used a THC treatment to demonstrate the reversal of amyloid plaque buildup. This plaque buildup on neurons in the brain is a leading cause of the disease.
What exactly does this mean? Past marijuana opponents suggested a correlation between heavy marijuana use and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. This myth has been disproved. Cannabis extracts may have the ability to bring back memory function in Alzheimer’s patients. This is a groundbreaking advancement in the cannabis pharmaceutical market. Cannabis medicine may soon offer a world of relief to some of the worst-suffering Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.
There isn’t a wealth of information available about the definite effects of cannabis on memory function. Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug on the federal level, which limits research. Based on the available data, there is no need to lose sleep over the damage you might be doing to your memory. The conclusion always seems to be moderation. The occasional smoker should not be concerned with the risk of any adverse long-term effects on memory. Though some evidence does suggest daily smokers will suffer some long-term damage, the difference is slight. Daily use must continue for five or more consecutive years before these mild effects occur.