Out of the Basement: Smarty Pants

Image: NASA

Image: NASA


I was at a party recently, chatting with a small group of people I didn’t know about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos show. “I’ve always wondered if he gets high,” I ventured – sure that I was taking a chance – and was met with the silence I’d anticipated. So I just went for it: “Because Carl Sagan, you know, was a huge proponent of cannabis.” Though none of us were old enough to remember the original TV series, I’d bet most of our parents had the book on their shelf while we were growing up. Still, the stares I received were slightly aghast. “He talked extensively about how he used marijuana to heighten sensory experiences, to develop an appreciation of art, and even to generate intense periods of productivity. I just wonder if Neil does too.” A few folks laughed, some looked perplexed, and one blurted out: “Well, I guess some people are just so smart that it doesn’t matter. But really, I’m not sure why he’d admit that.”


I’m not sure why he wouldn’t, just as I’m not sure why it’s so incongruous to some people that you can enjoy marijuana and still be really smart.


I’m not being elitist or exclusive: I believe in Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which drastically expanded our conception of what it means to be smart, and I also believe in brain science, which shows that our mindset greatly contributes to our ability to learn and that the brain is not a fixed entity in any individual. (And, to be clear, I have nothing against dumb people or people of moderate intelligence. In fact, some of my best friends are idiots.) I don’t believe intelligence is accurately assessed by IQ, or by how much education one has. But many people do, and these two measures are still seen in our society as fairly objective indicators of intelligence. And, despite both anecdotal and quantitative evidence to the contrary, many people still think you can’t have a high IQ or attain an exemplary level of education or success in your chosen field if you consume cannabis regularly.


Certainly, the mainstream media played a role in solidifying the identification of cannabis with lowered intelligence and achievement; we all remember what our brain looked like on drugs and the years it took us to be able to eat eggs without feeling like a cannibal. All those scientific studies that claimed to prove that marijuana kills brain cells, lowers IQ, and robs users of their motivation were so convincing. The Reagan years put the fear of god into us children of the 80’s; who wanted to take the treacherous toke that would send them down the path to inevitable failure in all aspects of their life? Not to mention that the cannabis community has itself both reveled in and contributed to these perceptions to a great enough extent that it’s at least fair to ask: what came first, the stoner or the stereotype?


There is a growing body of evidence that suggests many of our fears about cannabis are inaccurate and irrational. Which would mean many of our ideas about cannabis users are unfounded and even more off base.


In two separate studies, both published within the last month, the world saw proof that cannabis consumption does not lower IQ and that marijuana reform in California has not had adverse effects on the health and welfare of children and teens in that state.


At the end of September the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice released a report that found the dangers of marijuana use are largely a result of its illegality, stating: “getting arrested for marijuana use may be more harmful than the drug itself — at any age.” The study looked at the effects of decriminalizing marijuana for all ages in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and California, compared with legalizing cannabis for adults 21 and older in Washington and Colorado. With the glaring exception of racial disparities (which continued at similar or increased rates with marijuana law reform), most health and safety outcomes were positive. In fact, the report contends: “Marijuana decriminalization in California has not resulted in harmful consequences for teenagers, such as increased crime, drug overdose, driving under the influence, or school dropout. In fact, California teenagers showed improvements in all risk areas after reform.”


And now a large-scale study out of University College London refutes many earlier findings, including those from a 2012 Duke University study, that cannabis use lowers IQ. The scientific investigation followed 2,612 children, a much larger sample population than in the Duke study, from the Bristol area from age eight through adolescence, testing for IQ again at 15. When they adjusted for other relevant factors, researchers found “no relationship between cannabis use and lower IQ at age 15,” not even among heavy users. They did, however, find a correlation between alcohol use and declining IQ.


How much more evidence do we need that it’s the war on cannabis that causes harm, not the substance itself? Perhaps the prohibitionists are the ones whose intellect we should be questioning.


That’s why I’m dedicating this Out of the Basement to you, smart people. It’s time to come clean that you’re intelligent and you use cannabis, that the two are not mutually exclusive, that they are, indeed, a wonderful and complementary combination. Your enjoyment of marijuana does not mean you’re missing some important part of your brain responsible for evaluating information and exercising good judgment, and it absolutely does not make you stupid. You know this because you’re smart.


The cause needs smart people (and not just to make more cool shows about space, though we would not mind more cool shows about space); it needs our voices, our votes, and our vision. Smart people speak out against unjust laws and we demonstrate that we want change; it will, no doubt, be smart people who ensure cannabis legalization becomes a reality.



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