For decades, small studies here and there have demonstrated the negative impact that marijuana use has on some people.
With increased access to legal marijuana, it has become easier for scientists to research the effects of the drug at different doses, among varying populations, and in combination with other substances. To formally document the how and why of marijuana addiction development, federal agencies have also been investigating the drug, and the research is mounting.
Not only is marijuana much more addictive than formerly thought, but it can also significantly harm cognitive function, including causing memory impairment.
The short answer is yes. In a study of almost 4,000 young adults tracked over 25 years until mid-adulthood, lower scores on verbal memory testing were associated with cumulative lifetime exposure to marijuana. This impact was sizeable and remained a statistically significant problem even when the study adjusted for other factors, such as co-occurring disorders, addiction, and demographics.
Another study showed that nonverbal memory testing ability fell among participants due to marijuana use.
Yet another large study in New Zealand found that frequent marijuana use that started during adolescence was correlated with an average loss of between 6 and 8 IQ points by mid-adulthood. The ability to access and utilize memory is one of the factors tested by the IQ test.
Factors that contribute to the development of memory loss include:
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Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the active ingredient in marijuana, and the chemical structure of THC is very similar to the structure of anandamide, a chemical in the brain.
Anandamide is an endogenous cannabinoid, a neurotransmitter that triggers the release of neurons that help the brain communicate with the body. When THC is processed in its place, there is a significant impact on the user’s experience of pain and pleasure as well as their ability to think, concentrate, and remember.
When THC attaches to the cannabinoid receptors, it interferes with the function of the hippocampus and orbitofrontal cortex, the parts of the brain that impact the ability to shift attention, focus, and remember.
Memory loss related to marijuana use indicates a problem with marijuana. Any use of any substance that decreases the ability of the person to function properly requires immediate attention, especially when it negatively impacts relationships, finances, and the ability to take care of oneself proactively.
When a person realizes they are experiencing negative side effects of marijuana use, such as memory loss, and still can’t control their use of the drug — either limiting use or stopping all use of the substance — then it is an indication of a marijuana use disorder and the need for treatment.
It is also true, however, that memory loss may not necessarily be caused by marijuana use if there are other underlying or co-occurring disorders at play. For example, living with depression, certain behavioral disorders, and/or trauma may contribute or cause memory loss, which is worsened by marijuana use.
Very often, marijuana is used as a coping mechanism to manage other disorders. Rather than easing the problem, the side effects of use only exacerbate symptoms or cause new problems of their own.
For those who are living with a marijuana addiction, the risk of memory damage grows the longer addiction continues, and the higher tolerance grows.
According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Psychiatry, about three of every 10 users of marijuana develop a marijuana use disorder with regular use of the drug. The rate of developing marijuana addiction increases with earlier age of first use and with more frequent use of the drug.
For many, memory damage is one of the many side effects they will have to combat during active use and well into recovery. It’s no small problem.
According to the World Health Organization, marijuana is the No. 1 drug of abuse around the globe.
The potency of marijuana sold on the street and in dispensaries is increasing every year, making it much more difficult to use the drug recreationally without developing an addiction.
Regular use of marijuana has been associated with adverse side effects. Some are listed below:
Cessation of marijuana use can help many people to begin the process of reversing memory loss. For some users, especially those who used the drug in low doses or for a short period, the reversal process may be easier, quicker, and more complete. That is, they may be able to completely reverse the impact on their memory.
Those who used marijuana for a long time and/or in high doses may have a more difficult time regaining what they lost in terms of memory function and accessibility. They may never completely regain the abilities they had before starting marijuana use.
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(2016) The health and social effects of nonmedical Cannabis use. World Health Organization, Geneva. from https://www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/msb_cannabis_report.pdf
(Feb 2016) Association between lifetime marijuana use and cognitive function in middle age: the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) Study. JAMA Internal Medicine. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26831916
(Jul 2018) Relationship between fMRI response during a nonverbal memory task and marijuana use in college students. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0376871618302254
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(2014) Is Marijuana an Effective Coping Strategy for Depression or Anxiety? Wentworth Institute of Technology. from https://wit.edu/student-life/student-services/center-wellness-disability-services/office-wellness-education/drugs/marijuana/marijuana-effective-coping-strategy-depression-or-anxiety
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(Nov 2015). Cannabis exposure and risk of testicular cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Cancer. from https://bmccancer.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12885-015-1905-6
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