Editor’s note: The names of some interview subjects have been changed for their comfort and protection.
This is a Blast Magazine Enterprise piece.
Sitting up against a mound of pillows legs stretched over a deep blue comforter Mike and his girlfriend are like any other couple studying on a Sunday afternoon. She is frustrated that she hasn’t mastered her Italian flash cards and keeps repeating verb conjugations. Their feet are flirtatiously entangled while Mike stares intently into a large history notebook.
With a slam of a flash card she gives Mike a frustrated look and he intuitively reaches for a blue box that’s sitting on the nightstand. He pulls out a blue and green swirled pipe followed by a bag of marijuana. A smile crosses Mike’s face as he fills the pipe and passes it to his girlfriend. She lights it, breaths in deeply and the room fills with a thin fog of smoke.
Mike then lights the pipe, breaths in, chuckles and said, "I smoke every day and I make dean’s list. Smoking quiets everything in my mind so I can concentrate."
The days of the “stoners” lying on the grass in hippie attire, munching on snacks and going nowhere with their lives has disappeared. The typical “stoner” has been replaced with a well-dressed, put-together college student who does well in school and blends in seamlessly with the rest of the student body. The magical marijuana that allowed the cast of the movie “How High” to ace their Harvard entrance exam may be closer to the reality then once believed. Students are smoking cannabis while studying, writing papers and taking tests and doing extremely well while they’re at school.
Scientist and doctors have been searching for data to back up this phenomenon, but have only come to a few contradicting theories. There is evidence to back up the hypothesis that marijuana has no negative long-term memory effects on a smoker, even a long-term user. Yet, there is little tangible evidence to the short-term effects of cannabis smoking.
"I have seen this claim made," said Dr. Lester Grinspoon author of several books on the subject including Marihuana Reconsidered and retired faculty member at Harvard Medical School. "I have come across it in anecdotal literature but there is little hard science."
The stereotype that intellectual cannabis smokers are diverging from can be seen in Kevin Smith’s infamous stoner characters Jay and Silent Bob, who hang out in front of a convenient store all day only moving to smoke a joint around back.
The "stoner" label can also be seen in the movie "Dazed and Confused" as the main character decides to throw away his chances with the football team, joint in hand.
"I think there is a stereotype that people who smoke pot are stoners, and I don’t consider myself a stoner," said Mike. "With the whole stoner connotation comes the idea that you are not able to do well in school when you’re high and I do very well in school."
Acclaimed as a gateway drug marijuana is the most common used illegal drug in the United States according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Marijuana, which attracted 2.6 million new users in 2002 alone, has no long-term effects or addiction.
"There is no physical dependency so you can stop smoking whenever," said James Scorzelli a psychology professor at Northeastern University who specializes in drug addiction.
Marijuana is an unusual drug because there is no withdrawal associated with quitting smoking marijuana. It also is an abnormal drug because there are no long-term effects other than the respiratory ramifications that go along with smoking anything.
"Marijuana does not have any permanent toxicity to the brain. It returns to the same as someone’s who does not smoke," said Harrison Pope, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, who has studied the residual effects, the effects of marijuana after you stop smoking, at McLean Hospital.
The general effects of marijuana can be harmful, but not everyone experiences the same negative or positive effects when smoking. Of course, some people may just want to quit, and despite it not being an officially declared addictive substance, have a hard time doing so. This may be due to genetically inherited addictive personality traits, or other factors. Such people can seek help at major name rehab centers, like Narconon, or smaller, more private detox centers.
"In terms of the effects of marijuana there is an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, loss of precision skills, short term memory loss, paranoia, relaxation, calmness, a heightening of emotion," said Scorzelli. "If your happy then you become more happy if you are stressed then you become more stressed. Other effects are sleepiness, poor coordination, and increase in apatite."
There is no explanation for the increased concentration some associate with smoking marijuana.
Scientist have come across little consistency in their findings because the drug effects people in different ways. Some believe that marijuana works like Ritalin or Adderall and allows students who have attention deficit disorder to clear their minds and concentrate on their work. Others connect the ability to study while under the influence and then recall the information during an exam to a psychological learning theory called state dependent learning.
"State dependent learning is that if a person studies under a condition and takes a test some suggest that they would be able to remember that information while in that state," said Dr. Ethan Russo founder of Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics.
State dependent learning is a psychological theory that can be applied to studying information in any state whether under a chemical influence such as marijuana or an emotional state for example depression. The theory also states that if you learn information while under the influence of a drug then you might not be able to recall it again until you are under the influence again.
Some believe that this theory can be incorporated with the Q theory, another psychology term, in order to explain the effects of marijuana on learning.
"States of drug intake can be Q’s and the Q’s guide certain behavior," said James Stellar, dean of Northeastern University’s college of arts and sciences and psychology professor.
"If you do a certain drug with someone you begin to associate the drug with the person. Almost to the level that if person X always gives you a drug when you smell their cologne you can revert to the behavior of the drug.”
Therefore it can be inferred that the state of mind you achieve through smoking along with the smell and feelings that relate to the experience could work as a Q to remembering the information studied.
"For some people it is useful, for example a student who has hyperactive ADD syndrome," said Grinspoon. "I have several patients who suffer from the syndrome who have trouble organizing their thoughts."
Dr. Grinspoon has worked with many patients who suffer from this syndrome. The problem that people who have ADD face while studying is the inability to concentrate or focus on the task at hand.
"There is one case with a student who used marijuana and then was willing to not use marijuana for a few weeks. It is true, we took it away and it did impact his success in a negative way."
The science behind the intellectually beneficial effects of smoking marijuana may remain a mystery simply because the areas of the brain it is associated with, one being the endocrine system are newly discovered and are not fully understood.
"There are lots of very bright people who use marijuana and they have the impression this is useful to them," said Grinspoon."I find it difficult to say yah or nay on the whole, it can be less than useful for many youthâ€¦ there is certainly not a dispute that some people have used it in a constructive way with their school work."
The main evidence behind the idea that students are able to study, take tests and write papers high on marijuana is based in the anecdotal testimony given by people who regularly follow this practice.
"When I was in college I started interning at high times, I went to classes high and took a lot of tests high and I did very well," said Bobby Black writer for High Times, a magazine based on marijuana culture. "One class I took was logic, mathematical and philosophical, and the teacher loved my input."
Black contributes some of his success in the class, scoring A’s on both his midterm and final, with the increase in concentration and efficiency he gained when smoking marijuana.
"Being high can help you even more because when your brain gets an idea, on an idea, it really runs with it, it can help you focus like you forget about everything else," said Black. He also point out that this practice does not work for everyone, "If your not used to smoking all the time then you can’t function, but if you do it everyday its your regular phase, it’s like a switch."
While some students study, take tests and write papers purposely under the influence of marijuana others have experienced the intellectual effects purely because of circumstance.
"It’s not something that I do on purpose. I know it helps some people focus, for me it’s I have to study and I am high," said Sarah, a junior political science major.
Sarah is an example of someone who is able to learn and recall information while under the influence of marijuana. This ability can be accredited to the state dependent learning theory. Smoking is not an essential factor in her studying, which can be the case for someone who suffers from ADD who uses marijuana to clear the head.
"Sometime I can relate to the material more, sometimes I have been procrastinating for a while and I just happen to be high. It’s sort of something I can do, not something I have to do to concentrate," said Sarah. "It is easier for me to write papers, the thoughts flow better."
Sean, a sophomore political science major, who does not directly attribute his academic success to smoking marijuana, has seen a decline in his grades since he was forced to quit for his co-op’s drug test.
"Its been six weeks since I quite smoking and my grades are lower, I don’t know if it is because I quit or my classes just got harder," said Sean. "My personal opinion is that it has no bearing on how well you do or how well you study. I don’t think it has an effect, negative or positive."
Though there is some ambiguity on their reliance of smoking marijuana while doing school work, all agree that smoking does help them clear their minds, focus on their work, and organize their thoughts.
"Don’t let anyone tell you that people who smoke all the time aren’t logical," said Black. "I work high all the time and I get everything done."
The legalization of marijuana is a debate across the country, drawing opinions from regular smokers, government officials, medical experts and the general public. Many organizations have formed for the sole purpose of legalizing marijuana.
"We support the decriminalization of marijuana for consenting adults," said Jessica Goshor, director or member service for The National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws called NORML. "We participate in lobbying on a state national and local level."
The future of marijuana, the people who use it and the ability to obtain it is unknown. Some people believe that the legalization of marijuana is imminent based on the lack of dependency and its popularity. Others believe the day when you can buy a joint at the corner store will never come.
"I think that it has the potential to help a lot of people," said Megan, a junior criminal justice major. "I also understand that there are a lot of other drugs that have been proved to be the same if not less harmful as marijuana that are still illegal. Like some of the studies that proved ecstasy is harmful have been disproved, so if you legalize marijuana you would have to legalize that too."
The decriminalization of marijuana means that first-time offenders found with a small amount of marijuana intended for personal use will not receive fines, prison time or a record. In Massachusetts where possession of marijuana is considered a misdemeanor the same offender can receive six months in jail and a fine of $500.
"12 states in the U.S. including states as close as Maine have already decriminalized 1 ounce or less of marijuana," said Bill Downing Director of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition Inc. "They comprise almost half of the population of America, so half of the people in the US live in states that have decriminalized marijuana."
Downing explains that many first- time offenders in Massachusetts do not receive the maximum punishment. "Most people’s cases have been continued without finding for a period of time, usually 6 months, then it is usually dropped and the person will only have to pay court fees which is from $60- $100."
Where a person lives can determine the charges they will be faced with. Those in who live in a city are at a greater risk because of the close proximity to schools, elderly housing and public housing. This puts students in an urban school setting, like Northeastern at a greater risk for being charged with the crime of possession with intent to distribute.
"I think legalizing it is a good idea for a number of reasons," said Sarah. "It could be better regulated and taxed, so it could benefit the government; in some ways it’s like alcohol, lifting the prohibition helped. I think it will never happen because of the federal government and the Christian Evangelists who are running the show."
The new college "stoner" that has broken the mold could soon be able to smoke legally. The potential national legalization of marijuana may not be imminent, but there are many states that are working toward or have successfully decriminalized possession of marijuana.
"I think that it adds to my quality of life and my educational experience," said Megan, who regularly does her school work while under the influence of marijuana. "There are a lot of people who feel the same way and I think that will lead to the legalization."