When potent preparations of marijuana are consumed regularly, in large amounts, for many years, are there any detrimental long term effects? As with any drug, consuming large amounts over an extended period of time is going to result in some sort of dependence and psychological changes. So what are some changes that you may experience if you abuse marijuana over the long term?
Psychological Effects of Long Term Marijuana Use
1. Cognition & Memory Impairment
Mostly while intoxicated or “high” on marijuana is when people experience the memory issues. There is controversial evidence that long term use can cause permanent memory problems even when not “high” on the drug. There are some studies that found no evidence for memory issues and some that have found long term memory problems associated with heavy usage.
What we do know is that it has a detrimental effect on working memory via astroglia. This hurts the user’s abilities in areas of complex reasoning and learning. Many users report worsened long term memory while withdrawing from the drug, however, most users agree that this problem eventually subsides and things normalize.
In one study comparing light, intermediate and heavy marijuana users, it was found that heavy users experienced significant deficits in memory retrieval.
2. Risk of Developing Psychosis / Schizophrenia
Some researchers believe that heavy marijuana use may trigger psychosis or schizophrenia in those at higher risk for developing the illness. Studies have shown that frequent cannabis use is associated with more than double the likelihood of developing schizophrenia. There have been reports that show brain waves are altered the same way as a person with psychosis during marijuana usage.
Currently there is no direct causal relationship between smoking pot and going on to develop schizophrenia, but it is linked to increased risk. If you have family members or think you are at increased risk for developing schizophrenia, it’s probably a good idea to stay away from this drug. For further information, read the article “Can smoking marijuana cause schizophrenia?”
3. Lower Life Satisfaction
Individuals that are heavy marijuana smokers reported lower levels of life satisfaction than those who didn’t. In a study analyzing: career, social, physical and mental health – 66 to 90% of marijuana users reported more “negative effects.” The lower levels of satisfaction appeared to be most evident in heavy users.
The ironic aspect this reminds me of is smoking marijuana to improve your mood in the short term really results in a lower level of life satisfaction in the long term / bigger picture. This is similar to any illicit substance in the fact that it may provide temporary relief from emotional pain or the hardships of life – but have an overall destructive effect for the long term.
4. Amotivational syndrome
Another problem with long term cannabis use is that of “amotivational syndrome.” Certain individuals that use marijuana regularly may go on to experience significant lack of motivation and zest for life. Basically they can no longer drum up any energy to accomplish normal, daily tasks. Young people that experience this phenomenon may go on to drop out of school before graduation or fail to transition effectively into adulthood.
Other older adults may lose all interest and desire to work and face challenging situations. Basically the addiction to marijuana consumes the individual to such a degree that they no longer have the desire to perform basic human tasks necessary for survival. The person may even neglect basic hygienic tasks such as: showering, cleaning, brushing teeth, etc. and may go on to lose sex drive and neglect friendships.
It is important to note that most reports of amotivational syndrome eventually subside with the cessation of marijuana use. It is estimated that after quitting marijuana, it takes about 90 days before the individual returns to normal levels of motivation.
5. Poor Judgment
It seems as though judgment is impaired when individuals smoke marijuana. In particular, it seems as though marijuana impairs judgment the most of adolescents. Researchers think that the prefrontal cortex and various parts of the brain involved in decision making are underdeveloped. This underdevelopment alone results in riskier behavior and more impulsive decision making, but adding a substance like marijuana or alcohol actually has potential to significantly alter neural connections / wiring in the brain.
The use of marijuana likely has the greatest influence on the development of the prefrontal cortex. Frequent marijuana users during adolescence may end up altering the prefrontal cortex area of the brain in a way that is detrimental to overall functionality. Researchers think that the total volume of the medial orbital prefrontal cortex could end up significantly reduced.
This poor judgment could lead to activities like risky unprotected sex in adolescents. There was also a study that I didn’t cite here that found women in Africa were more likely to engage in riskier unprotected sex if they were on alcohol and other drugs. The problem with that study was the fact that they kind of bundled a bunch of substances with alcohol and didn’t directly analyze the exact percentages with marijuana usage alone.
Currently there aren’t many major studies suggesting that marijuana significantly impairs judgment in adults. However, there was one study that found individuals who smoked marijuana weren’t as able to balance rewards vs. punishment – thus making poorer decisions and lacking some judgment. It should be noted that this was a very small study and doesn’t really reflect any long term aspects of drug use. The long term aspects are more significant on developing adolescent brains in terms of judgment.
Like any drug, your brain can become habituated to it for functioning. Marijuana stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain and makes certain individuals crave the desired effects or high. Long term usage results in the users smoking a more potent and/or larger quantity of marijuana to achieve the desired high. There are individuals that become addicted to this drug and rely on it to help them cope with stress and/or make it through the day.
I have witnessed marijuana addiction first-hand, and although the effects aren’t bad, being high all the time is not a good way to go through life. Fortunately for individuals that are addicted, a marijuana habit is typically considered considerably easier to kick than any product containing nicotine (i.e. cigarettes). The downfall associated with marijuana addiction is that, like any addiction, it may interfere with ordinary life responsibilities. The user becomes so engrossed in their addiction that they do not realize there’s even a problem.
Usually it takes a serious intervention from family and close friends in attempt to spark a change. In serious addicts, as soon as the desired high dissipates, the addict smokes again. So basically they are living the majority of their days in a drug-induced state of consciousness. If you’ve never witnessed someone struggle with serious marijuana addiction, just know that it can be a painful sight. I have seen the effects first-hand in someone close to me – it wasn’t fun to deal with.
Note: Just because you use marijuana and may not have experienced what is listed above, does not really mean much. There are plenty of high functioning, long term marijuana users that are doing just fine in life. The goal is not to promote fear; the goal is to educate individuals on some of the potential long term effects that they may experience should they decide to use this drug.
There are plenty of other studies documenting some of the long term psychological effects of cannabis usage such as problems with basic motor coordination.
Additional Reading: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21321675