A curious new study published in the British Medical Journal finds that students who perform better in academia are more likely to use cannabis. They are also more likely to drink alcohol but less likely to smoke cigarettes.
The study sampled seven years of data from more than 6,000 pupils in England ages 13 to 20, rating their tobacco, alcohol and cannabis use as ‘occasional’ or ‘persistent.’ It is important to note that this is an observational study and does not establish a causal connection. In other words, it does not suggest that using cannabis makes students better at school.
According to the press release:
“During their early teens, brainy pupils were less likely to smoke cigarettes than their less academically gifted peers, after taking account of potentially influential factors. And they were more likely to say they drank alcohol during this period too.
They were also more likely to say they used cannabis, but this wasn’t statistically significant. But those of average academic ability were 25% more likely to use cannabis occasionally and 53% more likely to use it persistently than those who were not as academically gifted.
During their late teens, brainy pupils were more than twice as likely to drink alcohol regularly and persistently than those who were not as clever. These patterns were similar, but weaker, when those of average and low academic abilities were compared.
But academic prowess was associated with a lower risk of hazardous drinking.
As for the use of cannabis, clever pupils were 50% more likely to use this substance occasionally and nearly twice as likely to use persistently than those who weren’t as clever. Similar patterns were seen for those of average academic ability.”
Two theories are offered to explain this phenomenon – higher cognitive ability is associated with “openness to experience,” and smarter kids were more honest in describing their drug use. Whatever the reason may be, results also showed that patterns of use persisted into adulthood.
"Previous studies had suggested that high academic ability pupils would be more likely to experiment with substances in early adolescence before giving up later on in their teens and early twenties," said James Williams, lead author and professor at the University College of London Medical. However, "these patterns continued into early adulthood,” which contradicts the idea that cannabis use is ‘just a phase.’
While the study provides no causal relationship between substance use and academic performance, it does help dispel the Reefer Madness propaganda that pot makes you dumb. One Australian artist even suggested supplying cannabis in a “controlled and moderated” manner to help students with creativity.
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Smarter kids also seem to be wiser to the health hazards of cigarettes, as evidenced by their reduced likelihood to smoke cigarettes.
Before anyone thinks smoking pot is going to make them better in academia, it is crucial to note that abuse of any drug – including cannabis – can have detrimental effects on the developing adolescent brain.
“Research shows that heavy use [of cannabis] can lead to neurotoxicity and alternations in brain development leading to: Impairment in thinking, poor educational outcomes and perhaps a lower IQ, Increased likelihood of dropping out of school, symptoms of chronic bronchitis, and increased risk of psychosis disorders in those who are predisposed.”
The New American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a report on the dangers of teen cannabis abuse, stating:
"Adolescents who use marijuana regularly can develop serious mental health disorders such as addiction, depression and psychosis. Marijuana causes dulled sensory awareness, motor control, coordination, judgment and reaction time, all of which can cause accidents involving teens who drive. Marijuana can impair lung function. It also causes decreased short-term memory and concentration, attention span and problem-solving skills, which can interfere with learning."
There is a potential for psychological addiction when a teenager uses cannabis to cope with uncomfortable feelings, which can be particularly prevalent in the high school setting. Another study found that delaying the use of cannabis until age 17 significantly reduces the risk of negative effects.
Having said that, studies are finding that teen cannabis use is not increasing in states that have legalized its recreational use.
So teenagers need to be very cautious, but responsible adult use of cannabis certainly has medical benefits for a wide range of physical and mental ailments. As research continues to expand on this wondrous plant, we will continue unlocking its secrets.