What The Science Says About These Cannabis Myths

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  1. The Good Doctor

    The Good Doctor Golden Member

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    We all know the stereotypes: Marijuana users are lazy couch potatoes or free-wheeling hippies who are unmotivated to work, exercise, or otherwise engage in a healthy lifestyle. But does the research bear out those assumptions? Or, are they myths?

    Marijuana laws—and attitudes—are changing at a swift pace across the United States. The drug, also commonly referred to as cannabis, has been legalized for recreational and medicinal use in numerous states, with legalization in more states on the way. Consider these facts:
    • According to data from Statista, the estimated number of cannabis consumers in the United States was 40.3 million people in 2019; that number is expected to rise to 46.6 million by 2025.

    • A recent Gallup poll shows that 68% of American adults now support legalization of marijuana.

    • Legal sales of marijuana at cannabis dispensaries skyrocketed during the early months of the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, with reports of average store revenue increasing by 52% to 130% across the nation at that time.
    Given marijuana’s increasing popularity and acceptance, perhaps it’s time to take a look at some of the preconceptions about the drug. Here are three myths about cannabis use and what the latest research says about their veracity.

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    Myth No. 1: Smoking cannabis leaves you unmotivated

    Does using marijuana make you a slouch? This reputation has been perpetuated by stoner characters in popular movies and culture, but the perception goes beyond that. As noted in a review published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, “amotivational syndrome” has been associated with heavy cannabis use for over 50 years, and this is largely due to the drug’s interactions with dopamine motivational circuitry in the brain. The authors note that the dopamine neurotransmitter reward system is activated by cannabis use, and several theories suggest that this may lead users to become uninterested in activities–other than consuming cannabis.

    However, the review’s authors found that there isn’t a lot of evidence to support this. They analyzed the findings of 22 studies, focusing on questions about whether cannabis users are less motivated than others and whether there is a causal relationship between cannabis use and motivation.

    Of the 22 studies, nine found that heavy cannabis use was associated with decreased motivation. However, only six of these studies controlled for the influence of confounding variables, which were not consistent across the studies. For example, depression was not measured, despite its scientifically supported effect on motivation. In fact, one of the studies found that, after controlling for depression, the apparent relationship between cannabis use and “reward learning” did not persist.

    “Importantly, studies have varied in the extent to which they controlled for confounding variables, as well as in their definition and operationalization of motivation, their assessment tools, and the levels of cannabis use in their sample,” the authors wrote.

    The authors ultimately concluded that study findings are mixed on whether amotivational syndrome is a common condition for cannabis users. While there is some evidence of a causal relationship between cannabis use and reduced motivation, there are still too many research gaps—including questions over whether reduced motivation is related more to addiction, rather than cannabis specifically.

    Myth No. 2: Cannabis users don’t exercise

    On a similar note, the idea that cannabis users spend all their time on the couch and avoid any kind of physical activity has persisted for years. However, a new study published in Preventative Medicine may put an end to this apparent misconception.

    The research involved pulling information from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, a study which began in 1994 and includes data on 20,745 students in middle school or high school. The study involved five sets of surveys conducted throughout the participants’ lives, with the fifth completed in 2018 when the participants were between 34-42 years old.

    Surprisingly, researchers found no significant negative associations between light, moderate, or heavy cannabis use and levels of exercise within the past 30 days. “In fact, in instances of significant correlation, the relationship points to increased exercise activity for cannabis users, though this finding does not necessarily indicate a causal effect,” the authors wrote.

    These findings are at odds with much of the existing literature, they noted, which generally shows a negative relationship between marijuana use and exercise. “As additional states legalize the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana, perhaps its impact on exercise, one of the leading social determinants of health, is not necessarily a primary concern.”

    The study findings line up with those of previous research conducted by the same research team, which found no relationship between cannabis use and weight status—in fact, daily cannabis users in that study were found to have about 2.7% lower BMI than non-users.

    But if stoners are more active physically than perhaps we imagined, what about the effects of cannabis on their sex lives? According to some research, male and female marijuana users had more monthly and daily sex compared with those who never used.

    Myth No. 3: Stoners are always happy and care-free

    We may have an image in our head of a smiling toker, but according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, that perception is not entirely correct.

    The study set out to investigate the impacts of chronic marijuana use on the participants’ emotions. Researchers looked at a cohort of 48 individuals, half of whom were heavy cannabis users and half of whom were a control group. They gave all the participants methylphenidate (commonly known as Ritalin), a drug that stimulates extracellular dopamine, in order to test participants’ dopamine reactivity.

    Researchers found that, while dopamine receptor availability between the two groups didn’t differ at the beginning of the study, the cannabis users exhibited “markedly blunted responses” when challenged with the methylphenidate. Specifically, they found that the chronic marijuana smokers reported lower “positive” and higher “negative” scores of emotionality, along with increased stress and irritability. Researchers noted that these reactions are consistent with decreased dopamine reactivity. So, maybe marijuana users are not as happy-go-lucky as we thought.

    Bottom line

    While these studies mostly highlight the need for further research on cannabis—particularly in light of its increasing popularity and availability—perhaps the findings will at least make you think twice before buying into stereotypes about cannabis users.

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