Science Says: Smoke Weed Now; Forget Words Later

Personally, that trade-off seems pretty fair.

According to a study published online by the American Medical Association journal Internal Medicine, smoking marijuana as a sprout leads to an inability to come up with just the right word once that sprout grows beyond its prime and no longer matters.

For weeks now, this study linking youthful weed use and blanking on words in mid-life has been surfacing in Internet headlines. Up until five minutes ago, I had not investigated the stories behind any of those headlines, and not because reading about diminished verbal capacity tied to early-onset marijuana use had slipped my mind.

I have other, more-pressing, concerns.

For one thing, the word funambulist concerns me. I read the word last night, toward the finish of a 1974 novel by Joy Williams called State of Grace. Funambulist. I know that word. To be precise: I mean I recognize it.

I remember happening upon funambulist sometime in the past, as an adult. I picture myself stopping midsentence in whatever I was reading, opening a dictionary, flipping past fun, overshooting fundament and working back from funereal to funambulist. I read the definition of funambulist—I’m sure I did—and I committed that definition to my understanding. My habit at this time was to secure the meanings of words in my mind.

Funambulist and I are no longer intimate because I smoked a joint before junior high English class. Also before geometry, and the other classes.

Years ago, I returned to the passage I had been reading with full knowledge of funambulist. I knew that word so well. I even knew what it meant!

Today, however, funambulist and I are only passing acquaintances. We slipped by one another like familiar strangers last night. A chasm of refreshed incomprehension separates funambulist from me this morning, and a gang of medical researchers led by Reto Auer from the University of California San Francisco’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics is suggesting that funambulist and I are no longer intimate because I smoked a joint before junior high English class. Also before geometry, and the other classes, some of which I’m guessing I could not recall at the moment, even if I tried.

Refusing to take the click bait on Reto Auer and his team’s findings has been a conscious decision. Anyone with any notion of self-caring avoids soft news items about sad outcomes that apply directly to you and are beyond remedy.

My weed smoking started as a kid. I can do nothing to alter that, but I could have gone to my grave—perhaps wondering, What do they call that thing they use to dig into the, what do you call it, the floor of the graveyard?—without unpacking the unnerving messaging of “Association Between Lifetime Marijuana Use and Cognitive Function in Middle Age.”

I would have been no worse off for keeping that data securely sealed. But even the crustaceans at CNN, in their own sweet time, have rushed to pick up this trending topic. So due-diligent career considerations compel me to read deeper.

Apparently, several people employed by colleges rounded up “a cohort of 5,115 men and women aged 18 to 30 years and followed up over 25 years to estimate cumulative years of exposure to marijuana and to assess associations with cognitive function at year 25.”

The report spits out a few paragraphs of insider stats along the lines of:

For each 5 years of past exposure, verbal memory was 0.13 standardized units lower (95% CI, −0.24 to −0.02; P = .02), corresponding to a mean of 1 of 2 participants remembering 1 word fewer from a list of 15 words for every 5 years of use.

Translated, that means if you are high right now, and you’re under 30 years old, and you plan to be high again with regularity on through middle-age, you will arrive at those advanced years not so adept at remembering entries from a 15-word list.

Other than that, you may be fine, says me and says the report’s relevant conclusion:

Past exposure to marijuana is associated with worse verbal memory but does not appear to affect other domains of cognitive function.

To be clear, the study doesn’t delve into lasting comprehension of words. It makes no claims of whether or not participants remembered the meaning of a particular term. It tracked only the recall of particular words from a list of 15.

So, young stoners, be prepared for this trade off: Do you divert yourself today with a THC life-upgrade at the expense of being distracted when someone waves a list of 15 words at you 30 years later? The choice is yours.

As an aside, a funambulist, it turns out, is a tightrope walker. Is a metaphor lurking in there, in the act of maintaining a fine balance while strolling elevated above a slippery slope?

I don’t know. Here's what I wanted to say at the start of all this: Joy Williams’s State of Grace, nominated for a National Book Award the year it came out, is a challenging and rewarding work of literature.