All That Is Not Forbitten Is Allowed, or What Do Students In Amsterdam Think of Marijuana?

Initially published in The Herring, the independent student newspaper of Amsterdam University College

‘‘If you want to do well in your exams, especially maths, don’t smoke dope’’ – that is how the Guardian sums up results of a research carried out at Maastricht University, after the city of Maastricht introduced partial cannabis prohibition. The research has shown that the academic performance of students who are no longer legally permitted to buy cannabis notably increased. Such results caused a great deal of controversy, adding a fuel to the ongoing discussion concerning high rates of drug tourism to the bordering cities and even wider discussion over the potential negative effect of cannabis consumption on the academic performance.

On 16th of December, 2010 Court of Justice of the European Union passed a local ban on the sale of cannabis to non-holders of Dutch, German or Belgium citizenship, which resulted in the limited access for tourists and international students to local coffee shops. Before the law was softened (entrance to Maastricht coffee shops is now allowed to any holder of the proof of residency), Olivier Marie and Ulf Zölitz carried out a research that showed that those students who could not longer legally buy cannabis were 5% more likely to pass their courses, while low performers’ chances grew 7.6%. The greater positive change was detected in the fields that requite numerical/mathematical skills. Although these findings have a potential to become a solid basis for anti-legalization campaigners in countries like the United States, where the debate over marijuana’s effect on academic performance is an ongoing issue, Marie claimed that they should only be used in order to raise awareness among students.

Questions that have been raised in relation to the issue is wether students are able to manage their smoking habits and deal with the workload of the higher education. Although the results of Marie’s and Zölitz’s research suggest that some students appear to fail at balancing these two, how does one know wether they are so unaware of the consequences? Logical step would be to ask students themselves.

In a survey conducted among AUC students, 30 percent out of 181 respondents self-reported that they are regular marijuana users, while 20 percent reported that they smoke occasionally. The numbers may seem quite high, but there is only a minor difference in comparison with the same survey carried out among New York students, where 28% reported daily or weekly usage and 39% occasional. To some students these results did not come as a surprise: ‘‘I would say quite a few AUC students are regular smokers’’, says Eloise Martin, a second-year AUC student. The survey also demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of AUC students have at least tried marijuana once.

The college is located in the capital of the Netherlands, a city, that is well-known for its tolerant attitude towards cannabis. Since the general legal approach to use and possession of small amount of cannabis as to ‘soft drug’ was decriminalized in 1970s, ‘wiet’ culture has taken considerable root in the city of Amsterdam. According to Iamsterdam in early July, 2014 183 coffee shops were registered in Amsterdam, giving all the residents and visitors of the city almost unlimited access to marijuana (only limited by the age restriction). But even here, in one of the European so-called Cities of Sin, students seem to be pretty aware of the consequences that regular cannabis consumption can potentially cause.

8.9 percent of AUC students anonymously self-reported negative changes in their academic performance due to marijuana usage. As for the positive changes, the percentage is even lower – 2.6%. For a college with student population below 1000, almost 9 percent is quite a high result.

Many students admit that marijuana usage may cause increased laziness, passiveness, inability to prioritize things or discipline yourself. 37.8% of AUC students, according to the survey, have at least thought of giving up smoking marijuana, while 17.3% have already given up. ‘‘I think if you are inclined to be a bit lazy it can encourage you to be less productive,’’ says Martin, ‘‘and therefore your academic performance may suffer.’’ Aga Godorowska, another second-year AUC student expresses a similar take: ‘’It [marijuana] can fuck up your motivation – you stop freaking out about deadlines so much, which is good, but you may end up being too relaxed’’. Most of them, however, link it to some regular users’ inability to manage their habit, ending up skipping classes and experiencing minor memory and concentration issues that can have an effect on overall academic performance. Thus, the importance of individual approach to smoking is stressed in particular. ‘‘I think it is different for different people,’’ says Eloise Martin, ‘‘It just depends on the individual’s self discipline and intention with smoking weed’’. Others mention that the negative effect on studying could be result of pre-existing mental problems enhanced by marijuana: ‘‘If the person cannot regulate and/or have other mental problems that gets harder to handle by smoking,’’ says Erika. Some are also stressing the importance of not forming an addiction, which makes it harder not only to give up smoking when it is necessary (during examination period, for instance) but also may potentially have long-term consequences. ‘‘I think most do not realize that daily use is classified as substance abuse and that this can have negative long-term implications for their memory skills and cognitive abilities.’’ says third-year student who wishes to remain anonymous.

There are studies that partly confirm this view. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) the main psychoactive ingredient of marijuana can produce memory impairments, that intensify with larger dosing or regular, long-term use. However, negative long-term consequences are mostly evident in cases when regular marijuana consumption started in young age, with teenagers in particular. Other studies, however, suggest that chronic users tend to develop tolerance towards marijuana and some of its effects. Most of them, however, require further development and longer observations, as Matthew Smith, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University admitted. Overlly, so far scientific findings appear to produce very different results, which are extensively used by both advocates and opponents of the cannabis legalization.

There are few things that can betaken away from this: there is a big difference between regular, heavy smoking and irregular, occasional use; marijuana can indeed cause decrease in academic performance if abused; potential consequences and ability to manage them properly highly depend on individuals. This, however, brings the discussion to another important issue: all of these things are as true for marijuana as they are true for alcohol, which somehow doesn’t appear to receive as much controversy that constantly surrounds marijuana. Many students, indeed, mention that potential negative effect of marijuana can easily be re-directed to alcohol: ‘‘If you were to drink every night you would also harm your academic performance, much more in fact,’’ says Martin.
AUC students reported that another common reason for marijuana usage is that it works as a substitute for alcohol (26.3%). The absence of hangovers and low risk of overdose are among the primary reasons to chose marijuana over alcohol. And there are studies that confirm that this substitution can be beneficial. In 2008, British Think Tank the Berkley Foundation released Cannabis Commission report that stated that health risks associated with alcohol are more alarming than that of cannabis.

Bearing in mind all previously said, as the survey among AUC students has shown, there are still plenty of reasons students continue to smoke marijuana, even if aware of its potential consequences. Marie and Zölitz concluded that the greater positive effect of the marijuana ban was detected in the fields that require numerical/mathematical skills. Although these results are somewhat alarming, they are pointing that Humanities students may experience far less troubles associated with marijuana use, if any. Many AUC student’s responses expressed the same take on the issue: ‘‘I think weed can have a positive effect on humanities student’s performance, as for hard-core science… I wouldn’t recommend it’’ says Thomas Bavin, second-year AUC student. Adel expresses similar opinion: ‘‘I believe that in the humanities marijuana has a tremendously positive effect,’’ she says, ‘’but it does depend on the individual’’. These responses could be linked to one of the primary reasons why AUC students continue marijuana consumption. For many (22.4%) it is the belief that marijuana unlocks their creativity. ‘‘If you want to increase your creativity, for example, it [marijuana] can be a wonderful instrumental tool,’’ says Eloise Martin. There are plenty examples of successful people who claimed they use marijuana for creative awakening. Notably Steve Jobs, in his interview to DoD agents, files of which were released by the Bureau few years ago, stated that he used to smoke marijuana and hashish, which effect he could best describe as relaxing and creative awakening. Science, however, is again producing quite contradicting results. In cannabis related studies done at the Instituto Nacional de Psiquiatría Ramón de la Fuente, Mexico and John Hopkins University the creative awakening that so many marijuana users are speaking of is linked to high frontal lobe activity, caused by increasing cerebral blood flow (CBF) to the area that tends to reach maximum effect after 30 minutes of marijuana consumption. Other study carried out by Lorenza Colzato, a researcher from Cognitive Psychology Unit at the Institute of Psychology at Leiden University showed completely opposite result. After giving two groups of healthy marijuana users different dozes of THC (22 and 5.5 mg) and suppling the third group with placebo; Colzato’s research team asked all groups to perform series of identical cognitive tasks intended to measure their creative thinking. Placebo and low-doze THC groups showed little difference in results, while the last, high THC group showed significantly worse results, impaired to demonstrate the same level of creativity than two other groups. The results, according to Colzato mean that the belief that marijuana is responsible for creative awakening is just an illusion. It is hard, however, to argue against so many individuals claiming the opposite.
‘‘All my best essay ideas I owe to weed-induced creativity. Especially for humanities students , weed is helpful in thinking outside of the box,’’ says Aga Godorowska.

Among other positive effects some students mention another primary reason for marijuana usage – stress relief (35.3%). Constant deadlines and overall intensity of higher education can cause a lot of stress, which is often successfully ‘‘cured’’ by a joint. ‘‘It [marijuana] helps me to relax, so that I get enough rest to not get stressed and «blocked»,’’ says Erika, second-year February student. Evi Hadjipieri, another AUC student seems to agree with that: ‘‘I believe it is more of a drug you do for chilling,’’ she says. Here, again, most students stress that small dozes and occasional use are a lot more effective.

Overall, the general attitude of AUC community towards marijuana consumption and it’s potential effects on academic performance are quite similar in their nature. A lot of studies that conclude harmful effect base their research on heavy users, unable to manage their habit. Amsterdam University Students, however, seem to be aware of these implications, which brings new dimension to the ongoing discussion.

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