Often when I speak with parents and youth about the cognitive problems that can arise because of using marijuana, they focus on the long term impact. Parents, and even teens, are worried about permanently decreased cognitive functioning because of marijuana use – and rightfully so. When I remind them that there are immediate cognitive effects that are also a concern, they often look at me blankly.

When I say, “Marijuana intoxication can cause immediate problems with cognitive functioning, especially judgment”, they often look at me somewhat quizzically for a moment.

As soon as they realize what I am saying, they will quickly add, “Of course, of course”, and then go back to their question about the long term impact pf marijuana on cognitive functioning.

Marijuana intoxication is acute and, like intoxication on any substance, has an immediate impact on how we analyze and solve problems and can seriously impair our judgment. These changes in cognitive functioning can make it difficult to do homework or even complete simple tasks at your job at McDonald’s.

In the same way that people believe you can get a pleasant feeling from using alcohol and not be intoxicated, people also believe that you can have a mild high on cannabis without being intoxicated. These are not safe assumptions, so let’s review the signs that a person is intoxicated on marijuana.

The first signs of marijuana intoxication are euphoria – the effect most people expect – and sleepiness. In many people, there will be irritability and most people describe some decreased inhibition. There are usually such physical signs as increased heart rate and breathing and increased blood pressure. With these signs and symptoms, people will also report decreased attention span and concentration and decreased alertness. Marijuana also decreases motor coordination, making it more difficult to operate machinery – hence the finding that drivers using marijuana are 2-7 times more likely to get into accidents.

The impaired problem solving and poor judgment after marijuana use are also well-documented but less expected for many users are the anxiety and depression that can arise instead of euphoria in some people and especially those with a predisposition to these conditions.

What compounds the risks described above is the fact that in many cases after marijuana has been ingested, a person may not even experience these effects until several hours after the drug has been used – this is especially true with edible marijuana products.

What I’ve described above is what I usually describe to young people and their parents and, considering that there are many good public health sites available in both Canada and the United States that describe these effects, it is evident that the many warnings on the impact of marijuana on the developing brain may have caused us to think less about these more immediate and also worrying impairments. Anyone seeking more information about the immediate impact of marijuana can find it here.

While he long term cognitive functioning problems that can arise are serious, they are not the only concern. If we forget that the short term impairments can affect such complex motor and cognitive tasks as driving, the impact can certainly be immediate – and deadly.

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