So a few years ago I had a boss who was a devoted muslim and we would carpool back and forth to work, so we had time to talk about random things. One day he told me that he supported insurance companies forcing businesses to fire drug users. He claimed that taking away people’s jobs would punish them enough to convince them not to do drugs. I didn’t know how to respond, but did start talking about marijuana and he quickly backtracked to say that he did not consider marijuana to be a drug and that he supported legalization. A day later, I came up with a response (I always come up with the perfect thing to say a day after the conversation). I would have pointed out that many people use drugs because their life sucks, and taking away their right to have a job, feed their family and contribute to society is not going to change the core reasons for their drug use, and certainly will not instill them with respect for society.
A week or two later we somehow started talking about marijuana and he asked me straight up if I smoked. I was worried that he would have issues with that. I knew he supported legalization, but suspected that he saw it in the same way he believed divorce should be legal. Like it’s evil and wrong, but it’s just not practical to outlaw it.
But I certainly can’t lie about something like that. “Yeah, I smoke weed,” I replied.
And his reaction quite surprised me. “Oh, wonderful,” he said. “You have no idea how glad I am to hear that.”
“Why?” I asked. “Do you smoke pot?”
“Oh, no, of course not. But I used to, so I certainly know how much benefit marijuana is in a programming environment, and since the company is running so low on money and it’s getting down to crunch time with the code we’re writing, it’s just really nice to know that I’m working with someone who has that mental advantage.”
“You think marijuana makes people better programmers?” I asked with a laugh. “Like it makes us smarter?”
“Well, yeah, of course.”
“Yeah, isn’t it obvious?”
“I mean, look at yourself,” he said. “On days when you don’t smoke pot, doesn’t your mind work slower? Isn’t it harder to code, to run all those processes through your mind? You get lost when you haven’t smoked, don’t you? You can’t focus, and if you do, you get tunnel-vision and only see the part you’re working on and can’t recognize how it interacts with the rest of the program. It’s so much harder to see the big picture.”
“Yeah…” I said. “I guess so.” I tried to think and it occurred to me that since I’d started programming four years earlier, I hadn’t gone more than 16 hours without smoking pot, so I really didn’t know what it was like to write code without it. I thought back to high-school and about how my grades had gone up and my stress levels dramatically dropped after I started smoking pot, but had always assumed that was a result of the fact that I was happier and more comfortable with myself and not directly because of the marijuana.
“That’s why people who don’t smoke pot are so much more likely to make show-stopper mistakes and overlook architectural-level design flaws. I pay attention to everyone I work with and have found it’s pretty consistent that the pot smokers are just generally better programmers. You obviously reinforce that idea. And when I first started programming, it was just a couple months after the first time I smoked pot, and I smoked every day for a year and I loved programming. The whole program architecture would seem like some beautiful picture I was painting. Then after a year I decided to quit smoking, and within a day or two, my intelligence dropped and writing simple functions became a total pain. I told myself I had just gotten used to the THC and that it would just take time for my brain to focus again. But that was two years ago, and I’m still waiting to re-gain that intelligence I had while I was smoking pot, and I’m finally realizing it’s never going to happen. I mean, I think I’m still a pretty good programmer, but not as good as I could be if I was a smoker.”
“So why aren’t you smoking then?”
“Because it harmed my relationship with God. When I was smoking pot I was always interested in all sorts of things other than my religion, and I realized that Allah is what’s truly important. I’m happier now that I’ve replaced marijuana with religion, but I’m not smarter, and I feel like I’m a little less capable of doing my job.”
So in the years since this conversation, I’ve been keeping tabs on my co-workers and whether or not they smoke pot and how good of programmers they are. However, I haven’t been able to come to any absolute conclusions about his theory because I’m so frequently working on components that are segregated from the rest of the program, and it seems like almost everyone I meet who actually writes code is at least a casual pot smoker. Also I think my own biases are probably going to cloud any judgments I may have. Also, I live in liberal Seattle, where marijuana is rather popular. However, from what I’ve seen, there does seem to be at least a little merit to what he said, though it doesn’t seem as dramatic as he seemed to think. I think any effects from marijuana are probably related to stress reduction rather than literal intelligence.
I think what really happened to my friend to cause him to feel less intelligent was not the fact that he quit marijuana, but the fact that he started religion.
However, here’s a study showing that certain cannibinoids increase brain-cell production in rats.
Here’s another one done with humans showing that moderate marijuana smokers had slightly higher increases in IQ test scores than the non-smokers. In my opinion not enough to draw a conclusion other than marijuana doesn’t seem to make you stupid. But we also need to account for the fact that there is a huge social stigma that pot smokers are stupid. Intro to psych classes teach us that people who are repeatedly told they are stupid are far more likely to become so, and no one in society is told they are stupid more often than pot smokers. It seems like we either have no problem overcoming this psychological phenomenon, or marijuana really does increase intelligence dramatically enough to counteract the effects of the social stigma.