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Is Legalizing Marijuana Going to Make Americans Stupid?

A new study conducted in the Netherlands looks like bad news for pot lovers.
Image via Flickr user brookehoyer

America seems to be on the verge of legalizing marijuana nationwide, and with that comes a whole host of questions. Some are boring, some are misguided, but some—such as how legal weed will affect students—are extremely important.

A study released earlier this month sheds some light on how legal marijuana might impact academic performance, and it doesn't look good for fans of kush. The authors examined the situation of Maastricht, a town in the southern part of the Netherlands that, in 2010, enacted a law barring those without proof of Dutch residency from purchasing marijuana at any of the local cannabis coffeeshops. The measure was meant to cut down on drug tourism from foreigners.


Researchers from the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and Political Science seized on the town's unique drug market as an opportunity. They compared the academic output of students enrolled in Maastricht University who still had access to legal weed with that of students who didn't. The study, which collected data from approximately 54,000 students, found that test scores among those who retained their access to marijuana remained the same, while, on average, test scores among those who were freezed out of buying legal weed went up. Younger students, women, and those who were already prone to low scores were the most impacted, with the starkest changes seen in mathematics-heavy courses. That correlates with pre-existing evidence that weed may impair math skills.

So what now? Should we be worried that legalizing marijuana is going to destroy American academics? Should we call the whole thing off? Not so fast, according to Randy Cohen, the former ethicist at the New York Times.

"Even if that were true," Cohen told VICE of the study's findings, "it's just one more factor to be considered in the legalization of marijuana." Cohen added that lowering tuition rates or improving the quality of public schools could affect college test scores in a way that might negate any negative effects that emerge from allowing college students access to legal marijuana.


Dr. Greg Eells, director of counseling and psychological Services at Cornell University, told VICE, "The US, from its inception, has not made education available to the full population. Any broader societal shift that would allow the greatest access to education would be huge." He went on to point out that alcohol abuse is rampant on college campuses, and almost certainly has a negative effect on academic performance.

Cohen pointed out if we're only considering test scores, "The same argument"—albeit in the inverse—"could be made for Ritalin. There's no doubt that study drugs help academic performance."

"The question of legalization is too complicated to be reduced to any factor," Cohen continued. "There are medical, political, and criminological questions to be considered." He argued that legalizing marijuana might have a positive effect on our clogged legal system, offering those who mess around with pot a chance to succeed later in life—and keeping police free to concentrate on genuinely destructive criminal activity.

Cohen advocates for keeping a level head whenever evidence about such a contentious issue as the legalization of marijuana arises.

"There is no more dubious phrase than 'studies have shown.'" he told me. "Five minutes from now, studies will show something different."

Drew Millard is on Twitter.