One Woman's Quest To Get Really High And Have Dreams


In the early 1970s, several studies tested the the effects of cannabis on sleep, coinciding with the growing popularity of the field of sleep research as a whole. The researchers typically brought a handful of weed-smoking derelicts into a lab, hooked them up to an electroencephalogram (EEG), and then monitored their brain activity as the stoners passed through the stages of sleep.

The conclusion they came to would shape the way we think of marijuana’s influence on our resting minds: The early experimenters found that the drug shortens REM sleep, or the snoozing stage in which the mind is most active and dreams are most likely to occur. Thus, the idea that you don’t dream when you smoke weed, a message board comment thread mainstay, has gained the status of a commonsense fact.

As someone who has smoked weed every night before bed and subsequently dreamed the shit out of many dreams, however, this never really made sense to me. Other stoners I talked to took a similar position. "I smoke weed every night and remember my dreams almost every day," my friend Mira emphatically told me. "Seems like bullshit." (Stoners have the unfortunate reputation of being apathetic and uncaring, but you just have to give us a good cause to rally around.)

So I set out to conduct a study of my own. Over the past several years, I have come home from work and immediately inhaled a certain amount of weed, and, after I cooked dinner, talked about dumb shit with my boyfriend, read, or became engrossed by a ridiculous TV show on my laptop, I have gone to bed and drifted off to sleep like a very high baby.

The results were undeniable each night: I would dream that I had a child, whom I had, up until that point, forgotten about, or that I was participating in a race where everyone could run normally except for me – I was crawling on all fours and couldn’t combat gravity effectively to stand upright – or something else. I even had flying dreams.

As it turns out, there really isn’t as much of a consensus on weed and dreams as there appears to be. A study on cannabis and sleep conducted in 1976, which includes a brief analysis of the literature on the topic, concedes that most research up to that point had been "confusing."

The study’s author’s, sleep researcher Ismet Karacan, noted that early experiments observed "a tendency for REM [sleep] percentage to decrease" on nights when their participants smoked weed, as opposed to on placebo nights. But when Karacan examined their work, he found that it was rife with statistical errors and couldn’t be replicated.

"The problem is that any of the research that was done – and there were just a few studies – weren’t well controlled studies," Timothy Roehrs, the director of research at the Henry Ford Sleep Disorder Center, said over the phone. "The dose of THC was not well-documented, and they were not placebo controlled either. If you look at the studies, the effect of cannabis on REM sleep is equivocal. From that data, it’s not clear if there are consistent effects on REM sleep."

Indeed, Karacan’s study disputed a lot of previous research of the era. He actually found that, while marijuana did increase the time it took for participants to get to sleep, it increased the length of REM sleep and the percentage of the sleep cycle that was REM. But this isn’t exactly unequivocal, either. His study, conducted using Costa Rica-based weed smokers, also had many flaws. A few of the participants were disqualified throughout the course of the experiment because they took unauthorized naps or tokes, and Karacan had all the participants supply their own weed. (He notes he potentially set himself up for failure: "The high rate of napping in both groups was at least partially due to the Latin American custom of taking siestas, but in future analyses we will explore the napping patterns and amounts in greater detail.")

Recent and reliable research provides a more solid refutation. A 2004, double-blind and placebo-controlled study of four men and four women who were administered 15 mg of THC, found that the drug had virtually no effect on sleep. "The present analysis did not provide evidence that 15 mg THC altered the sleep process," the researchers concluded. Their study did indicate "that in some individuals, the duration of slow-wave sleep may have been increased," but that would not necessarily have any effect on dreaming. Slow-wave sleep (SWS) is a form of non-REM (NREM) sleep that is said to be the most restorative stage in the sleep cycle, and dreaming is more common in this stage than in other NREM stages.

I asked Roehrs for his take on the dreamless stoner, and he said in his research he has seen nothing that supports the finding that weed shortens REM sleep. Along with colleague Leslie Lobel, Roehrs conducted a sleep study on heavy cannabis users. (The study was part of a larger study on cannabis use and is currently unpublished.)

"On some days the users received placebo cigarettes and on other days they received cigarettes that had three percent THC. They smoked in the morning and in the afternoon and we recorded [their sleep patterns] at night," he explained. Roehrs found that on the nights when the participants smoked weed, compared to an age-matched control group of non-users, there was no difference.

"There was no effect on REM sleep," he continued. "There was no evidence that REM sleep was deprived in these heavy smokers when they were administered an active cigarette."

What, then, accounts for the people who say they are relegated to a life devoid of dreams after they smoke weed? Roehrs said that they are probably not experiencing anything different from sober people who don’t remember their dreams. He boils it down to the fact that it’s just harder to identify what happened in your sleep when you doze soundly through the night and don’t make a point of immediately jotting it down in your dream journal upon waking up, or something. (One study suggests that dream recall really isn’t even dependent on the sleep stage you awaken from, though the odds are slightly better when you wake up from REM sleep.)

"On the night when the participants smoked, they slept through night and didn’t awaken. They were just like a normal sleeper," he said. "Many people don’t remember their dreams when they have normal amounts of sleep."

And as for the fact that people report more intense dreams when they quit smoking, Roehrs said that he thinks this is also just an issue with recall. "When we observed users on the placebo night, meaning they were without marijuana, they had poor sleep, like the sleep of someone with insomnia. They woke up frequently," he explained. "People often report that they have disturbed dreams [when they don’t smoke], but it’s because they’re awakening in the middle of the night." In other words, it’s not that the dreams are necessarily more extreme, you can just remember them better in the morning because you woke up abruptly and most likely during REM sleep.

Ultimately, as with many areas of inquiry related to weed, more research needs to be done. But if you want to wake up with a memory of every detail of your stress nightmares when you go to sleep, there seems to be very little evidence that weed will prevent you.

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker
Full Article: One Woman’s Quest To Get Really High And Have Dreams
Author: Gabby Bess
Photo Credit: Jennifer Kahn
Website: Broadly