Marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), is the most commonly used illicit drug in the country. The marijuana landscape in the United States has changed. Four states have already legalized the sale and consumption of recreational weed, with a greater number of states allowing for medicinal marijuana marketplaces.
Marijuana’s Changing Landscape
Twenty states, including California, Vermont, Nevada and Arizona, that already have medical marijuana laws on the books, are poised to legalize recreational use. It’s simply a matter of time, suggest pro-pot advocates. Hopefully states will take the initiative in performing valid studies on the negative side effects of chronic, long-term marijuana use and not focus solely on revenue. After all, the lives of people are more important than high profits.
- 60% of High School Seniors responded to the question what are the side effects of smoking marijuana by answering, “No Side Effects”
Despite the fact that the federal government still considers pot illegal, it would be shortsighted to expect state marijuana laws, for lack of a better phrase, to go back in the baggie.
From a public health standpoint, such widespread use of the drug has raised quite a few concerns, not the least of which are the side effects of smoking weed.
Key Side Effects of Weed
Some of the well-known marijuana side effects of chronic, cannabis use include:
- Can stunt brain development in users until around the age of 25, when the brain reaches maturity
- Reduces thinking, learning and memory functions that can be permanent
- Ongoing chronic use, one study suggests, results on average in an eight point IQ loss between the ages of 13 and 38
- Can cause breathing problems, which lead to an increased risk of regular lung infections or lung related illnesses
- Raises the heart rate, which can increase the likelihood of heart attack, especially among older users or those with existing heart problems
- Pregnant women that smoke weed risk causing both brain and behavioral issues in their child
- Worsens mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and suicidal thoughts
- On average, research suggests, one out of every 11 marijuana users becomes addicted to the drug
Limited Data on the Side Effects of Weed
An interesting point to remember is that this is only the limited amount of information that researchers have been able to gather so far. Because the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) still lists marijuana as a schedule I drug, categorizing it as a substance with a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use, relatively few studies have been able to rely on anything, but anecdotal evidence because access to the drug itself is still against federal law.
This is not a get-out-of-jail free card, though. Even without easy access to it, research scientists have concluded that the long-term side effects of smoking weed are not healthy.
Side Effects of Weed on the Brain
The University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) conducted a study in which three different magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques were used on subjects that do not use pot and subjects that use it, on average, three times a day. Assistant professor at UTD and founder of Advance MRI, Dr. Sina Aslan, said of the study’s results;
“…the structural connectivity or ‘wiring’ of the brain starts degrading with prolonged marijuana use.”
A fascinating 2015 Pew Research survey found that nearly 70 percent of U.S. citizens believe drinking alcohol regularly is more harmful to your health than smoking marijuana. Do we really know enough about the long-term side effects of smoking weed to assume it is “better” for you than drinking alcohol? And why do so many people think smoking marijuana isn’t detrimental to your health?
Research on the Side Effects of Weed
Memory, Emotion and Learning
Certain characteristics are seen in chronic marijuana users:
- Poor working memory (for example, forgetting how to install a car battery soon after being shown by a mechanic how to do it)
- Impaired executive functioning (ability to manage time, plan, organize and remembering details)
- Decline in cognitive processes (lower IQs than non-users)
Although over 400 chemical compounds have been identified in marijuana, most of the side effects experienced by users can be attributed to THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the primary psychoactive substance in cannabis. Prevalent in the brain, cannabinoid receptors readily accept THC and facilitate its ability to induce neural changes in the brain that lead to alternations in various cognitive processes.
Neuroimaging studies investigating the effects of chronic pot use have found potentially permanent alterations in the brain structure of frequent marijuana smokers. Neuroscientists are especially interested in the hippocampal area of the brain. An integral part of the limbic system, the hippocampus controls memory, emotion and learning. Studies indicate that long-term adult cannabis users present reduced right hippocampus volume.
One study found that 60 percent of high school seniors think that smoking weed is harmless. There is, however, very clear science to the contrary, especially as it relates teenagers and young people.
Another study involving young adult (18 to 20 years old), heavy marijuana users revealed the same adverse effects on hippocampal volume. Researchers conclude that decreased hippocampal volume may also reinforce risk factors for young adults to develop a severe cannabis dependence.
Pharmacokinetic Properties Shared by Marijuana and other Addictive Drugs
Heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, prescription pain pills, barbiturates and marijuana all exhibit similar pharmacokinetic properties:
- They gain quick entrance into the central nervous system (spinal cord and brain)
- They have high bioavailability (in other words, little of the drug is wasted once it enters the body)
- They have short half-lives (the effects of addictive drugs do not last long because they are quickly metabolized and eliminated by the body)
- They have small volumes of distribution (addictive substances primarily target the brain)
Since pot shares so many pharmacokinetic properties with “hard” drugs like heroin and cocaine, it should be assumed that the physical and cognitive effects of long term cannabis use is similar, if not identical, to the negative side effects of powerful street and prescription drugs.
The Physical Marijuana Side Effects of Weed
A 2005 literature review found that endocannabinoids may be “involved in several aspects of acute and chronic liver disease, including vascular changes, modulation of inflammatory process and neurological function”.
A 2012 study involving healthy men and men diagnosed with testicular cancer suggested a correlation between pot use and the risk of developing testicular cancer.
Pooled analysis results published in the International Journal of Cancer did not find solid evidence that chronic pot smoking increased a user’s risk for lung cancer. However, authors of the report reiterated that “the possibility of potential adverse effects for heavy [marijuana] consumption cannot be excluded”.
According to the American College of Cardiologists report, “Using marijuana raises the risk of stroke and heart failure even after accounting for demographic factors, other health conditions and lifestyle risk factors such as smoking and alcohol use, according to research scheduled for presentation at the American College of Cardiology’s 66th Annual Scientific Session.”
Longitudinal studies of habitual pot smokers indicate they experience multiple respiratory symptoms (wheezing, coughing, sputum) similar to those experienced by cigarette smokers. Moreover, bronchial biopsies of chronic cannabis and tobacco smokers show “significant bronchial mucosal histopathology”, or disorders of the bronchial tissues.
Dependency, Withdrawal & Obsession
Part of the side effects of weed use is psychological and physical dependency. Statistically speaking, 9% of the people of use marijuana will become addicted to it. After continual use, it can become a strong obsession.
There is bonafide condition known as “Cannabis Use Disorder”, as defined by the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Millions of people meet the medical criteria for marijuana addiction and need treatment. Part of the criteria is what is known as “withdrawal”, the psychological and physical manifestations of stopping use.
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