7 Reasons Why Smoking Marijuana May Be Hazardous to Your Health

Wednesday Aug 13 | BY |
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Though medical marijuana has some health benefits,
regular use can also cause serious health problems.

Medical marijuana (cannabis) is gaining steam. So far, twenty-three states have enacted laws to legalize it. Four more have pending legislation, bills, and ballot measures in 2014.

Though research on the health benefits is still in its infancy, so far studies have shown that medical cannabis can help ease the symptoms nausea and vomiting, stimulate appetite, decrease muscle spasms, ease pain, and tame anxiety.

The drug can also create health problems, however. Below are the seven most concerning side effects you may want to be aware of.

Quick Note: The Effects Depend on the Plant

All cannabis isn’t the same. Just as there are different varieties of tomatoes or potatoes, so too are there different varieties of cannabis, bred to create specific effects.

There are plants that have been fashioned to create psychoactive properties. There are also those that are bred, grown, and produced to contain little to no psychoactive effects, but powerful anti-anxiety, digestive, and potentially even anti-cancer effects.

So far, we have two general types of the plant:

  1. High-THC: Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the chemical in the cannabis plant most responsible for marijuana’s psychological effects. It binds to certain nerve cells in the brain associated with memory, thinking, coordination, pleasure, and time perception. Though it can create a sense of euphoria, depending on the other compounds in the plant (or lack of them), it can also cause hallucinations, delusions, and other mental problems.
  2. High-CBD: CBD (cannabidiol) is believed to be the second most abundant “cannabinoid” (components unique to the plant) in cannabis, though it all depends on how the plants are bred and grown. In the quest for higher concentrations of THC, levels of CBD were often sacrificed, but with new research showing what CBD can do in the health world, that’s starting to change. CBD is a non-psychoactive component of marijuana that is thought to actually counter the negative psychoactive effects of THC, such as memory impairment and paranoia.

Currently, most of the potential damaging effects of marijuana seem to be attributed to high-THC types of the plant, because of its ability to affect the brain.

Potential Health Hazards of Cannabis

Studies are limited, but we have evidence that cannabis (particularly the high-THC variety) may cause health problems.

  1. Memory problems: Those who become dependent on the drug often experience memory impairments. A recent 2013 study reported significant working memory impairments in both healthy subjects and those with schizophrenia. Cannabis-using groups also had significant decreases in the volume of two brain areas important for learning and working memory. Healthy people who had never used marijuana scored 37 times better, on average, on memory tests, than those who had smoked in the past.
  2. Schizophrenia: A large study conducted over 15 years and involving over 45,000 participants found that high consumers of cannabis (used on more than 50 occasions) were over 600 percent more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than those who didn’t take it. A later study published in the British Medical Journal also showed that those who used cannabis as teens had a 10 percent chance of developing psychosis by the age of 26. Additional studies from Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Israel, all show that cannabis use in childhood and adolescence doubles the risk of psychosis or schizophrenia.
  3. Drop in IQ: A 2013 study linked smoking marijuana during the teen years with a decline in IQ levels. Researchers used data from the Dunedin Longitudinal Study, which was conducted in Dunedin, New Zealand, and included over 1,000 individuals born in 1972 and 1973, who were followed from birth to age 38. Individuals who started using cannabis in adolescence and continued to use it for years afterwards lost an average of 8 IQ points. Those who never used it experienced a slight increase in IQ. A later study questioned the results of the original, but scientists successfully defended their findings.
  4. Panic attacks: Though some recreational users say cannabis helps them relax, and the drug has been used in some medical situations for that reason, it can affect some people in the opposite way, actually causing more anxiety. According to Harvard Health, studies report that about 20-30 percent of recreational users have anxiety problems after smoking marijuana. One study, for example, found that those who were dependent on cannabis were over two times more likely to have a lifetime diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder. The difference in effect between users may also be due to the THC content—lower THC varieties have a calming effect, while high-THC can cause intense episodes of anxiety.
  5. Heart disease: Some studies have indicated that cannabis use may increase risk of heart disease. A small 2013 study, for instance, found that marijuana use may contribute to heart and artery disease among young and middle-aged adults, particularly those who already had risk factors, like high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Another study from Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center and Harvard Medical School found that marijuana increased risk of having a heart attack within the first hour of smoking to five times that of non-smokers. More research needs to be done on this one, but it’s worth cautioning those with other risk factors for heart disease, as studies have shown marijuana increases heart rate and blood pressure, making the heart work harder.
  6. Infertility: Some studies have found that regular use of cannabis, especially in the younger years, can increase risk of infertility. In June 2014, for example, researchers reported that cannabis doubled the risk of men under 30 having poor sperm unable to fertilize an egg. Researchers added that it takes three months to produce sperm, so stopping smoking and expecting a fast rebound is unrealistic. An earlier animal study also found that cannabis could reduce the amount of testosterone produced by the body, while another human study found that marijuana-smoking college men had “hyper” sperm that were likely to burn out before reaching the egg, decreasing fertility. Researchers added that women who use the drug have THC in their reproductive organs, where it can negatively affect sperm.
  7. Weakened immune system: Cannabis has been found to suppress the immune system. A 2010 study, for example, found that smoking marijuana could trigger a suppression of the body’s immune system, leaving users more susceptible to infections and certain types of cancers. The research team from South Carolina looked strictly at THC compounds, and found they triggered a massive number of immune-suppressor cells in the body—the same cells that are triggered when cancer cells grow, weakening the ability of the immune system to kill them.

Were you aware of these health dangers of marijuana? What do you think?

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Matthew J. Smith, et al., “Cannabis-Related Working Memory Deficits and Associated Subcortical Morphological Differences in Healthy Individuals and Schizophrenia Subjects,” Schizophr Bull December 15, 2013; http://schizophreniabulletin.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/12/10/schbul.sbt176.abstract.

Sven Andreasson, et al., “Cannabis and Schizophrenia: A Longitudinal Study of Swedish Conscripts,” The Lancet, December 26, 1987; 330(8574):1483-1486, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673687926201.

Rebecca Kuepper, et al., “Continued cannabis use and risk of incidence and persistence of psychotic symptoms: 10 year follow-up cohort study,” BMJ 2011; 342:d738; http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.d738.

Mark Weiser, et al., “Interpreting the association between cannabis use and increased risk for schizophrenia,” Dialogues Clin Neurosci., March 2005; 7(1):81-85, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181719/.

Dennis Thompson, “Brain Scan Study Suggests ‘Pothead’ Stereotype Might Be Real,” Health Day, December 16, 2013, http://consumer.healthday.com/public-health-information-30/marijuana-news-759/brain-scan-study-suggests-pothead-stereotype-might-be-real-683062.html.

Fran Lowry, “Cannabis Use in Teens Linked to Irreparable Drop in IQ,” Medscape Medical News, April 26, 2013, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/803197.

Maia Szalavitz, “New Research Questions Marijuana’s Impact in Lowering IQ,” Time, January 15, 2013, http://healthland.time.com/2013/01/15/new-research-questions-marijuanas-impact-in-lowering-iq/.

“Medical Marijuana and the Mind,” Harvard Mental Health Letter, April 2010, http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/2010/April/medical-marijuana-and-the-mind.

“Cannabis and anxiety: What does the research say?” Nationaldrugstrategy.gov.au, http://www.nationaldrugstrategy.gov.au/internet/drugstrategy/Publishing.nsf/content/C22A31B6C742DFE5CA25767E00122541/$File/m688.pdf.

Dennis Thompson, “Pot Smoking May Pose Heart Dangers, Study Suggests,” WebMD, April 23, 2014, http://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/news/20140423/pot-smoking-may-pose-heart-dangers-study-suggests.

Amy Malick, “Study: Pot Increases Heart Attack Risks,” ABC News, June 12, 2014, http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=117399/.

Steve Connor, “Cannabis doubles younger men’s risk of infertility, study finds,” Independent.co.uk, June 5, 2014, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/cannabis-doubles-younger-mens-risk-of-infertility-study-finds-9487046.html.

“Cannabis link to male fertility,” Daily Mail, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-188394/Cannabis-link-male-fertility.html.

Venkatesh L. Hegde, Mitzi Nagarkatti and Prakash S. Nagarkatti. Cannabinoid receptor activation leads to massive mobilization of myeloid-derived suppressor cells with potent immunosuppressive properties. European Journal of Immunology, 2010; 40 (12): 3358-3371, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/eji.201040667/abstract;jsessionid=2C1DB23FA5AA18DA8505969F79D3A7CC.f01t02.

“The Adverse Effects of Marijuana (for healthcare professionals),” California Society of Addiction Medicine, http://www.csam-asam.org/adverse-effects-marijuana-healthcare-professionals.

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho. www.colleenmstory.com

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