Marijuana, dope, pot, grass, and weed are just some of the names used to refer to the drug that comes from the Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica plant. It’s a psychoactive drug – containing over 500 chemical compounds – that can be smoked, eaten, drunk, or inhaled.
While marijuana is mainly used for pleasure and recreation, medical marijuana is growing in popularity as an effective treatment for pain relief, certain forms of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis symptoms, and decreasing nausea in cancer patients.
With an estimated 50 million people using it, marijuana is now the most commonly used federally illegal drug in the U.S., with numbers steadily rising – especially among the 18–25 age group.
Is smoking marijuana safe?
The general consensus is that smoking marijuana is a harmless, non-addictive activity. Its effects can certainly appear less dramatic than many other drugs, like cocaine or heroin.
However, while the federal government’s stance has hindered large-scale studies, a growing body of evidence from the medical community does contradict the belief that there are no risks involved.
The reality is that smoking marijuana, especially long-term, has many potentially harmful side effects that shouldn’t be ignored.
Harmful side effects of smoking marijuana
People discover and use marijuana in different ways, at different ages, for different reasons, and with varying tolerance levels. In addition, modern strains of marijuana typically contain much higher levels of THC (the primary psychoactive ingredient), which can make controlling dosing unpredictable.
As a result of these variables, individuals will have different experiences and opinions about the drug and its safety. However, the fact remains that the exact same biological processes occur in everyone who smokes marijuana and can cause harmful physical and mental side effects.
1. Damage to the throat and lungs
Regularly smoking marijuana can irritate and inflame the throat and lung tissues, creating breathing issues, a persistent cough, and excess mucus. In addition, THC appears to weaken the immune system in some users, making them more prone to repeated chest infections.
While not considered as harmful as smoking tobacco, the cannabis stem and flowers do contain carcinogens that, when smoked, have the potential to lead to more serious lung conditions.
The American Lung Association (ALA) advises that regularly smoking marijuana can put immune-compromised people at a high risk of developing lung infections, including chronic bronchitis. They also call for more research on the harmful effects of smoking marijuana on the lungs.
2. Increased cardiovascular and heart problems
Smoking marijuana makes the heart pump harder, raises the heart rate, and dilates blood vessels – for up to three hours. This puts a considerable strain on the body, in addition to the various chemicals being inhaled, and can increase the risk of a heart attack, blood clot, or stroke.
The risk is much higher for older smokers or those with an existing heart condition.
3. Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome (CHS)
The THC found in marijuana can lead to changes in the stomach and digestive tract, especially in those who smoke marijuana regularly. This can result in the condition ‘CHS.’
CHS causes abdominal cramps, severe nausea, vomiting, and dehydration and may require emergency medical treatment in extreme cases.
While this is still a relatively rare condition, the number of people affected by it is growing annually.
4. Decreased testosterone production
Strains of modern marijuana containing high levels of THC have been shown to affect hormone balance in males, slowing down the body’s production of testosterone.
Low testosterone can trigger several side effects and health risks, including weight gain, reduced mental clarity, lack of energy, lowered sex drive, and erectile dysfunction.
The good news is that testosterone levels will typically return to normal if marijuana use ceases.
5. Problems with babies’ health during (and after) pregnancy
Some studies have shown a link between pregnant women who smoke marijuana and premature births/lower birth weights. In addition, the drug may affect the developing parts of an unborn baby’s brain.
After birth, THC excreted in breast milk may also affect a baby’s developing brain, resulting in attention, memory, and behavioral problems.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists strongly recommend against using marijuana during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
6. Negative interactions with prescription medication
Smoking marijuana can be hazardous when combined with some prescription medications. THC interacts with nearly 400 prescription medications and CBD (cannabidiol) with over 540 – including sedatives, antidepressants, pain medications, and anticoagulants.
This can lead to serious side effects, including bleeding complications, reduced heart rate, extreme confusion and memory loss, and increased drowsiness.
In addition, marijuana shouldn’t be used in combination with anesthesia or other drugs used during or after surgery as it has a central nervous system depressant effect. Marijuana use should be stopped at least two weeks before a planned surgery.
7. Restricted brain development
When marijuana is smoked, compounds (including THC) pass from the lungs into the bloodstream. They then get carried to the brain and other organs of the body.
The effects on the brain cell receptors can have a lasting impact on brain development and function, particularly in teenagers and young adults whose brain hasn’t yet fully developed.
Imaging tests with adolescents have found that marijuana may physically change their brains in the areas linked with learning, thinking, and memory function. Tests have also revealed a loss of IQ points in some.
Research is ongoing on how long these effects last and whether the changes may be permanent. However, early indications suggest that lost mental abilities in teens due to heavy marijuana consumption don’t fully return in those who quit as adults.
8. Worsening symptoms of existing mental health issues
It’s common for people experiencing unpleasant symptoms from various mental health issues to use marijuana as a coping strategy – including those with depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and suicidal thoughts.
However, while they may experience initial relief from their symptoms, frequent marijuana use over time exacerbates mental health problems and increases the risk of developing others. For example, it may worsen manic symptoms in those with bipolar disorder, raise the risk for clinical depression, trigger psychosis in people with schizophrenia, or lead to substance use disorder.
From the current research, it is cautioned that people with a family history of mental health issues or other high-risk factors should avoid using marijuana.
9. Impaired cognitive function
Marijuana has been shown to have short- and long-term effects on brain development and cognitive function.
Short-term effects include:
- problems with thinking/problem-solving
- changes in mood
- heightened senses
- distorted time perception
- impaired memory
- impaired body movement/coordination
- hallucinations and delusions (if taken regularly, in high doses).
Long-term effects depend on many factors, including frequency of use, dosage, and age of first use. They may include:
- affected brain development (especially in teens and young adults)
- impaired thinking, memory, and learning functions
- a decline in general knowledge and verbal ability
- increased risk of psychotic disorders (including schizophrenia)
- links to other mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.
The long-lasting side effects of smoking marijuana are still being studied to determine if they can be reversed after a period of abstinence.
10. Substance use disorder and addiction
According to the CDC, around 10% of marijuana users are at risk of developing a substance use disorder.
The potential for addiction is particularly high for those who start young and for those who rely on the drug for specific purposes, such as sleep, concentration, altering mood, relaxation, or socializing.
For marijuana smokers that find it is adversely affecting their health or find it difficult to stop on their own, addiction treatment is available.
If you are worried about your or a loved one’s marijuana use, the friendly, experienced team at Tikvak Lake is here to help.
We have successfully treated people with all types of addiction. We are skilled in helping people to identify the underlying causes and consequences of their addictions and to develop healthy methods for dealing with them.
Call us today to speak with one of our specialists and find out how we can help you or a loved one begin your recovery journey.