Marijuana: the Good, the Bad + the Ugly
Marijuana is often viewed as a harmless bit of fun. Increasing legalization may be supporting this view for many. But does the science agree?
In 2013 and 2015, I wrote about my growing concerns regarding legalization of marijuana in America. My major concern is the well-established research that found significant and permanent risks to brain function and lower IQ when adolescents became regular users. In Colorado, within the first years of legalization, the ONLY demographic that significantly increased marijuana use is adolescents.1,2
MY TAKE: If by legalizing marijuana, our children are at greater risk of using a drug that causes permanent cognitive damage, it clearly should not be legal until we can protect this vulnerable demographic.
Read my marijuana articles here.
From 2002 to 2012, use of cannabis doubled in the US and the number of cases of cannabis use disorder also doubled.22 While tobacco and alcohol use is declining in US high schools, marijuana use is on the rise, as teenagers can easily think, “If it’s legal, it must be safe.”24
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New Marijuana Research
Studying marijuana has been a challenge for decades because it is federally classified as a Schedule 1 drug, which means it has no accepted medical use. With legalization, the flood gates of research on marijuana are flowing.
More and more studies are being published with titles like Weighing the Benefits and Risks of Medical Marijuana Use,18 Positive and Negative Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids on Health,19 and How Harmful is Marijuana: Where There is Smoke, There’s Harm.20
Before I discuss the newly discovered health risks associated with marijuana use, let me list some of the researched benefits that have led to legalization:
Benefits of Marijuana
- Used for pain, although new research debates pain-reducing effects.25
- Acts as both an antipsychotic for some, but increases psychosis in others5
- Anti-anxiety agent4
- Benefits mood and sleep in cases of chronic pain6
- Analgesia for chronic neuropathic pain3
- Appetite stimulant in debilitating diseases (such as cancer and AIDS)3
- Helps with Crohn’s Disease8
- Used in treatment of multiple sclerosis3,9
- Supports treatment of fibromyalgia7
- Supports treatment of glaucoma10
In addition, some research published on potential benefits of marijuana for disease states is quite impressive. More research is ongoing to confirm these benefits.18,19
UCLA researcher Dr. David Plurad points out, “There is never going to be one answer for marijuana. It’s good for you, it’s bad for you.”11
Now for Some Bad News
A study published in March 2020 from Washington State University found more than 50% of study participants reported having experienced coughing fits, anxiety, and/or paranoia while using cannabis.12
“Interestingly, we didn’t find that quantity of use during a single session predicted very much in terms of whether or not a person was going to have a bad reaction,” lead researcher Carrie Cuttler said. “It was the people who smoke on a less frequent basis who tend to have these bad experiences more often.”15
The same study provided a list of adverse reactions to cannabis intoxication, included below, along with other risks.
Risks of Cannabis Use1,2,12-14,21-23
- dry mouth
- memory problems
- altered sense of perception/time
- lack of coordination
- distortions of memories and false memories, even when abstinent and drug-free
- memory deficits
- risk of dependency
- withdrawal symptoms
- pregnancy issues
- increased risk of testicular cancer
- cognitive issues
- lower IQ
- Respiratory health concerns
Is Marijuana Too Strong?
YES! More than 90% of legal marijuana products in medical dispensaries are much stronger than what clinical studies have shown to be beneficial for chronic pain relief, according to a study published in March 2020.16
Studies show a THC content of 5% is sufficient to deliver the pain-relieving benefits and high consumers look for. (60%-80% of people who use medical marijuana use it for pain relief.) Today, it is common even for recreational marijuana to have levels as high as 30% THC.
Increasing concentrations of THC are a real concern. Studies show as THC levels go up, so does the risk of dependency. Over time, as with any drug, the body will build up a tolerance to higher levels of THC, requiring increased dosage and frequency of use to get the same high or pain relief.16,17
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Is Marijuana Addictive?
While this is a controversial issue, more and more studies suggest the addictive nature of marijuana on the brain and the intense withdrawal symptoms when trying to wean off of it.21-23
A Meta-Analysis Review
A study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal reviewed the literature regarding marijuana safety pending its legalization. The conclusion was striking:
”The final analysis included 68 reviews. Evidence of harm was reported in 62 reviews for several mental health disorders, brain changes, cognitive outcomes, pregnancy outcomes, and testicular cancer. Inconclusive evidence was found for 20 outcomes (some mental health outcomes, other types of cancers and all-cause mortality). No evidence of harm was reported for 6 outcomes.
Harm was associated with most outcomes assessed. These results should be viewed with concern by physicians and policy-makers given the prevalence of use, the persistent reporting of a lack of recognition of marijuana as a possibly harmful substance and the emerging context of legalization for recreational use.
Due to the nature of marijuana function on the brain, death due to overdose is not possibleand marijuana has therefore been classified as a relatively safe drug, which it is in the short term. The safety profile of marijuana in the short term may have overshadowed some of the longer term health risks that appear to be associated with even moderate use.” 26
Interestingly, Canada went ahead with legalizing marijuana in October 2018. I look at marijuana legalization as perhaps a necessary evil, while remaining wishful that in the future we learn from our mistakes.
I wish governments would make it legal to do the research before we put drugs to a vote. 5G may be another example of putting the cart before the horse—or, shall we say, the technology before the research.
What do you think about the pros and cons of marijuana?