How Is Marijuana Harmful?

Updated on May 22, 2018

A Controversial Substance

The smoking of cannabis has been a part of human culture for thousands of years. But aside from being popular as a relatively safe recreational drug, it has also been discovered to have some real medical benefits. Around the globe, people are fighting for new cannabis legislation but meeting steady opposition. Much of this opposition has more to do with money and power than anyone's opinion or public health concerns (In fact, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau cited public health concerns as a reason to legalize cannabis). One clear example of this type of power dynamic is how in the U.S, both tobacco and alcohol are legal to sell, yet simply using marijuana is treated as a criminal activity. The government usually justifies this by presenting marijuana as a dangerous drug to the public, and has a history of exaggerating its negative effects and even making baseless assertions about it in educational material. This has led to great confusion in the public about the green stuff, though social media has helped clear up that issue. Even so, marijuana does have negative side effects, and we are still gathering data about it. Let's explore what we do know:

  1. The Smoke
  2. It Causes Panic and Anxiety
  3. Impairment
  4. Deeper Sleep?
  5. Pregnancy
  6. Possible Link to Testicular Cancer
  7. An Avoidance Tool
  8. Long-term Effects on the Brain

1. The Smoke

Combusting and then inhaling anything will, at the very least, irritate your lungs. People smoke weed in a number of ways—rolled up in joints, blunts, or smoking it from glass pipes and bongs. The smoke from marijuana can certainly damage your lungs; this is the result of the hydrocarbons formed when the plant material is burned. Once hydrocarbons are in the body, they turn into substances that are toxic to genes. Any time genes are being damaged, there is a risk of cancer.

However, even though burning marijuana produces much more tar than a cigarette, marijuana is known to contain compounds that do not allow the hydrocarbons to turn into their genotoxic products. In other words, there are things in marijuana that sort of mitigate the otherwise carcinogenic harm from smoking it, whereas the nicotine of tobacco worsens carcinogenicity.

In addition, inhaling smoke is not typically good for your cardiovascular system, and while marijuana may very well have some relationship with plaque formation (and other cardiovascular factors), this is not yet fully understood. What we do know is that marijuana can increase the heart rate by 50 beats per minute for up to three hours, which can increase the risk of a heart attack in those with a heart condition. So you should be careful if you have any issues with your cardiovascular or respiratory system.

The smoke from marijuana is one of the most harmful things about it. However, inhaling it is known to be less harmful than inhaling tobacco smoke, so there's that! Obviously, you can cut most of this (except raising the heart rate) out of the equation by vaporizing your marijuana or consuming it in an edible treat. This is a much healthier route of administration.

2. It Can Induce Panic and Anxiety

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the main psychoactive compound found in marijuana, though there are over sixty other cannabinoids in the plant material. Marijuana is unique in nature because of its potpourri of various cannabinoids, which are chemicals that affect neural pathways in our brain which regulate different bodily activities. These neural pathways are together called the endocannabinoid system (meaning loosely, the already-present cannabinoid system), because it was actually discovered by studying the psychological effects of cannabis. Some of things regulated by the endocannabinoid system include memory, appetite, sleep, stress response, and metabolism.

THC and the other cannabinoids present in weed act as agonists on the receptor cites of this system. An agonist is an outside substance that can fit the receptor for a given neurotransmitter and cause it to work differently than it would normally (in response to an endogenous neurotransmitter, the chemicals already present in your body). In other words, when you use weed, you are sort of hacking into your body's regulating neural networks.

There is much to be learned about how marijuana affects the brain specifically. Its action is multifaceted and widespread. Most people have heard about the associated euphoria and feelings of relaxation. However, we also know that in individuals with pre-existing mental conditions (such as bipolar disorder), marijuana could, for example, trigger a psychotic episode. In popular media, marijuana bears the idiosyncrasy of causing people to become paranoid or think they're going to die. It may sound funny, but very potent marijuana especially has been known to trigger panic attacks and anxiety. However, this usually only occurs in people predisposed to such conditions.

To put it shortly, the mind-altering effects of cannabis can pose a risk to the mentally unstable.

Probably best not to drive the rainbow car to the moon.
Probably best not to drive the rainbow car to the moon.

3. Impairment

The intoxicating effects of marijuana should not be overlooked. Both naive and experienced users should be aware of risks associated with using it when it comes to impairment. Though small doses leave the user largely coherent, a large dose of marijuana (which is very dependent on the individual's tolerance) can spell disaster when operating machinery or a motor vehicle.

Marijuana is unique because it can intoxicate users but leave their locus of control largely intact—especially experienced users with a high tolerance. Because of this, some users dismiss the notion of danger when it comes to impairment. However, the possibility of an accident occurring when using marijuana should not be overlooked.

Still, did you know much existing legislation is not in line with this principle? Because marijuana and its metabolites are fat-soluble, it sticks around in your bloodstream for a long time after you use it. This means that even if someone is not impaired by the drug at the time of some sort of accident, they may be charged with a DUI in some states. There are different levels of metabolite, and the laws vary from state to state in the U.S. Click here to check out your state's DUI laws for marijuana.

4. Deeper Sleep?

Many users report sleeping more soundly after appreciating a potent indica strain. However, did you know marijuana may interfere with REM (rapid eye-movement) sleep?

It might seem counter-intuitive—you'd think something so famed as a catalyst for the imagination would produce vivid dreams of a psychedelic nature. But there is a general consensus among doctors that marijuana intoxication results in less time spent during this sleep stage after our head hits the pillow. It is also reported that it may lengthen Stage 4 sleep, or "deep sleep," the slightly mysterious sleep stage in which the body restores itself.

It isn't yet understood why we dream exactly, but you can kind of feel out the jist of it. We are parsing through and processing memories and emotions. I should stop here though, because this is a contentious topic among people much more educated on the matter than I am. Anyway, this malformed sleep cycle could have negative consequences for the user, including difficulty forming memories. The lengthening of sleep stage 4 could also be the cause of the morning fog some pot smokers experience.

Very little is known about just how marijuana affects sleep. Just another reason the government should remove it from the list of Schedule I drugs and facilitate the research!

5. Pregnancy

The effects of marijuana on a fetus during pregnancy are currently unknown, with possible effects on brain development. But I wouldn't test those waters... er, amniotic fluids... if I were you!

Probably a let less comfortable than depicted here.
Probably a let less comfortable than depicted here.

6. Possible Link to Testicular Cancer

Men who smoke marijuana regularly are possibly at a higher risk of developing testicular cancer. This is perhaps one of the more alarming possible outcomes of smoking marijuana. Though testicular cancer is pretty rare, I wouldn't like to increase my chances of developing it. It's probably not as fun as they made it look on South Park.

Fortunately, most testicular cancer is caught early (remember those health class videos about self-exams, stoners?) and it has a 99% survival rate. Also, having testicular cancer doesn't always cause infertility. There's a reason you got two.

7. An Avoidance Tool

Sometimes I think of marijuana use like a big, cozy comforter that you can just pull over your head and use to hide from the world. I've already said how fortunate it is that marijuana seems to leave the user's locus of control largely intact. Still, the comforting warmth of the high can become an addiction for many, and so users of marijuana should be wary of this tendency and keep an eye on their habits. Sometimes, a good ol' tolerance break is a good way to set your sights straight again when this happens. Do this if you feel marijuana is interfering with your quality of life.

Because they're still mostly able to control themselves normally, marijuana users can't and shouldn't hide from their use patterns. Intent plays a key role in the user's lifestyle with the drug.

In fact, there are a good many counter-examples of the stereotypical lazy stoner. Many people enjoy exercising while under the influence of marijuana. For some it is a powerful reward tool after finishing a workload or accomplishing a goal. And of course, it is the muse of many an artist. I think at this point it's clear that while marijuana has the potential to be an escapist nightmare, it can also have a place in a decently healthy lifestyle—even recreationally.

8. Long-term Effects on the Brain

As for long-term effects on mental health, that's another thing that remains pretty unclear. We think marijuana could put individuals predisposed to schizophrenia at risk of earlier onset, or worsen their condition over time. It would also seem to have negative effects on brain development in those who use marijuana at a young age, but this too needs more research. A study has shown that heavy use over a long period of time potentially affects short term-memory, and another with mice showed negative effects on the hippocampus and long-term potentiation. It could have various effects on mental health in the long run, but the running theme here is that we need to study this more.


Is Marijuana a Monster?

In conclusion, marijuana poses an array of detriment to the human body and overall health, but for most individuals the effects are mild enough to be considered tolerable. Besides increasing the risk of testicular cancer, the drug just has an uncanny seeming aversion to be terrible for you! It contains compounds that protect against the carcinogenicity of the smoke and possibly even atherosclerosis. For this drug specifically, harm-reduction is fairly simple, though it should not be overlooked.

I'll add here that while I make light of it in this article (I really wanted to add some red veins to Cookie Monster's eyes), the decision to use any mind-altering drug will change your life. Because of the unpredictable outcomes, I can't say I condone smoking marijuana.

But it would seem that for anyone into altering their state of consciousness for kicks, marijuana is one of the safest options around. There are just some things to keep in mind if you make that choice. Maybe it's not for everyone, but a sustainable relationship is possible, and it's probably a good idea to either vaporize or ingest your good-good. It's also probably healthier to use it occasionally rather than be in a state of constant tolerance. I will say though, as far as drug tolerances go, marijuana's seems to be way less toxic than most.

Now, if only governments had the same harm-reduction mentality for society that responsible marijuana users have for their own health!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


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