Are There Health Risks to Long-Term Marijuana Abuse?
Marijuana is a drug derived from the plant Cannabis sativa. The drug is often called weed, grass, pot, hash, bud, ganja, and other nicknames. It is becoming increasingly popular as a social and relaxation drug in the United States, with recreational use and sales legal in eight states, and medical marijuana legal in 28 states. While the drug is still Schedule I at the federal level, the Department of Justice announced in 2013 that they would allow states to decide how to manage marijuana use without growers, retailers, and consumers facing federal prosecution.
Although the drug is more culturally acceptable today, it can still be dangerous, just like legal drugs tobacco and alcohol. It is possible for a person to become addicted to marijuana’s intoxicating effects and develop a physical dependence on the drug. If a person uses marijuana consistently over a long period of time, they can develop long-lasting health problems related to how much they use and how they consume the drug.
Long-Term Effects of Marijuana Abuse
Long-Term Health Risks Associated with Marijuana Abuse
- Cognitive ImpairmentShort-term use of marijuana leads to cognitive difficulties, including short-term memory loss, difficulty concentrating, and other side effects. While these wear off for most people once they sober up, it is possible that a person who uses marijuana consistently over a long period of time may not be able to process information as quickly and does not form new memories as well. Brain scans of people who have chronically abused marijuana show that persistent reduction in blood flow reduces the size of the hippocampus and amygdala, which house many of the brain’s cannabinoid receptors. Other areas that may be affected by long-term marijuana abuse due to their high volume of natural cannabinoid receptors include the basal ganglia, cerebellum, and prefrontal cortex.Adolescents are particularly susceptible to long-term brain changes with chronic marijuana use. Brain scans show increased volume in the cerebellum of people who abused marijuana as teenagers, which indicates that synapses are not pruned, as with healthy brains. A review of 4,000 young adults for the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study found that the subjects, tracked over a 25-year period, consistently performed worse on speed, executive function, and verbal memory if they used marijuana.
- Mental and Emotional HealthUsing marijuana can trigger psychosis, especially in people with a predisposition to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. An Australian study found that among adolescents and young adults who regularly ingested marijuana, there was a 5 percent increased chance of developing schizophrenia. A study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychology backs up claims that marijuana use can trigger schizophrenia, and a study conducted in the United Kingdom further shows that marijuana use can trigger psychosis due to a predisposition to schizophrenia.Marijuana use can also increase mood fluctuations, particularly depression and anxiety. This can exacerbate pre-existing depression, anxiety disorders, and bipolar disorder.Adolescents who use marijuana are more likely to struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts. As with other co-occurring disorders, it is difficult to tell if the adolescent is self-medicating existing depression or the mental health condition is the result of marijuana abuse; however, some reviews show that students who used marijuana at least once per month are three times as likely to have suicidal thoughts compared to those who did not use marijuana.
- Lung ProblemsWhile there are a variety of ways to ingest marijuana, including edible versions, many people smoke or vaporize marijuana since inhaling drugs allows the intoxicating substance to pass into the bloodstream faster. When foreign particles are consistently introduced into the lungs, the respiratory tract can become irritated and inflamed. The lungs cannot clear out infectious diseases or toxins as efficiently, so the potential for illnesses like bronchitis and pneumonia increases. Combined with tobacco smoke, smoking marijuana increases the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).Many people who advocate for marijuana legalization allege that the drug is healthier than tobacco because it has fewer additives; however, a Canadian report published in 2007 shows that marijuana can have higher levels of ammonia and hydrogen cyanide, so some lung conditions like bullous lung disease can be induced much earlier in chronic marijuana smokers compared to chronic tobacco smokers.
- Cardiovascular ProblemsMarijuana can double the rate at which the heart beats – from 70-80 beats per minute to 160 beats per minute. While this is a short-term effect for people who do not use the drug routinely, people who abuse marijuana for a long time have a higher risk of damage to arteries and veins from changes in blood pressure; an increased risk of heart attack or stroke; and worsened issues if pre-existing heart and blood circulation problems are present.
- Pregnancy and BreastfeedingIf a woman uses marijuana during pregnancy, especially due to addiction or dependence, the nerve development of the fetus can be stunted or changed, leading to birth defects. Marijuana use can also lead to premature birth, which puts the infant at risk of long-term health problems. Babies born to mothers who used marijuana during pregnancy are more likely to display withdrawal symptoms after birth, including shaking, delays in visual responses, a high-pitched cry, and low birth weight.THC can also be carried to the infant through breastmilk, so the child can suffer cognitive difficulties like memory problems and difficulty with solving problems. The full effect on fetal development and infancy is not well understood.
- Other Reproductive EffectsFertility can be affected by chronic marijuana abuse in both genders. Men experience a reduction in testosterone, which could cause reduced interest in sex as well as reduced ability to produce healthy sperm.Women may experience disruptions in their ovulation cycle. A cycle in which the ovaries do not release eggs is called anovulation, and it is more often seen in women who are premenopausal. However, some studies indicate that marijuana disrupts estrogen and progesterone, as well as testosterone, so a woman who chronically smokes marijuana may experience anovulation more often than a woman who does not smoke marijuana.
- CancerIntroduction of foreign particles into the lungs from smoking marijuana increases the risk of lung cancer; however, other cancers have been associated with chronic marijuana abuse. Testicular cancer has been strongly linked to marijuana abuse. A 2012 study published in Cancer reported that men who had smoked marijuana at any point in their lifetimes doubled their risk of developing testicular cancer. The study compared 162 men with testicular cancer to 292 healthy men, all between the ages of 18 and 36. Testicular cancer is the most common cancer in men under the age of 45.There is also a potential link between smoking marijuana and the development of bladder cancer. A link between bladder cancer in people aged 60 and older and smoking cigarettes is well documented; however, a survey of younger patients with bladder cancer found that 88.5 percent had a history of routine marijuana smoking.
Get Help Overcoming Marijuana Addiction
Marijuana use has increased consistently since 2007. As more states are legalizing some version of marijuana ingestion, the drug is becoming more socially acceptable. However, this does not mean that the drug is not addictive or physically harmful, especially when used chronically for a long period of time. People who have a predisposition toward addiction and are exposed to marijuana are more likely to struggle with addiction to this substance. This is the same for people who struggle with alcohol and tobacco addiction; both alcohol and tobacco are legal and can be harmful with chronic, long-term abuse.
For those who struggle with marijuana addiction, it is possible to get well and achieve sobriety with the right help. A comprehensive treatment program that addresses the underlying issues related to the substance abuse can help clients to embrace a healthy future in recovery.