Marijuana and its Effects on Health

Marijuana is now legal to use in Illinois. You may have seen the headlines about its effect on tax revenue, business development, and even past criminal sentencing. Yet what do we know about its effect on our minds and bodies? Quite a lot actually.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Illinois for a few years. Some patients have reported anecdotally that it helps with pain relief and anxiety, but as casual use begins to increase, we may begin seeing more of the effects marijuana has on short-term and long-term health. We offer this article, therefore, not as warning against recreational marijuana use per se, but more to provide helpful information about the effects of marijuana for anyone who chooses to use marijuana recreationally.

Marijuana can affect a variety of our bodies systems including our brains, lungs, and heart. There are a number of potential side effects of marijuana use including fast heart rate, red eyes, irritability, and nausea and vomiting. Marijuana use has also been associated with depression, impaired judgment, memory problems, and difficulty concentrating. A recent study from 2016 also showed that smoking marijuana increases the risk of heart attacks in young males by almost five times for 60 minutes after marijuana consumption. Further, a study done in 2019 showed that people between the ages of 18 and 38 who smoked marijuana episodically were at an increased risk for heart attacks even if they had normal coronary arteries. (Unfortunately, the study wasn’t designed to determine exactly how much the risk was increased. Given that it was composed of case reports with only 62 patients in the study, it’s likely the increased risk is small.)

Marijuana has direct effects on the brain and can cause problems with learning. Studies have shown that marijuana can adversely affect attention, decision-making, verbal fluency, and memory. Higher doses had a more significant impact. Some of these effects on the brain were not always reversible with abstinence. Chronic users have higher rates of anxiety, conduct disorders, and personality disorders. Furthermore, marijuana use can also lead to disorientation, anxiety, and paranoia. On the other hand–surprisingly–acute marijuana intoxication doesn’t appear to impair performance on standard neurocognitive tests.

The developing brains of children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of marijuana. Children born to mothers who use marijuana during pregnancy are at increased risk for developing problems with memory and concentration. Teenagers’ minds are extremely vulnerable to the long-term damaging effects on cognition and learning. Even though it’s one of the most commonly used drugs, it does have an addictive potential. Younger users (those under 18 years old) are especially at increased risk for becoming addicted.

Smoking marijuana can lead to lung injury, infections, and bronchitis. Since it has certain similarities to tobacco smoke, users have an increased risk of developing a chronic cough. Research is being done to determine if regular marijuana use increases the risk of lung cancer. Smoking marijuana can also worsen other respiratory illnesses such as asthma. Vaping has become a popular method of using marijuana, but severe lung injuries have been associated with vaping products laced with THC. While it’s still being studied, even secondhand marijuana smoke may place children and others at risk for negative health effects.

There are many other ways, other than smoking, to ingest marijuana including edibles and food and drink infused with marijuana. These methods may pose a greater risk of poisoning since it can take 30 minutes to 2 hours to take effect and people may eat or drink more to achieve the desired result. Children are also at risk for accidental poisoning because some of the products look like candy.

As with alcohol consumption, ultimately everyone needs to make a personal decision about marijuana use. But also as with alcohol consumption, attendant health risks exist that users should know about so they can make an informed decision about what role they want recreational marijuana use to play in their lives.

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