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The Health Effects of Marijuana

January 22, 2020

As of January 1, 2020, residents and visitors of Illinois over the age of 21 are allowed to possess cannabis for recreational use.  While many are excited at the opportunity to legally partake in the use of marijuana, we want you to be mindful of the potential health risks associated with smoking marijuana, especially among the younger population. 

Research has not determined how much marijuana can be consumed before negative effects begin.  The threshold of frequency and quantity seems to differ from person to person, and current research shows correlation, not direct causation.  Nevertheless, given the apparent correlations, there is no level at which marijuana is truly considered safe.

Effects on Mental Health

Studies have shown that the use of marijuana can affect many areas of the brain, including areas focused on memory, learning, attention, coordination, emotions, decision making, and reaction time.  When used over a short period of time, marijuana can simply affect memory and mood. 

Over the long term, it can go so far as to cause problems in brain development by interfering with the connections normally constructed during the teenage years.  Studies have found that these effects can be permanent, and inhibit learning and the forming of memories for the rest of a person’s life.

Researchers are still not clear as to the extent that marijuana affects the developing brain in babies, children, and teenagers, but it is certain that the younger age groups are more vulnerable to the negative side effects.

In addition, the use of marijuana increases the risk of causing a car accident due to the reduced reaction time, lack of coordination, and inattention.

Effects on Heart and Lung Health

Particles breathed in while smoking marijuana cause damage to the lungs, just like cigarettes, vape pens, or working in an environment with lots of dust or fumes.  Over time, this damage can become significant.  People who smoke marijuana regularly are at a higher risk of developing chronic bronchitis or COPD.

Additional, immediately after inhaling marijuana, the user’s heart rate usually increases anywhere from 20 to 50 beats per minute.  This does not necessarily mean that cannabis increases the risk of heart attacks, but for some people, this effect could be a trigger for a heart attack to start.  Studies are inconclusive as to whether the use of marijuana increases or decreases the risk of high blood pressure.

Effects on Pregnancy

When a woman uses cannabis while pregnant, studies have found there is an increased likelihood of a lower birth weight, and even a premature delivery.   In fact, women who use cannabis while pregnant are twice as likely to deliver their baby prematurely.  Along with that comes a much greater chance of complications and a higher risk that the baby will end up spending time in the neonatal ICU. 

Marijuana ingested through the mother before while in the womb can affect the child long after birth, causing the same problems with memory, attention span, and behavior.

Links to Cancer

It does not appear that marijuana is connected to any cancers that are associated with smoking, such as lung, head, and neck cancers.  Long-term, frequent users of marijuana may have a higher risk of developing testicular cancer, although studies are currently incomplete.

Effects on Pain

According to a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, cannabis can be an effective treatment for chronic pain.  While providers may opt not to become licensed to prescribe medical marijuana, there are benefits to using it to treat muscle spasms and prevent nausea and vomiting that comes from chemotherapy.

Use in E-Cigarettes

Cannabis products have been used in e-cigarettes in different forms.  E-cigarettes pose a variety of health concerns in addition to those posed by marijuana.  Read the facts about the vaping crisis and health effects on our previous blog post.

When to Use

CPASA (Community Partners Against Substance Abuse) would advise the same cautions for using marijuana as you would with alcohol:

  • If you are going to consume cannabis products, do not do so if you plan to drive, operate machinery, or go to work.
  • Keep all cannabis products secure and away from anyone under the age of 21.
  • Follow all state laws pertaining to the purchase, transportation, and possession of cannabis.

Legality

While our state law now allows for the responsible possession and consumption of cannabis, there are still legal consequences for violations pertaining to transportation, possession, and where it can be consumed.

  • If a police offer smells cannabis in your vehicle, it may still be subject to search.
  • If you are driving under the influence of cannabis, you may be arrested for DUI.
  • If you consume cannabis in the presence of anyone under the age of 21, you may be subject to legal consequences.

Illinois’ legislature and law enforcement are still acclimating to the new cannabis laws.  There will be test cases over the next few years which will set precedent for what is legal and what is not, and law enforcement will certainly exercise discretion as we figure out the new laws.

The Bottom Line

You only get one body, and it is important to take good care of it.  Marijuana may not contain the tar and many of the harmful chemicals found in tobacco cigarettes, but ultimately smoking anything causes damage.  Particles entering the lungs do damage to the air sacs and can cause significant, highly debilitating problems later in life, such as COPD.  Not to mention the potential for memory loss and trouble controlling emotions that can significantly affect a person’s wellness, relationships, and overall success. 

As a healthcare organization, our utmost priority is your long-term health, and we recommend avoiding first- or second-hand marijuana and staying on the path to a long life of health and wellness.

Resources

https://www.cdc.gov/marijuana/health-effects.html

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/10/28/773560069/some-pregnant-women-use-weed-for-morning-sickness-but-fda-cautions-against-it

https://www.cdc.gov/marijuana/factsheets/pregnancy.htm

https://www.verywellmind.com/the-health-effects-of-marijuana-67788

https://www.businessinsider.com/new-national-academies-sciences-report-marijuana-cannabis-health-effects-2017-1

https://www.businessinsider.com/marijuana-weed-mental-physical-effects-2017-1#in-the-short-term-it-can-also-make-your-heart-race-3