By Dr. Harold C. Urschel III, MD, MMA
Chief Medical Strategist
While the Opioid Epidemic is garnering a lot of news lately, another drug – marijuana – has slowly been making headlines of its own, now with 29 U.S. states and the District of Colombia offering at least medical marijuana programs.
It’s safe to say that marijuana is popular, but is it safe?
If you do just a small amount of research on the topic of marijuana, you are going to find a whole lot of information, and almost regardless of the nature of your search, the results are likely to be pretty mixed.
The legal status of marijuana in the country is likewise pretty mixed. At the federal level, possession of marijuana or its derivatives is a crime. However, more than half of the states in the U.S. now allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, and several states even allow its use for recreational use.
In addition, the medical community is a bit fractured on the issue. Researchers and doctors in certain fields report the potential benefits of medical marijuana use in certain applications, but no two medical professionals seem to agree on what all those applications are, the long-term effects marijuana will have, or its actual efficacy on various ailments.
Meanwhile, marijuana advocates are putting out all kinds of information – some of it true, some if it false – but much of their information is either intentionally misleading or simply leads people to draw incorrect conclusions from the data at hand.
That is why Enterhealth wants to help educate the public and let them know what’s true and what’s myth, starting with three of the biggest myths currently being circulated regarding marijuana.
Myth #1 – Marijuana is not addictive
When we discuss the addictiveness of a substance, it’s important to differentiate between physical dependence and psychological dependence. Addiction is characterized by several factors, including:
· An inability to stop/compulsion to use
· Failure to meet obligations (work, social, family, etc.)
· Tolerance to the drug of choice
· Withdrawal when not using
This is by no means a comprehensive list of the different symptoms which typically accompany addiction, but it serves to illustrate a point. The first two components are psychological symptoms of addiction, whereas the latter two are physical symptoms.
Over time, people who regularly use marijuana will find that they have to consume more and more of the drug to achieve the “high” they seek. This is known as building a tolerance. Withdrawal refers to a set of unpleasant physical symptoms (which vary by drug) which accompany a sudden cessation of the substance in question.
Marijuana does cause physical withdrawal. However, the symptoms can often be very mild compared to other drugs, leading many users and the public to believe that marijuana is not addictive. Additionally, depending on the frequency and amount of marijuana use, withdrawal symptoms may not present for up to three weeks after a person stops using, further muddling the correlation between marijuana use and the accompanying withdrawal symptoms.
Symptoms of marijuana withdrawal include:
· Troubled sleep
· Loss of focus
· Depressive state
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 9% of marijuana users will become dependent on the drug. To put that in context, it’s estimated that approximately 10% of the population – or 30 million people – used marijuana in the last year, meaning that at least 3 million Americans put themselves at risk of developing a dependence on marijuana.
Myth #2 Marijuana is not harmful, has few side effects
The idea that marijuana is harmless, or that it has no profound negative side effects is patently untrue, but it doesn’t stop pro-marijuana advocates from presenting it as such. Often downplaying the negative side effects and saying things such as “it’s not as harmful as alcohol,” these groups are pushing an agenda rather than trying to help anyone.
In reality, there are a number of both short- and long-term side effects to using marijuana. The short-term side effects can include:
· Altered senses
· Altered sense of time
· Changes in mood
· Impaired body movement
· Difficulty with thinking and problem solving
· Impaired memory
· Hallucinations (when taken in high doses)
· Delusions (when taken in high doses)
· Psychosis (when taken in high doses)
In addition to the aforementioned short-term side effects, marijuana can have profound effects on brain development, which makes it extremely harmful for children and adolescents. Recent research shows that marijuana use by teens can contribute to an irreversible IQ drop of up to 8 points. Because of this, teenage marijuana use puts adolescents at an elevated risk for lower school performance and lower satisfaction with life. Marijuana use has also been shown to exacerbate anxiety disorders and negatively impact social skills in young adults.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that marijuana can also damage the lungs. The smoke from a marijuana cigarette (joint) is four times more carcinogenic than cigarette smoke and deposits four times the tar. Marijuana also causes an increase in heartrate by 20-100%, creating a fivefold increase in the risk of a heart attack within the first hour of smoking.
Marijuana may also affect the human reproductive system in both men and women. In human and animal studies, THC, the main active ingredient in marijuana (and the primary component of the “high”), has been shown to negatively affect the production of testosterone. THC has also been found to decrease the motility (ability to move around) of human sperm cells, further contributing to male infertility. In women, marijuana has been shown to reduce the production of female sex hormones (such as progesterone and estrogen) as well. This can lead to sexual dysfunction and an irregular ovulation cycle.
In addition, despite some recent claims by some that marijuana can be used to treat opioid addiction and even lower opioid use, a recent report published in AJP in Advance found that contrary to these earlier findings, marijuana use is actually associated with increased opioid use.
How Enterhealth can help
Addiction is a chronic medical disease of the brain, and while it can be controlled, it’s important to recognize that it cannot be cured, at least at this point. If you or your loved one is concerned that you might have a drinking problem, the first step to answering that question is to seek an expert’s advice in the field of addiction.
Learn more about how Enterhealth is using science-based treatments to achieve better outcomes for patients. Click here to visit our website or call 1.800.388.4601 day or night to learn more.
1. Is Marijuana Addictive? (n.d.). Retrieved October 12, 2017, from https://americanaddictioncenters.org/marijuana-rehab/is-it-addictive/
2. Meier, M. H., Caspi, A., Ambler, A., Harrington, H., Houts, R., Keefe, R. S., . . . Moffitt, T. E. (2012, October 02). Persistent cannabis users show neuropsychological decline from childhood to midlife. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22927402
3. MTF Survey; Cobb-Clark et al., 2013; Silins et al., 2014; Tucker et al., 2005; Homel et al., 2014; Volkow et al., 2014; Fergusson and Boden, 2008; Brooks et al., 2013
4. Cannabis Use and Risk of Prescription Opioid Use Disorder in the United States. (n.d.). Retrieved October 12, 2017, from http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/abs/10.1176/appi.ajp.2017.17040413y
5. 4 Long-Term Effects of Smoking Marijuana. (2016, December 20). Retrieved October 12, 2017, from https://drugabuse.com/marijuana-effects/
6. Marijuana Withdrawal: What Are the Symptoms and Timeline? (n.d.). Retrieved October 12, 2017, from https://addictionresource.com/drugs/marijuana/marijuana-withdrawal/