Marijuana is by far the most widely used ‘illicit’ drug in the world. It had been used as a medicine for thousands of years, but by the middle of the 20th century, it was illegal in practically every nation on Earth. In the United States, for example, it was made federally illegal by the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.
Ever since then, it has been demonized as an addictive substance with no medical use. This is even though there have been zero recorded overdoses in recorded human history. Meanwhile, opioids, which are routinely prescribed by doctors and easily available, kill over 100 Americans a day.
For almost a century, the debate on weed has centered on whether it is a dangerous drug or an herb capable of healing. Its illegal status has made it hard to find scientific evidence either way, but in recent times a trickle of studies has transformed into a flood. We are now in a better position to provide a more evenly weighted debate. This article is only a brief overview of a complex issue, but I have included evidence from both sides of the story.
Why Marijuana is a Dangerous Drug
One of the main strikes against marijuana is its effect on the human brain. A study by Riba et al., published in the March 2015 edition of Molecular Psychiatry, found that heavy marijuana users are at greater risk of developing false memories than the general population. This can be the case even if they abstain from the herb for a month.
A study by Smith et al., published in the March 2015 edition of Hippocampus, found that teenagers who smoked weed regularly were more likely to have memory problems in adulthood. In the study, it was found that teenagers who used weed every day for three years had abnormally shaped hippocampal regions once they entered their twenties. Moreover, these individuals performed 18% worse than average in long-term memory tests.
A more concerning finding relates to the supposed damage marijuana can do to the heart. A 2005 study by Moore et al., published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, found that marijuana smoking is detrimental to respiratory health. In fact,the study concluded that it has “similarities to tobacco smoking” in that regard.
THC is the most abundant psychoactive compound in marijuana. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, THC can increase your heart rate by up to 50 beats a minute, and this state of affairs can last for three hours. The Journal of the American Heart Association says that regular marijuana use increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart rhythm disorders.
Other apparent risks include potential psychosis, a heightened risk of addiction, and an enhanced risk of testicular cancer. In recent years, there have been suggestions that people have died from an overdose of marijuana. There was even an erroneous claim that 37 people died from a cannabis overdose on the first day of legalization in Colorado.
There have been numerous cases of a marijuana overdose, but the effects are NOT lethal. It can lead to symptoms such as heart palpitations, paranoia, and heightened anxiety. However, physicians in hospitals know that it is usually a case of allowing patients to calm down and waiting for the effects of the drug to wear off.
There have also been cases where an individual has consumed too much THC and become so high that they have no idea what they were doing. Ultimately, they perform a foolish and dangerous act that causes their death. As the National Cancer Institute explains, cannabinoid receptors are found in the brainstem areas that control breathing. As a result, lethal overdoses from weed and cannabinoids don’t occur.
Back in 1988, Judge Francis L. Young reviewed the herb and concluded that a marijuana user would have to consume at least 20,000 joints for a lethal overdose to occur. In theory, lethal toxicity in humans would require consumption of 1,500 pounds of marijuana in 15 minutes. Even Howard Marks wasn’t able to come close!
As for the idea that marijuana damages the brain, the only evidence comes amongst individuals who use weed to excess.The famed Dunedin Study, which took place in New Zealand, is often cited as an example that cannabis lowers your IQ. The study involved following the lives of 1,037 people who were born in the city of Dunedin in 1972 and 1973.
The study concluded that early exposure to marijuana use resulted in a reduced IQ in adulthood. However, it was only the 38 ‘problematic’ users, addicts in other words, that showed a precipitous decline in their IQ. The study was a well-conducted one but still had many limitations. The most glaring was an inability to measure the impact of socioeconomic factors and personality traits.
In a follow-up study, the authors of the Dunedin study acknowledged that cannabis does NOT reduce IQ and found that the only negative long-term effect of marijuana use was an increased risk of gum disease!
Why Marijuana is a Healing Herb
The marijuana plant grows naturally, and its cannabinoids act on the cannabinoid receptors in the human endocannabinoid system (ECS). It was used by the ancient Chinese as a healing herb thousands of years ago. Even in the early 20th century, you could purchase it from American pharmacies.
Everything changed once the herb became associated with Mexican immigrants in the 1910s. By the 1930s, it was completely illegal which made scientific research almost impossible for several decades. Now that so many states have legalized medicinal marijuana, it has become easier to find research to show the healing properties of marijuana.
In recent years, studies have been released to show marijuana’s positive effects on people with a wide range of conditions including fibromyalgia, Alzheimer’s, cancer, PTSD, depression, chronic pain, epilepsy, and ALS.
A report of three studies by Whiting et al., published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in June 2015, looked at marijuana’s effects on cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. It discovered that vomiting and nausea stopped completely in almost half of the patients who used weed. In comparison, the symptoms only stopped in 20% of patients who used a placebo.
A review* by Koppel et al., published in the American Academy of Neurology in April 2014, looked at cannabis’ effects on pain in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS). It found that patients who used an oral cannabis extract, made either from CBD only or a combination of THC and CBD, reduced feelings of burning, tingling, and numbness.
A study by Wilsey et al., published in the Journal of Pain in 2013, analyzed the effect of vaporized cannabis on patients with neuropathic pain. It is worth mentioning that the 39 patients were unable to find relief from any other source of medication. Overall, the research team discovered that cannabis successfully reduced the level of neuropathic pain.
In total, there are several million people who use medical marijuana to treat a wide array of conditions. Aside from issues already mentioned, weed is also used to combat Spinal Cord Disease, Arthritis, HIV/AIDS, Insomnia and Inflammatory Bowel Disease. It has also become increasingly popular in palliative care.
What About Addiction?
The notion that weed is a ‘gateway drug’ has been peddled for over 80 years. It was a false assertion back then and still is today. There is NO evidence that individuals who use marijuana regularly will consume ‘harder’ drugs such as heroin at higher levels than someone who doesn’t use weed.
Is it addictive? The answer is ‘yes’, BUT at a rate far lower than widely available chemicals. Most estimates suggest that approximately 9% of marijuana users will develop a serious addiction. In comparison, 32% of tobacco users, 23% of heroin users, and 17% of cocaine users become severely addicted. More pertinently, an estimated 15% of alcohol users develop a life-threatening addiction, yet it is as easy to purchase beer or vodka as candy if you’re old enough.
Other easily accessible things that are more addictive, and more harmful, than cannabis include gambling, high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, opioids, and caffeine. If we are supposed to eliminate everything that causes addiction, why are all of the above items so easy to purchase?
So yes, marijuana IS addictive, but you are less likely to gamble away your house, develop lung cancer (especially if you use a vaporizer), suffer from diabetes, or ruin your liver, than if you settle on one of the above legal ‘vices.’
The Verdict: Dangerous Drug or Healing Herb
Practically all of the evidence that suggests marijuana is bad for humans is based on studies involving chronic users. Of course, it would be irresponsible for us to say that marijuana is 100% safe. The truth is, we still don’t have nearly enough evidence to form a solid hypothesis, and there is research which outlines the dangers of chronic use.
It is very likely that using marijuana excessively as a teenager increases your risk of becoming severely addicted to the drug. Smoking weed in the same manner as tobacco cigarettes could prove harmful to your lungs because the combustion process emits carcinogenic substances.
If you decide to try marijuana, recreationally or medicinally, please take precautions. We recommend using a vaporizer or consuming an edible, and it is imperative that you begin with a lower dose to determine your tolerance level. Like any drug, long-term chronic use and dependence is physically, mentally, and emotionally harmful.
In answer to the question posed at the beginning, marijuana is likely to be a healing herb when used responsibly. Once you develop dependence and become a chronic user, there is a danger of it becoming a dangerous drug.