We are living in a time where weed is one of the most popular and affordable drugs on the market. Today, most people consider marijuana to be a safe substance and use it recreationally to alter moods or simply to enhance their social experience, while others use it for medicinal reasons. Some people even use marijuana for long-term pain management.
Over recent years, changes in regulations have seen cannabis become legal for recreational use in several states across the US.
We have certainly come a long way since the days when smoking weed was a hush-hush activity; from the medical use of weed to treat various conditions and symptoms (such as pain and nausea), to the growing acceptance of recreational products that have been made from pot, an increasing number of people are open to the role that cannabis plays in their lives.
But just because there is less secrecy around cannabis use, doesn’t mean that it’s safe – especially for those who smoke pot every day of their lives just for fun. Scientists aren’t exactly sure how long-term cannabis use affects the body, but there are a few studies that suggest it may cause several health problems over time. In this article, we explore this studies and what they might mean if you’re a chronic marijuana user.
“While scientists aren’t sure yet of the long-term health effects of marijuana use, several studies have pointed out some potential adverse factors…”
Marijuana and the endocannabinoid system
To get an understanding of what marijuana does to some users in the long run, we need to look at how the substance works in the brain. The reason that marijuana is as effective as it is comes down to the activity of the plant’s most popular chemical compound, THC.
THC mimics substances known as endocannabinoids, which the human body produces naturally. Endocannabinoids work in the brain by controlling the production of neurotransmitters, which are chemical substances that facilitate the communication between the central nervous system and other parts of the body. Among other things, endocannabinoids are known to help:
- Relax muscles
- Protect damaged tissue
- Reduce inflammation
- Regulate appetite and metabolism
Because endocannabinoids are very important, there are readymade receptors in the brain for them. Marijuana is unique to other drugs in that the THC mimics the function of natural cannabinoids. The use of marijuana triggers the same physiological effects that occur from the normal application of endocannabinoids – especially in the brain.
This is the reason that pot smokers sometimes experience augmented levels of pain, memory issues, and alterations to things like pleasure, emotion, and movement control.
What are some of the long-term effects of marijuana use?
Preliminary human and animal studies have suggested that smoking marijuana can have an adverse effect on the immune system. Here are a few other health problems that can be linked to the long-term use of marijuana…
Memory issues that are linked to marijuana use come from the way that weed interacts with the hippocampus, which is the region of the brain that controls short-term memory. Cannabis use temporarily hinders the brain from creating new memories and learning new things, and this is a form of short-term memory.
Research findings published in Molecular Psychiatry explain that heavy marijuana users are at the risk of developing false memories, even if they have gone for months without smoking weed. Findings such as these suggest that those who were regular pot smokers in their teen years are more likely to experience memory problems as adults.
In fact, in a 2015 study published in the academic journal Hippocampus, it was found that teens who had smoked weed every day for three years or more were likely to have “abnormally shaped” hippocampal regions when they reached their early 20s. These individuals performed around 18% worse in long-term memory tests when compared to other subjects who had never smoked weed.
Although marijuana and tobacco are two completely different substances, the smoking of either has a similar effect on the lungs. In fact, since weed smokers tend to inhale more deeply, the effects may be more severe.
Additionally, pot smokers tend to hold the smoke in their lungs for longer to bring about a high. This obviously increases the amount of smoke that the lungs are exposed to, which puts them at a larger risk of certain respiratory problems.
There may be an increased production of phlegm for pot smokers, for instance, which leads to frequent coughing and makes them especially prone to obstructed airways. It is, however, important to note that there is a lack of evidence that links lung problems and cannabis use, because there aren’t enough controlled studies that have been done.
Regardless, exposing the lungs to smoke in any capacity leads to an increased chance of experiencing other respiratory health problems such as emphysema, pneumonia, and bronchitis.
Brain function changes
The strongest chemical compound found in cannabis is THC, a compound that has been shown to bind to certain receptors in the brain that control learning and memory.
Studies have shown that weed use increases the possibility of long-term and permanent changes to behavioral and cognitive development in young individuals who have a developing brain. Research that was conducted at Duke University, for example, showed a loss of 8 IQ points in users between the ages of 13 and 38, and the loss in mental abilities wasn’t regained by these individuals — even if they had quit using cannabis as an adult.
Another cause for concern is that, since marijuana works in areas of the brain that are associated with mood, those who use weed are more prone to developing conditions of depression or anxiety. Furthermore, users who may have a predisposed yet unseen genetic disorder (like schizophrenia), may see conditions materialize due to cannabis use.
Marijuana Use by Pregnant or Nursing Mothers
One of the most distressing risks when it comes to the long-term effects of cannabis use is found in women who are pregnant. Smoking weed during pregnancy has been linked to long-lasting damage to the exposed child’s memory, but cannabis toxins aren’t just carried in utero — they’re also carried in breast milk, and may be passed to the infant during breastfeeding.
DID YOU KNOW? Active compounds in marijuana may be passed to infants during breastfeeding.
Research into how much risk marijuana poses to unborn and nursing babies has been spotty, but medical professionals advise that any foreign substance that doesn’t benefit fetal or maternal health should be avoided. Additionally, women who want to become pregnant or are already pregnant should play it safe when it comes to marijuana use.
Smoking weed may be particularly dangerous in the long run for men, as various studies suggest a link between cannabis and increased risk of testicular cancer, which is the most common cancer in males under the age of 45.
In one particular study done in 2012, men who smoked weed were found to be twice as likely to develop testicular cancer as compared to those who didn’t use weed.
Another study from 2015 published in the journal BMC Cancer found that using weed once a week or more for over ten years was associated with an increase in the risk of testicular cancer. However, doctors quickly pointed out that this doesn’t mean that cannabis use causes cancer. Rather, the relationship between marijuana and the risk of testicular cancer carries more risk than is immediately evident.
Marijuana may be a gateway drug
Experts are very much divided on this one, and there is a great deal of debate about whether marijuana use does, in fact, act as a gateway to “harder” drugs like heroin and cocaine. The gateway drug theory implies that cannabis use is likely to lead to the use of harder drugs for two reasons:
- Experimentation: Trying cannabis increases the taste for and perceived pleasure of other drugs, which leads to further experimentation.
- Social groups: When a person who uses weed associates with other people who use weed, it’s likely that they will become exposed to alternative drugs and substances. This means that there is an increased opportunity to access “harder” drugs.
“While some studies have shown the tendency of young cannabis users to progress to “harder” drug use, more research is needed in order to determine if there is any real correlation…”
The gateway drug theory comes from the idea that people who make use of substances go through a linear sequence of stages that begins with legal and socially acceptable substances (alcohol and nicotine), followed by illegal soft drugs (marijuana), and then harder illicit drugs (heroin).
However, much research has contradicted this theory, with a high percentage of people not following this sequence of steps.
Final thoughts on the long-term effects of marijuana use
While the effects of marijuana use may not be as severe as the risks associated with other drugs, it’s still important to consider that it shouldn’t be classified as harmless. More and more people are using cannabis, especially teens, which is why it is concerning that we have relatively little information about the long-term health effects of cannabis.
The most severe long-term effects appear to be limited to heavy users who began using the substance during childhood. Ultimately, there is a bigger cause for concern among those who have used marijuana since childhood, compared to those who only began using cannabis at a later stage in life.
All in all, cannabis is thought to be a much safer alternative to other drugs, especially when it comes to prescription medication and opioids. However, it is important to consider that there may be some long-term effects, no matter what you may have heard in the past.