Weed, ganja, pot — whatever you call marijuana, facts about its risks and benefits seem harder to come by than a sober fan at a Willie Nelson concert. But facts we need! More than 31 million U.S. adults smoke marijuana, and almost 8.5 million use pot a lot, according to a recent study published in The Lancet Psychiatry. Somewhere around 1,246,170 folks in 24 states have authorized prescriptions for medical marijuana (that number includes estimates from states that don’t require registration, and New Hampshire and Maryland, where no numbers are available yet). Plus, the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that almost 45 percent of 12th graders and 16 percent of 8th graders have smoked marijuana at least once.
Ironically, the more folks smoke pot (the increase since 2002 is about 30 percent), the less people believe it delivers real physical and psychological risks. True, for folks who use it for medical benefits such as end-stage-cancer pain relief, to stimulate appetite in the face of chemotherapy or to ease Parkinson’s symptoms, the risks may be less significant than the benefits, but for purely recreational users, especially heavy users, well, some think it can send your health up in smoke.
Your lungs on pot
Any smoke, be it from a wood fire, a cigarette or a joint, delivers toxins to the lungs. Inhaling deeply and holding your breath when smoking marijuana increases exposure. Additionally, researchers from Health Canada found ammonia in pot smoke at levels up to 20 times that of tobacco; hydrogen cyanide and aromatic amines at concentrations three to five times that of tobacco smoke; and sidestream (secondhand) marijuana smoke with more carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) than secondhand tobacco smoke. Frequent users risk developing chronic cough, phlegm production, wheezing and acute bronchitis. Those hydrocarbons also contribute to inflammation throughout your body, including in your joints, your back, your arteries and your brain. So while you may feel less back or joint pain while smoking, you may actually increase the pain from which you’re seeking relief.
These same inflammatory molecules don’t seem to accumulate when marijuana is eaten. But if you’re going to eat pot brownies, gummies or hard candies, beware of kids’ access to them. Overdoses are dangerous — and increasingly common — among children who pick up pot-laced foods left lying around.
Your brain on ganja
The most serious cognitive risks from marijuana are to teens (especially girls) and guys up to age 24. One study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed frequent marijuana smokers LOST eight IQ points between the ages of 13 and 38! And even if they quit as adults, the researchers found the youthful indulgers’ mental ability did not fully recover. Fortunately, folks who start smoking pot as an adult do not show such a decline in IQ.
There are potential benefits
When used in a well-regulated program to address specific medical issues, marijuana can convey some benefits. For example, one study found that users had 16 percent lower fasting insulin levels and smaller waist sizes than non-users, so marijuana may be helpful in controlling Type 2 diabetes. Medical marijuana does seem to ease multiple sclerosis spasms and reduce vomiting from cancer medications, according to the NIDA. And some studies find that marijuana extracts ease neuropathic diabetes pain, while others do not.
Don’t go one toke over the line
Whatever you think about smoking marijuana recreationally or taking it for medicinal purposes, clearly it is increasingly accepted by many people and state legislatures. So what’s needed is a realistic understanding of its risks. If you smoke or munch it, be aware of pot’s ever-increasing potency and avoid heavy use. Discourage kids from using it at all. And treat it with the same understanding of its inherent risks and benefits as you do — or should — alcohol, which can be used in a recipe for a tasty fish stew or be a toxic substance that kills.
Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, tune into “The Dr. Oz Show” or visit www.sharecare.com.