Marijuana is one of the most frequently abused illicit drugs in the United States.
In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are more than 22 million people who abuse the drug at least once each month. And many of these people are quite young. Marijuana use among adolescents is widespread.
Some point to the legalization effort in order to explain the popularity and presence of marijuana. Now that the drug is legal to buy in many states, users often find that this is an easy drug to purchase, so they might choose to experiment instead of walking past it. Others point to the natural aspect of marijuana. Since this is a substance that comes from a plant, users might believe that it is a simple and effective alternative to the more expensive and dangerous drugs they might buy from street dealers.
Whether users buy the drug because it is easy to get, because it seems safe, or some combination of the two, the results of years of research could not be more clear. Marijuana holds some very specific dangers, especially for people who use the drug repeatedly over a long period of time. These are just a few of those dangers.
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Marijuana is typically taken through smoke. People dry the leaves from the marijuana plant (or they buy the leaves in an already dried state), and they light those leaves on fire and inhale the smoke. The longer the smoke stays in contact with the tissues of the mouth and lung, the more the active ingredient inside of the smoke can interact with receptors in the blood, brain, and organs.
As a result, people who smoke marijuana pull in a big hit of smoke and then hold that smoke in the mouth and lungs for as long as possible. Researchers at the University of Washingtonsay that smoking marijuana this way exposes the lungs to five times the amount of carbon monoxide and three times the tar people would take in if they were smoking regular cigarettes.
The long exposure to damaging smoke could lead to a number of chronic respiratory issues, including:
- Swelling in the lungs
Someone who smokes marijuana just once could have these health problems. But someone who smokes a great deal of marijuana over a long period of time could do yet more damage.
Marijuana’s impact does not stop with the lungs. The drug also works on chemical pathways that run the heart. One hit of marijuana can increase the speed of heartbeats by 20-50 per minute, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The heart is not designed to beat this quickly, and the muscles inside the heart can rupture or tear under the strain. People who abuse marijuana repeatedly may do a great deal of damage to the heart over time, and that could lead to heart attacks and/or strokes. Those could be life-threatening.
Just as marijuana changes the body, it can also change a person’s mind. For example, the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggests that there is sufficient evidence to link marijuana use at a young age to an increased risk of developing either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The researchers go on to say that the risk is dose dependent, meaning that people who take bigger hits of drugs have a bigger risk of illness when compared to people who take smaller hits of the drug.
That risk is tied, in some cases, to genetic vulnerabilities. So people who have a family history of schizophrenia or bipolar might have a higher risk of developing mental illness due to marijuana. But it is clear that the drug has the ability to change the brain in such a way that a mental illness could appear. Once it does, stopping marijuana use will not make it disappear. Someone with these conditions will need therapy and/or medications for the rest of life to keep the mental illness under control.
Marijuana use has also been linked to a boost in risk of depression, although that link is slightly unclear. Mayo Clinic reports that people who smoke marijuana are diagnosed with depression more often than people who do not smoke marijuana, and that is especially true of people who use marijuana heavily over a long period of time. But researchers do not claim that marijuana directly causes depression. Instead, it might be that people at risk for depression are more tempted to use marijuana. Or it might be that something about using marijuana brings on a lifestyle that supports depression. More research is required to clarify that link.
Marijuana users also tend to lean on the drug during periods of upheaval and stress. The drug, for them, becomes a little like a crutch. They lean on it when times are tough rather than dealing with problems head on. That can lead to what clinicians call a lack of distress tolerance. People like this simply do not know how to handle life without drugs, so they keep on using drugs because they have no coping skills. That could make mental health yet more fragile.
Making Better Choices
An article in Scientific American suggests that a record low number of people think that regular marijuana smoking is harmful. Clearly, with all of the evidence presented here, this is not a position that can be supported. The drug causes physical, mental, and social problems. Some of these issues last for just a short time; others can last for a lifetime. But there is a simple solution.
People who abuse marijuana, and who have done so for a long time, should do whatever it takes to quit that drug use. That means enrolling in treatment programs that combine counseling, group support, and medication management. Here, people can gain control over the cravings that drive drug use and find an entirely new way to live.