Sam Holstein

Smoking Marijuana Can Ruin Your Life If You’re Not Careful

Smoking Marijuana Can Ruin Your Life If You’re Not Careful

It’s hard to get decent, unbiased information about whether using marijuana is dangerous or not. All the scientists investigating medical information about marijuana are highly biased, either for or against legalization.

On the one hand, you have scientists biased against marijuana. Being caught using marijuana can get you fired from many jobs, land you in prison, and ruin your life. In many parts of the US, you have to get your product from dealers and pray they’re sourcing from local growers and not participating in the violent international drug trade. Scientists aware of these facts are eager to demonstrate that legalizing marijuana will only bring more addiction and disease to their communities.

On the other hand, you have scientists biased in favor of marijuana. Marijuana is medically legal in many US states and many people (including myself) credit marijuana for healing them from painful and dangerous health conditions. Marijuana use is common and less dangerous than alcohol use. Scientists who know these facts are motivated to demonstrate marijuana is safe.

These conflicting motivations set up a landscape where people are saying one of two things: either that marijuana is good, a plant healer, impossible to be addicted to, or that marijuana is bad, dangerous, and a gateway to more dangerous addictions.

I’ve been an off-and-on regular user of marijuana now for five or so years. My use has been primarily medical; marijuana has helped me treat both an excruciatingly painful digestive disorder and disabling sensory issues. I have a lot of experience with it. I’ve also read a few books on it, most notably Tell Your Children and Marijuana Debunked, as well as several well-known studies.

I wish I could say marijuana safety is clear cut— “marijuana is not dangerous, and that’s that!”— but it’s not.

In this article, we’ll explore all the health dangers associated with marijuana use. You’ll learn about cannabis-induced psychosis, which is exactly what it sounds like, and cannabis hyperemesis syndrome, a deadly syndrome wherein heavy users of marijuana literally vomit themselves to death. You’ll also learn about more pedestrian dangers like memory loss and sleep deprivation.

You won’t be scared straight, however. Many of these dangers are rare. Pound for pound, marijuana is unquestionably less dangerous than alcohol. It absolutely should be legal and widely available.

But it is a drug of abuse, you can get addicted, and it can wreak havoc on your life if you’re not careful.

Why Teenagers Who Use Marijuana are Endangering Their Entire Future

Regularly using marijuana has been one of the most beneficial things I’ve ever done for myself in my entire life. But I didn’t start using it until I was an adult. Everything I’ve ever read suggests it’s highly dangerous for people under the age of 21.

There are many negative health outcomes associated with marijuana, as we will explore in detail. But most of these negative outcomes are mild in adults. They are either limited to the time spent intoxicated, or they clear up within a year or two of quitting.

These same negative outcomes, in teenagers and young adults, can become permanent health problems that affect the rest of their lives.

It appears that when adults consume marijuana, their fully developed brains can quickly return to equilibrium. The brain of a teenager cannot, since it’s not fully developed. Marijuana can alter the equilibrium state of a teenager’s brain and reduce cognitive function for the rest of their life.

According to Adverse Health Effects of Marijuana, published in the National Institute for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), “…some studies suggest that long-term deficits may be reversible and remain subtle rather than disabling once a person abstains from use. Other studies show that long-term, heavy use of marijuana results in impairments in memory and attention that persist and worsen with increasing years of regular use and with the initiation of use during adolescence.”

The human brain continues to develop and form new neural connections until around age 21. If this process of maturation is disrupted or damaged, the losses can never be regained in adulthood. And of course marijuana disrupts that process. It’s an intoxicant! When have you ever heard of an intoxicant that doesn’t disrupt neural formation?

According to the NCBI, “As compared with unexposed controls, adults who smoked marijuana regularly during adolescence have impaired neural connectivity (fewer fibers) in specific brain regions.” These regions include regions important to learning and memory, executive function and inhibitory control, and habits and routines, all of which are vital skills for a life worth living.

Last but not least, regular marijuana use in high school is causally associated with poorer grades. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s ever been high before. (Marijuana use is also associated with an increased risk of dropping out, though the author notes the relationship is likely more complex than a direct causal one).

So the stereotype of the teenage user becoming a burnout? That wasn’t made up by Nancy Reagan to scare us. Teenage users do grow up to become burnouts.

Marijuana Use Is Associated with Anxiety and Depression

Marijuana use is clinically shown to be associated with anxiety and depression. For this reason, most therapists and doctors will warn patients with anxiety and depression not to use it.

But the research here is still thin on the ground. Correlative links have been shown, but not causal ones. It could be that depressed and anxious people are simply more apt to use marijuana — a hypothesis that’s not out-of-the-question, since being high is certainly more enjoyable than being anxious and depressed. Or another factor could cause both marijuana use and mental illness. Without more research, we can’t say.

Some people experience intense anxiety as an immediate side-effect when they use marijuana. Here, marijuana is the clear cause of anxiety. But this marijuana-induced anxiety goes away as soon as the high is gone. There’s no evidence it poses a long-term risk to your health.

In my personal experience — and this is an anecdote, so reader beware — using marijuana does increase my anxiety levels overall. I’m less likely to eat well and exercise after smoking and more likely to eat cookies and cream ice cream. I also can’t do deep work while high. These poor choices cause general anxiety for me. So marijuana doesn’t cause my anxiety directly, but my use can cause behaviors that cause anxiety for me. Those consequences are very real for me, even if the link isn’t direct.

Photo by Terre di Cannabis on Unsplash

High Driving Causes Accidents

This isn’t so much an argument against marijuana use as it is an argument against marijuana use while driving. Which should be obvious. Don’t drive if you’re not sober.

Some facts for you: Driving high raises your risk of an accident by a factor of two. People who test positive for bloodstream THC are 3 to 7 times more likely to be involved in an accident (To compare, a BAC of 0.08%, the legal limit in most countries, makes you 5 times more likely).

Pro-marijuana people like to say studies show driving high is just as safe as driving sober. The data shows this is unquestionably a myth. Street-level record keeping does not show very many accidents as a result of marijuana intoxication because you can’t prove marijuana intoxication with a breath test the way you can with alcohol, which is why some shoddy studies inaccurately conclude driving high is safe.

Experimental studies are the gold standard of scientific inquiry. Experimental studies involving simulated driving and marijuana-smoking drivers show high drivers are markedly impaired, just as the above data showed.

Take high driving as seriously as drunk driving.

Marijuana May (or May Not) Cause Lung Cancer

You don’t need a biology degree to wonder if marijuana causes lung cancer. Every pot smoker knows what it’s like to start worrying about whether we’re going to get lung cancer.

But does marijuana smoking cause cancer? According to the NCBI, “The effects of long-term marijuana smoking on the risk of lung cancer are unclear.”

Let’s dig a little deeper.

“The use of marijuana for the equivalent of 30 or more joint-years (with 1 joint-year of marijuana use equal to 1 cigarette [joint] of marijuana smoked per day for 1 year) was associated with an increased incidence of lung cancer and several cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract; however, the association disappeared after adjustment for potential confounders such as cigarette smoking. Although the possibility of a positive association between marijuana smoking and cancer cannot be ruled out, the evidence suggests that the risk is lower with marijuana than with tobacco. However, the smoking of cigarettes that contain both marijuana and tobacco products is a potential confounding factor with a prevalence that varies dramatically among countries.”

OK, so if you smoke a blunt (marijuana mixed with tobacco), you are obviously at an elevated risk for lung cancer because you’re smoking tobacco. But if you smoke pure marijuana, no tobacco mixed in, you may be raising your risk for lung cancer slightly or not at all. We don’t know.

Not knowing, though, does not mean it’s safe. Studies investigating the dangers of cigarette use were “unclear” for decades because tobacco companies funded studies to demonstrate “positive” health effects of cigarettes. These studies were not shams. They proved cigarettes have very real positive health associations.

One of the things they discovered was that cigarettes are an effective mild anti-psychotic. Doctors began to prescribe them for mental health conditions, and patients experienced real improvement. They stopped doing that because cigarettes cause lung cancer, not because cigarettes didn’t work. Even now, psychologists find mentally ill people are more likely to be addicted to cigarettes. 40% of all people with ADHD are addicted to cigarettes! They intuitively use them to self-medicate without realizing it.

This reminds me of the modern-day language about marijuana. Pro-marijuana advocates cite all kinds of health benefits, from improved sleep to curing PTSD to treating cancer, with very little discussion of the potential downside. These positive effects are real — I’ve experienced some of them myself — but that doesn’t mean they don’t come with dangerous consequences.

If you are particularly worried about mouth, throat, or lung cancer, you can quit smoking your marijuana entirely. Edibles and tinctures are now widely available in dispensaries, where you know production methods were tested and ruled safe. Edibles may still have negative health benefits related to memory loss, cognitive function, and the health of your stomach lining, but your lungs will be safe.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Marijuana Smokers Get Lung Infections More Often

Marijuana smoking is associated with chronic bronchitis, inflammation of the airways, and increased rates of respiratory infections and pneumonia. Not surprising; inhaling hot smoke instead of normal atmosphere will do that to a person. I myself once got a terrible lung infection and coughed up blood because I was stupid enough to keep vaping even after I knew I had a cold.

There’s no science to indicate being high impairs your body’s ability to fight disease, although I try to abstain while sick just in case. But smoking or vaping burning air clearly impairs your body’s ability to fight a respiratory infection. You don’t need an MD to know that.

Don’t be foolish. Don’t smoke or vape if you have a respiratory infection.

Marijuana Users Have More Heart Problems

According to the NCBI article, “Marijuana use has also been associated with vascular conditions that increase the risks of myocardial infarction, stroke, and transient ischemic attacks during marijuana intoxication.”

The bad news is, no one fully understands why. “The actual mechanisms underlying the effects of marijuana on the cardiovascular and cerebrovascular systems are complex and not fully understood.”

That isn’t surprising to me. Marijuana highs feel relaxing, but being high actually increases people’s heart rate and blood pressure. After smoking, you can put your hand on your chest and feel your heart beating a little faster. If you measure your blood pressure while high, it will increase.

My heart rate and blood pressure are naturally very low, so my cardiac health can take the strain of marijuana use. But it’s probably a bad idea for people with cardiac conditions like high blood pressure or cardiac arrhythmia. But don’t take my word for it. I’m not a doctor. Consult with yours before use.

Which, by the way, is easier than you think. Many people are reluctant to tell their doctors they use marijuana, but they shouldn’t be. I tell all my doctors I partake. Some even thank me for taking the time to tell them. Many marijuana users do not tell doctors about their use and it causes problems in their medical treatment. All doctors, from your ER doc to your therapist, need to know your full medical history. Otherwise, they can’t give you the best treatment possible. They will not rat you out to the cops, either, if that’s what you’re afraid of.

Marijuana Is Terrible for Your Memory

Any regular user of marijuana knows it’s hell on your memory. You forget stuff you experienced while you’re high, and if you use enough, you even start to forget stuff you weren’t high for. Many regular marijuana users forget childhood memories, even memories from middle and high school. And when you quit, access to those memories comes rushing back.

Interestingly, though, despite having read fairly extensively about the benefits and drawbacks of marijuana use, I haven’t found any research on this topic. When we regular smokers get together, we all laugh together about the things we have forgotten, but researchers seem to not have touched the issue yet.

My theory is that the memory gaffes are because marijuana damages your REM sleep cycles. Getting healthy REM and NREM sleep is crucial to memory formation and maintenance. Dreams are produced during REM sleep.

As marijuana users know, you are less likely to dream if you are high when you fall asleep. And as people who have quit marijuana know, one of the symptoms of withdrawal is crazy hallucinogenic dreams. That implies your REM sleep is impaired, then returns again upon quitting.

For that reason, I’m guessing marijuana disrupts REM sleep cycles. I wouldn’t be shocked if it disrupted NREM sleep cycles as well.

That would also explain why memories return out of nowhere after quitting. People who quit marijuana use often find they start remembering things they thought long-forgotten, even things that occurred well before they ever started using. The abstainer’s brains resume healthy REM sleep cycles, and they are able to access old memories again.

Heavy Users Can Develop a Deadly Disorder Called Cannabis Hyperemesis Syndrome

To everyone out there who thinks marijuana is a totally safe and non-lethal drug, I am sorry to have to tell you this is not the case. Heavy cannabis use is associated with something called Cannabis Hyperemesis Syndrome, which is a syndrome where the victim starts vomiting uncontrollably until they die of dehydration. Hospitals can provide palliative treatment, but according to doctors, the only real cure is to quit marijuana before it quits you.

Which many patients can’t do. They abstain for a few weeks, then they return to use, then the vomiting returns a few weeks later. Their doctors tell them over and over to quit, but they either don’t take it seriously or they can’t stop because they’re addicted. Then they die from their use. That is classic drug addiction. The idea that you “can’t be addicted to marijuana” is a myth.

CHS used to be astonishingly rare. Like, one-in-a-million rare. But in the last decade, the number of CHS cases hospitals have seen has risen by orders of magnitude. Researchers suspect this is because of the precipitous hike in THC concentrations in marijuana. Your mom and dad’s weed likely had around 6% THC, but dispensaries today sell flowers with concentrations as high as 32% (to say nothing of concentrates).

That being said, much is still not known about CHS. The preliminary symptoms of CHS are stomach cramping and mild nausea when consuming marijuana — but for some reason, hot showers cure CHS nausea. Many CHS patients get burns because they take piping hot showers to find relief. These hot showers contribute to their dehydration and accelerate their deaths.

While doctors say quitting marijuana is the only cure, anecdotal accounts indicate otherwise. Many people who suffer CHS symptoms find their symptoms relieved after quitting for a few weeks. Personally, I started suffering the characteristic cramping and shower-sensitive nausea of CHS and immediately took a two-month break from consumption. After that two-month break, I started smoking again with no return of my symptoms. That was over a year ago. Other smokers have reported similar stories.

Here is my theory as to what causes CHS. The natural cannabis plant has hundreds of cannabinoids that work together to produce the characteristic “high.” THC is only one of these chemicals. A product that retains all of the many hundreds of cannabinoids is called a “full-spectrum” product. Flower, the name for the actual plant in stores, is necessarily full-spectrum. Some edibles and vape cartridges are full-spectrum.

Most products, though, are not full-spectrum. They are “isolates,” meaning the THC has been isolated out of the full spectrum of compounds. They cook the marijuana plant down into a fine white powder that is literally 91%-99% THC.

Maybe this is just me, but doesn’t that seem dangerous to you? Humans have been smoking marijuana for thousands of years, but it’s only in the last 30 that we started using industrial chemicals (like butane, ethanol and supercooled CO2) to isolate psychoactive compounds this way. Maybe we should do more studies into the safety of these consumption methods before promoting them all over the world.

Photo by Ryan Lange on Unsplash. The fine white hairs on the cannabis plant are what contain all the cannabinoids, including THC and CBD.

Marijuana Use Can Make You Psychotic

There is a strong and probably causal link between marijuana use and psychotic disorders. People who use marijuana — especially people who start young, or who use it every day — are exponentially more likely to suffer a psychotic break. When a psychotic break is caused by marijuana use, it’s known as Cannabis-Induced Psychosis.

That being said, it is extremely unlikely you or anyone you know will ever suffer from Cannabis-Induced Psychosis. The base likelihood of an individual developing psychosis is around 1%, and marijuana use raises that to 2.5%.

For people with a personal or family history of psychotic disorders, marijuana use can literally mean the difference between a life unmarked by mental illness and a life defined by intense mental health challenges. If you have a family history of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or hallucinations, you should abstain from marijuana use. But for people without an elevated risk of psychosis, it looks like it’s nothing to be concerned about.

And that’s only a family or personal history of psychotic disorders. Marijuana has been shown to be beneficial in the treatment of other mental illnesses, such as PTSD. So being mentally ill is not a no-go for marijuana, as long as you’re not running a risk of psychosis.

It also bears mentioning that even though psychiatrists at present think marijuana causes psychotic episodes, studies have not been able to establish a firm causal link, only a correlative one. This means perhaps it’s not marijuana that causes psychosis, but the other way around, or a third thing causes both psychosis and marijuana use. Without more research, it’s hard to say.

Marijuana Use Is Associated With Poor Life Outcomes

According to the NCBI article, “Heavy marijuana use has been linked to lower income, greater need for socio-economic assistance, unemployment, criminal behavior, and lower satisfaction with life.” But there is no discussion of whether this is a natural consequence of marijuana use or the consequences of police action and government prosecution.

In Marijuana Debunked, Dr. Ed Gogek claims it’s a natural consequence of marijuana use. He takes the reader to British India, where marijuana was first introduced to the western world, and tells the story of how Indians petitioned British India to make the drug illegal. (The British Raj, sensing a profit opportunity, decided to tax it instead). The implication is that the Indians thought it was dangerous, and they’ve lived with it for thousands of years, so we too should think it is dangerous.

This is not a good argument. We have lived with alcohol in our society for thousands of years and it is accepted almost everywhere in America, despite clear evidence it has no beneficial health properties and loads of carcinogenic, liver-killing, highly dangerous negative ones. Acceptance or rejection by society is not indicative of safety.

But in my personal experience, the Indians were right to be wary of marijuana use. Something I’ve noticed is that I’m less likely to exercise, eat a clean diet, or get to bed on time if I’ve been smoking. I’m more likely to binge-eat junk food and stay out with the party past my bedtime. That’s fine in moderation, of course, but being high makes you want to do that every time. Stack up enough bad decisions like these, and it’s easy to see why many pot smokers get stuck in life.

In Conclusion

Because most of the data available are inconclusive, I turned inward to investigate my own relationship with cannabis. What I’m finding is that while cannabis is a gentle and enjoyable drug that has done a lot of good things for me, I’ve now developed a pattern of use I’m not happy with.

Cannabis was medically necessary on a daily basis for me for several years, but that time has passed. Now, being high is doing me more harm than good. Being high on a regular basis is damaging my sleep quality, encouraging me to make unhealthy choices for my body, and generally getting in my way. These drawbacks were forgivable when it was performing an essential medical function, but now it’s not. I’m working on a plan to moderate and cut back on my use to retain the medical benefits without suffering drawbacks.

Marijuana is here to stay in the United States. We’ll make it legal, sooner or later. It will help people who need help modern medicine can’t yet provide, for sure, but for most people who use it, it will be an intoxicant best enjoyed only on occasion — and for some people, unfortunately, using marijuana will become an addiction just as dangerous as any other.