We are living in a time where marijuana use, for both recreational and medicinal purposes, is becoming more widespread. Today, most people consider marijuana to be a safe substance. Some use it recreationally to alter moods or to enhance a social experience. Others use marijuana 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 marijuana was a hush-hush activity.
Nowadays, people use medicinal marijuana to alleviate the symptoms of a variety of different conditions. An increasing number of people are open to the role that cannabis could play in their lives.
Now while marijuana use is more common, this doesn’t mean that it is entirely safe. This is particularly true for heavy users. Scientists aren’t exactly sure how long-term cannabis use affects the body. However, there are a few studies that suggest it may cause several health issues over time.
In this article, we analyze these studies and what they might mean for 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
The primary psychoactive component of cannabis is tetrahydrocannabinol or THC for short. THC is the substance in marijuana, which causes users to feel high when consuming it.
THC mimics substances known as endocannabinoids, which the human body produces naturally. The endocannabinoid system is the subject of much ongoing research, but cannabinoid receptors are found in both the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous systems. Researchers believe the endocannabinoid system may play a role in:
- Relaxing muscles
- Protecting damaged tissue
- Reducing inflammation
- Regulating appetite and metabolism
Marijuana is unique in that THC, one of the cannabinoids found in marijuana, mimics the function of natural endocannabinoids in our bodies.
What Are Some of the Long-Term Effects of Marijuana Use?
Here are a few possible health problems that can be linked to the long-term use of marijuana:
Memory issues linked to marijuana use may come from how the drug interacts with the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the region of the brain that is responsible for the formation of new memories. Some of its other functions include learning and emotional regulation.
Research findings published in Molecular Psychiatry reveal that heavy marijuana users are at risk of developing false memories. This is even the case if these users have gone for months without smoking cannabis.
Research suggests that people who were regular cannabis smokers as teenagers are more likely to experience memory problems as adults. A 2015 study, published in the academic journal Hippocampus, found that subjects who had a prior history of cannabis use disorder had abnormal hippocampal shape and episodic memory impairment. Whether this was actually caused by marijuana use or was simply associated with it was not determined by the study.
It’s well established that smoking tobacco leads to an increased risk of diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) and lung cancer. What is less understood, partly due to lack of research, is whether habitual marijuana smoking has similar effects.
One study did find that regular marijuana smoking “causes visible and microscopic injury to the large airways that are consistently associated with an increased likelihood of symptoms of bronchitis.” However, this subsides after stopping smoking. The same study also noted that regular marijuana smoking might cause “possible increases in lung volumes and modest increases in airway resistance,” but that the clinical (or real-world) consequence of this is unknown. Regular marijuana use does not appear to cause the same long-term lung damage that tobacco smoking does.
Brain Function Changes
Studies show that marijuana use increases the possibility of long-term and permanent changes to behavioral and cognitive development in young individuals who have a developing brain.
Research in New Zealand, for example, showed a loss of 8 IQ points in heavy users between the ages of 13 and 38. Alarmingly, this loss in mental abilities wasn’t regained by these individuals – even if they had quit using cannabis as adults.
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 how it affects pregnant women. There is some association between marijuana use in pregnant women and the development of certain disorders later on in their children. There is also an increased risk of stillbirth.
Research into how much risk marijuana poses to unborn and nursing babies has been spotty. However, medical professionals advise that any foreign substance that doesn’t benefit fetal or maternal health should be avoided. Women who want to become pregnant or are already pregnant should play it safe when it comes to marijuana use.
Final Thoughts on the Long-Term Effects of Marijuana Use
Cannabis use has increased dramatically in recent years. There are a lot of questions about the potential health implications arising from chronic and heavy use of the drug. Research into how cannabis impacts cognition has generally lagged behind studies of other more common drugs.
It is essential to bear in mind that there are many factors to consider when interpreting research findings. Factors such as the level of cannabis use, the duration of usage, and the age of onset of cannabis use are significant variables to consider when analyzing the data. There is a real need for more controlled studies looking at the potential health implications of long-term marijuana use.
As for the long-term effects of marijuana use, researchers will not be able to acquire practical data without completing similarly long-term studies. In other words, it may be decades before we have a clear understanding of the long-term effects of marijuana.