What Are the Long-Term Effects of Marijuana Use?

Understand the facts!

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. 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 weed was a hush-hush activity.

Nowadays, people use weed to treat various conditions and symptoms, such as pain and nausea. There is also a growing acceptance of recreational products that are made from marijuana. An increasing number of people are open to the role that cannabis could play in their lives.

While there is less secrecy around cannabis use, 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 problems over time.

In this article, we analyze these 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

The primary psychoactive component of cannabis is tetrahydrocannabinol or THC for short. THC is the substance in cannabis which causes us to get high when we consume it.

THC mimics substances known as endocannabinoids, which the human body produces naturally. Endocannabinoids work in the brain by controlling the production of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemical substances that facilitate 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 in that phytocannabinoids like THC mimic the function of natural endocannabinoids in our bodies.

Marijuana use 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 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 Problems

Memory issues that are linked to marijuana use come from the way that weed 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.

Cannabis use temporarily hinders the hippocampus from creating new memories and learning new things.

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 weed.

Research suggests that people who were regular pot smokers as teenagers are more likely to experience memory problems as adults. A 2015 study, published in the academic journal Hippocampus, 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.

Breathing Problems

Although marijuana and tobacco are two completely different substances, the smoking of either has a similar effect on the lungs. Since weed smokers tend to inhale more deeply, the effects may even be more severe.

Additionally, pot smokers tend to hold the smoke in their lungs for longer to bring about a high. This increases the amount of smoke that penetrates the lungs and increases the risk of certain respiratory problems. There may be an increased production of phlegm for pot smokers, which leads to frequent coughing. This makes these users especially prone to obstructed airways.

However, there is a shortage of unequivocal evidence that links lung problems to cannabis use. One of the reasons for this is that relatively few controlled studies have been carried out linking the two.

Regardless, exposing the lungs to smoke in any capacity leads to an increased chance of experiencing other respiratory health problems. Some of these respiratory problems include conditions like emphysema, pneumonia, and bronchitis.

Brain Function Changes

The most potent chemical compound found in cannabis is THC. THC has been shown to bind to specific receptors in the brain that control learning and memory.

Studies show 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 from Duke University, for example, showed a loss of 8 IQ points in 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.

Another cause for concern is that marijuana works in areas of the brain that are associated with mood. Those who use weed are more prone to developing conditions such as depression or anxiety. Furthermore, users who may have a predisposed 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 affects women who are pregnant. Experts believe that smoking weed during pregnancy could cause long-lasting damage to the child’s memory.

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 can transfer to infants during breastfeeding.

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.

Marijuana May Be a Gateway Drug

Experts are very much divided on this one. There is a great deal of debate about whether marijuana use does act as a gateway to “harder” drugs like heroin and cocaine. The gateway drug theory implies that cannabis use may 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 weed users, they may 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 necessary in order to determine if there is any real correlation.

The gateway drug theory suggests that people who use drugs go through a linear sequence of stages. It begins with legal and socially acceptable substances (alcohol and nicotine). Next come the illegal soft drugs (marijuana), and then harder illicit drugs (heroin, etc).

However, much research has contradicted this theory as a high percentage of people do not follow this sequence of steps.

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 important 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.

Of course, with improved access to the plant we can only expect that research will improve in the coming years. Furthermore, we can expect that increased access will translate seamlessly to increased funding. Without funding, research cannot commence. It’s as simple as that.

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.