Readers: Please note that this article is written in light humor and whilst it is factually correct is not an in-depth discussion of the research and political issues surrounding cannabis.
Time to light up the #medicalmarijuana issue again.
Cannabis was banned by the US government in 1937, but today it has been legalized for medicinal use in 20 states, and two states (Colorado and Washington) have legalized it for recreational use.
Let’s clear up the clouded debate, and give you the clearest facts about the highs! and lows of marijuana use on your health. It’s a burning issue after all.
The fact of the matter is, while the research is hazy, both the pro and the con sides are blowing a lot of smoke on the issue, making it difficult for the cannabis-pro and cannabis-con side to avoid half-baked arguments.
The Nitty Gritty of Cannabis
- Hash oil
- Mary Jane
So, how does cannabis get you high? Just like the body has hormonal receptors, it also has cannabinoid receptors. This is because, as was discovered in the 80’s, that the body naturally makes cannabinoids (2). Cannabinoid receptors are found in three main areas of the brain: the basal ganglia, the hippocampus and the cerebellum. Generally, cannabinoids are inhibitors that relaaaax neurotransmitters in these areas, which then affect:
- Short-term memory (Brainfarting)
- Problem solving (…Brainfarting
- Learning (3)
One joint has more than 500 chemicals, but the chemical that really makes you feel aweeeesome is a cannabinoid called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). After the smoke or vapor is inhaled (or the weed eaten, for that matter), it enters quickly into the bloodstream, then to the brain.
At this point, everything becomes wonderful, your pupils dilate and the senses fire up. Colors, smells and sounds seem intense (Shark Week anyone?). Some people then start to feel paranoia and panic (“I’m cool”). Of course, this depends on the strain of marijuana being consumed.
The fact that cannabinoids have some beneficial effects isn’t just some Bing Bong Theory. Cannabis also has 65 other cannabinoids that don’t give you this sense of euphoria and affect the brain in other ways. Cannabidol (CBD), for example, is another cannabinoid that is known to help reduce seizures (2). Medicinal marijuana users have grown strains of the plant high in CBD specifically for this purpose.
Just figuring out how cannabis works in the body gives you bit of insight on the hazy crazy world of marijuana:
The Highs of Cannabis:
First of all, it’s worth mentioning that only 6% of all studies on marijuana focus on its ups (4). It is only natural, then, that the facts on the benefits of marijuana would be light.
Even so, there are plenty of studies that have shown the negative effects of cannabis for treating a mess of diseases. Even some of the most skeptical killjoy professionals have started to recognize the UP-side of taking a hit. CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta is one of the most well-known professionals to switch sides on the matter (5).
Let’s take a look.
- Stimulates Appetite
While you may be thinking – how are munchies an upside? People who are suffering from cancer and are going through chemotherapy often have a poor appetite and nausea. For some people with cancer, the only thing that allows them to eat a full meal and sleep peacefully is smoking cannabis, because it helps to alleviate anxiety and sparks an appetite (18). This helps them to have a higher quality of life, and even help them to recover (12).
- Treats Glaucoma
Glaucoma, which is an increase in intra-ocular pressure (eye-pressure, in laymen’s terms), can cause permanent vision loss. Early studies showed that smoking cannabis can decrease intra-ocular pressure, slowing the progression of glaucoma, and preventing vision loss (13).
- May Increase Lung Capacity
It seems a little counter intuitive, since you are inhaling smoke after all. Nonetheless, a study carried out in 2012 published by the Journal of the American Medical Association tested the lung function of 5,115 young adults over the course of 20 years. They found that, unlike tobacco smokers, cannabis smokers showed an increase in lung capacity (14).
- Helps to Control Seizures
As mentioned before, some of the cannabinoids found in cannabis help to control epileptic seizures, and seizures caused by Dravet’s Syndrome, by binding to cells responsible for over-excitability, keeping them from getting too fired up (15). In Sanjay Gupta’s documentary, WEED, he interviews a family whose daughter is suffering from Dravet’s Syndrome, and they report that since starting to receive therapy with medical marijuana high in CBD, her seizures reduced from 300 a week to only one a week (16).
- Cancer Takes a Hit with Cannabis
Marijuana high may help certain types of cancer from spreading. A lab study took breast cancer cells and exposed them to CBD, and found that it helps turn off a gene that causes the cancer to spread rapidly (17). As a result, cancer spreads more slowly, or stops spreading all together.
- May Slow the Progression of Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the formation of plaques that kill brain cells. THC, the cannabinoid that makes you feel oh-so-good, blocks the enzymes that make the plaques. If taken as soon as symptoms start showing up, it may slow the progression of the disease significantly (19).
- Puts a Damper on Hep-C Treatment Side Effects
Hepatitis C is a serious infection, but the treatment is just as harsh- if not more – for many. People who smoke marijuana find that the side effects are greatly reduced.
Loooooows: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire
When used for non-medicinal purposes, cannabis has been shown to have a mess of downsides in the short and in the long-term.
Most of the short-term effects are no secret. I apologize for being so blunt, but this is where the pro-side really takes a hit when it comes to legalizing marijuana for anything that isn’t to treat an illness. You all know that smoking cannabis:
- Adversely affects motor coordination, attention and judgment
- Increases heart rate
- Raises levels of anxiety when smoking too much
- Causes mood changes (not always for the better)
- Causes difficultly thinking and with problem solving
- Results in impaired memory
Long- term use may affect:
- Brain development (thinking, memory, and learning functions)
One study examined the memory, executive functioning, psychomotor speed, and manual dexterity of light, medium, and heavy cannabis smokers (6). The study found that the heavy user group performed significantly below the light group on 5 of 35 measures of brain function. Studies confirmed the same effects, whether it was 1 or 28 days of abstinence from cannabis (9). We all know long time stoners are a bit slow J
- Lower Fertility
Cannabis seems to also make your swimmers a little less active. When examining the effect of marijuana, alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking on fertility, researchers looked at data from couples having fertility issues. They looked at semen samples, and found that they had pyospermia, or increased white blood cell counts in semen samples (which dampers down infertility) compared to non-users (7) (8).
- Low Birth Weight in Infants
Yup, people still smoke when they are pregnant. I promise you, doctors aren’t just messing with you when they ask you to abstain from smoking and drinking while pregnant.
One study found that the infants of women who smoked marijuana while pregnant were born with a low birth weight and a smaller length than non-users (10). A decrease in birth-weight is associated with a higher chance of illness and death early in life, and poor brain development.
So please. Do it for the kids and hold off on the herb when you are pregnant.
- Undesired weight gain
Got munchies? If and when you use, you probably do. Plus a few extra pounds to vouch for it. One study took in six volunteers to live in a laboratory for thirteen days and smoke either a placebo or marijuana daily. Those who smoked marijuana ate much more between meals than those who were smoking a placebo. As a result, they consumed 40% more calories than the placebo group, and had the corresponding weight gain (11).
- More Carcinogens than Tobacco
I’d hate to be a buzzkill, but even though smoking cannabis may increase your lung capacity, it’s not all good. A study examined the smoke content and the amount of smoke-related toxins in the blood, and it found that those who smoked cannabis had nearly five times greater increment in the blood carboxyhemoglobin (toxin) level, inhaled about three times the amount of tar, and retained more of the inhaled tar in the lungs (20).
- Life problems:
And the smoke thickens…
On top of these negative effects on health, there were some psychological issues that people who light up often dealt with. Some of these included lower life satisfaction, poor mental and physical health, relationship problems, and less academic and career success (21). These aren’t necessarily a result of smoking cannabis. A lot of people turn to cannabis as a result of dealing with some of these issues
As you can see, the landscape is quite murky. When talking about medical marijuana, the benefits often outweigh the side effects that are used by those against it (buzzkills). It improves quality of life for people dealing with serious illnesses.
Even so, there are currently two states that have legalized marijuana use for recreational – not just medicinal – use. Why? That is a whole other debate perhaps even more clouded than the health issue. Suffice to say there are interests at play.
A few states other might be on the same road as Washington and Colorado in the near future. But now you’re ready to join the convo.
Snap. Crackle. Pot.
Ok, that was the last one. I promise.
A hat tip to: