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Is Marijuana Safe? The Controversy Continues

April 18, 2014  |  Falmouth Enterprise

By Dr. Michael Bihari

In a recent online survey, a majority of physicians said that medical marijuana can provide benefits to some patients and should be legalized nationally. Currently, medical marijuana is legal in 21 states and Washington, DC.  And, as of January 1, marijuana for recreational use became legal in Colorado and Washington state. 

When physicians were asked about medical marijuana, they answered as follows:

  • 69% said it can help with certain conditions.
  • 67% say it should be a medical option for patients.
  • 56% support making it legal nationwide.

Interestingly, most physicians answering the survey oppose legalizing recreational marijuana.

Marijuana's Health Benefits

Definitive scientific information on marijuana’s health benefits is lacking because of federal government limitations on research. The DEA has designated marijuana as a “Schedule I” substance, a category used for the most dangerous drugs (such as heroin) having “no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse.”

Medical Marijuana recently became legal in Massachusetts and local dispensaries should be operational in the coming months. To obtain marijuana in the state, a patient must obtain a written certification from a physician for a debilitating medical condition, which includes cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and other conditions as determined in writing by a qualifying patient’s physician. 

One topic of great interest for physicians and consumers is the use of medical marijuana for the treatment of pain, which some feel may be a better than narcotic painkillers, such as oxycodone, with less potential for addiction. 

Clearly, more research is needed and many health professionals would like the DEA to ease its restrictions on research. Additional studies may shed light on where medical marijuana can help or not help.

Recreational Marijuana

Two states have legalized marijuana for recreational use and it is likely that more states will follow including Massachusetts. Although laws are changing, the debate over the legalization of marijuana continues. Some argue that marijuana is just as safe as, or even safer than alcohol, while others are concerned that long-term, heavy pot smoking can have lingering effects. 

When you smoke marijuana, THC and other chemicals travel from your bloodstream to your brain, which results in the feel-good "high."

Marijuana and Your Lungs

Marijuana smoke has many of the same chemicals as tobacco smoke, including ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, and formaldehyde. Although there is no definitive evidence that smoking marijuana causes lung cancer, people who smoke pot may damage their lungs and develop precancerous changes. Smoking pot can also cause cough and wheezing and worsen symptoms in people with asthma.

Marijuana and Your Brain

Researchers are finding that smoking marijuana changes the way your brain works especially if you are a frequent user:

  • Brain imaging scans show changes in blood flow to the parts of your brain involved in memory and attention. 
  • Brain scans also show differences in the size and shape of the thalamus, the part of your brain involved in consciousness and the processing of information.
  • Heavy marijuana users score lower than non-users on tests of memory, attention, and learning. The more users smoked, the worse they did on the tests.

Other Health Effects

In addition to the “buzz”, marijuana can have the following effects on your body:

  • Trouble thinking and remembering
  • Slowed coordination 
  • Anxiety and depression, including suicidal thoughts in teens
  • Fast heart rate
  • Increased risk of heart attack (within the first hour after smoking)
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Dry mouth
  • Increased appetite (the "munchies")

Some of these effects can lead to dysfunctional behavior in school or the workplace, or dangerous situations such as driving while high. According to a report from the Columbia University School of Public Health, fatal crashes involving marijuana use tripled during the previous decade.

Eat It Or Smoke It?

Smoking a joint is the most common way that people use marijuana; however, some people bake it into cookies, brownies or other food. In Colorado recreational marijuana is available in a variety of food items, many of which are available in vending machines! Marijuana hangs out in your body longer when it's eaten than when it's smoked, so you could feel the effects -- such as memory loss, a dry mouth, and bloodshot eyes -- for a few days. 

Marijuana and Your Teen

Many teens (and their parents) thing that marijuana is harmless. However, the effects of smoking pot may be even more pronounced in adolescents than adults, because teens' brains are still developing. Marijuana is the most widely used illegal drug among teenagers in the U.S. It can lead to significant health, social, learning, and behavioral problems at an important time in your teen's development. Getting high can impair your kid’s judgment, which can lead to risky decisions such as engaging in unwanted sex, criminal activity, or riding with someone who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol 

And, in spite of recent state laws that have eased access to marijuana, it is still against the law to use it to get high and getting caught with pot can have serious consequences for your teen. Your kids need to hear from you how risky marijuana use can be and how damaging it can be to their lives. 

Recommended Resources

Marijuana Facts for Teens: Presented in question-and-answer format and targeted to teens, provides facts about marijuana and its potential harmful effects. 

MedlinePlus: Marijuana provides access to information from reliable sources that are accurate and up-to-date.

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