Whether you’re an evening bowl-smoker or swear by CBD’s healing powers, marijuana is becoming ever-more available (and de-stigmatized) in the United States. As of now, 33 states plus D.C. have legalized marijuana in one way or another; Trump’s down for a bill; hell, everyone from grandmas to athletes are toking.
So the question on everyone’s minds: Is weed bad for you? “It depends,” says Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., a professor at The Ohio State University who has written extensively about the effects of medical marijuana and teaches psychopharmacology.
Marijuana’s a complicated topic. First, it’s filled with hundreds of different cannabinoids, chemical compounds in the marijuana plant. Two biggies: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), marijuana’s main psychoactive, mind-altering ingredient makes you high and CBD, a.k.a. Cannabidiol, the plant’s buzzy non-psychoactive ingredient, touted for its healing health benefits.
Both THC and CBD have been shown to preliminary health benefits, says Wenk. But different mechanisms for delivery — smoking, vaping, edibles, skincare products, coffees — only complicate the issue.
Case in point: Smoking’s not great for your lungs — period. And while CBD shows promise when it comes to treating pain (a much-needed pick-me-up in the midst of the opioid epidemic?), Wenk notes that its powers have been overstated.
Plus, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I substance, which means it’s been hard to study.
In the coming years, more quality research will (hopefully) start filling in the gaps of what we don’t know about marijuana. For now? Here’s the good and the bad about what we do know.
Getty ImagesPetri Oeschger
First, the not-so-good side effects of weed:
Regular smoking messes with your breathing.
If you feel like you’ve got a 24/7 loogie to hock, toking could be to blame. The semi-good news? It isn’t clear whether this leads to more serious issues, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); lung, head, and neck cancer; asthma; or reduced lung function.
Teenage stoner? Your brain’s not happy with you.
Sometimes Mom’s right — including when it comes to horrors of teenage smoking. “Young brains are much more likely to respond badly to repeated exposure to moderate to high daily levels of marijuana,” says Wenk. “The young brain appears to develop inappropriately and places the user, independent of genetics, at risk of psychiatric disorders later in life.” Puberty seems to be an especially horrible sweet-spot for the negative side effects of weed.
It could be a game of “psychiatric roulette.”
Here’s a myth you probably heard from your high school guidance counselor: Weed makes you psychotic. The reality? If you carry a genetic risk for psychosis, daily use of high doses of marijuana will likely unmask symptoms, Wenk explains. “Everyone who decides to use marijuana has to ask themselves: Do they feel lucky? Do they carry the risky genes? The answer is almost always ‘I don’t know,’” says Wenk.
And it gets worse: If you have bipolar disorder, near-daily smoking could worsen mania-like symptoms, some research finds, and heavy users may also have more thoughts of suicide more often than non-users, another study indicated.
And then there’s the rare but violent, uncontrollable vomiting.
It’s not reefer madness: Chronic smoking (three to five times daily for several years) can, in some cases, lead to a rare condition called cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS). The symptoms? Horrific bouts of days-long vomiting and abdominal pain, followed by the uncontrollable urge to take a hot shower or bath, which seems to reduce nausea. Doctors still don’t know exactly what causes CHS — it may be cannabinoid receptors gone haywire or autonomic nervous system issues.
Getty ImagesPetri Oeschger
Now, for positive side effects of weed:
Marijuana soothes pain.
Ninety-four percent of Coloradian medical marijuana ID card holders indicate ‘severe pain’ as their reason for seeking the drug. And even though a script for chronic pain doesn’t always, well, indicate chronic pain, it’s still the number one reason patients ask for marijuana.
Even more: People with chronic pain who took cannabis or cannabinoids saw reductions in their pain, according to a 2017 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. CBD and other cannabinoids act through a unique pain pathway called the endocannabinoid system, which is why we’re excited about CBD cream for post-workout recovery.
It could be good for your skin.
Cannabinoid creams may help treat skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and atopic and contact dermatitis, according to a review from the University of Colorado. Researchers attribute these results to the compound’s anti-inflammatory properties, which could soothe itchy, irritated skin.
It could reduce symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) and epilepsy.
People with MS often suffer from muscle spasticity, stiffness which causes involuntary muscle spasms. Sativex (nabiximols), an oral spray derived from cannabis, is marketed to reduce this problem and the drug is available in other countries. It’s currently in Phase 3 testing in the United States.
This past June, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also approved Epidiolex, an oral CBD solution for the treatment of seizures linked to two rare, severe forms of epilepsy.
It gives chemotherapy a boost (and slashes the side effects, too).
Add THC and CBD to chemotherapy drugs and what do you get? Possibly, an even more effective cancer treatment, according to research out of the University of London. Chemotherapy with cannabinoids was more effective than chemotherapy alone, which meant patients could take a lower dose and faced fewer side effects in the study.
Beyond this, cannabinoids are already at work fighting chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting. Marinol (dronabinol) and Cesamet (nabilone), synthetic cannabinoids, are FDA-approved options for relief from chemotherapy-related nausea when conventional drugs fail, according to the National Cancer Institute.
You likely won’t overdose.
Take a look at the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) overdose death rates. Each year, opioids, cocaine, benzos, and meth take tens of thousands of lives. Marijuana? Not even a mention. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) even says that “a fatal overdose is unlikely.” But don’t hit the bong just yet. Excess of anything is never a good idea. Signs of overuse include extreme confusion, anxiety, paranoia, delusions and hallucinations, severe nausea and vomiting, and unintentional injury, CDC warns. Marijuana use also increases your risk of being involved in a car accident, research finds.
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