Celebrate 420 Day by Pondering the Harmful Effects of Cannabis

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Since its founding in 1978, the American Council on Science and Health has been vehemently anti-smoking. Cigarettes kill people, if not from cancer, then from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The bottom line is that lighting something -- anything -- on fire and inhaling the fumes is bad for you.

That includes marijuana. The wacky tobaccy has a health halo of sorts surrounding it, probably because of the proliferation of medical marijuana over the years. This proliferation was due, in part, to health benefits that were greatly exaggerated by its proponents. In reality, if marijuana has any upside, it is likely limited to managing pain.

According to a review in the Italian journal Minerva Anestesiologica, data on the painkilling properties of marijuana are mixed. While it may be useful in treating some types of pain, such as chronic (noncancer) or neuropathic pain, it is no better than placebo for visceral pain or non-opioid analgesics for acute pain. And there are side effects. Medical marijuana can harm memory and cognitive function.

It's time for marijuana advocates to admit what is plainly obvious: Pot is a recreational drug. If Americans wish to legalize it, fine. (I voted to legalize it in my state.) But let's stop pretending that cannabis is a miraculous painkiller or wonder drug. It is not*. It's also far from clear that marijuana could help reverse the opioid epidemic. Most people who use it simply like getting high. And let's stop denying that legalizing marijuana will come with some serious public health consequences.

The Adverse Health Effects of Marijuana

A review article in the journal Annual Review of Medicine lists the adverse health effects of marijuana. They include:

  • Addiction/dependence. About 1 in 10 adult users become dependent on the drug.
  • Acute cognitive impairment. Marijuana affects concentration, decision-making, memory, and response time.
  • Persistent cognitive impairment. Chronic use of marijuana can cause memory and perhaps IQ loss, as well as harm the cognitive development of young people.
  • Psychosis. Marijuana can create feelings of paranoia and even hallucinations.
  • Lung damage. Like smoking a cigarette, smoking a joint harms the lungs, possibly leading to bronchitis or lung cancer.
  • Drug interactions. Marijuana may interfere with antiretrovirals, and it is possible that cannabis interacts with other drugs, too.
  • Accidental poisonings. Stories abound of children and pets accidentally consuming pot.

An added bonus: Car crash fatalities are up 12% on April 20th, the unofficial "marijuana holiday."

Be safe out there, stoners.

*Note: A drug derived from marijuana, cannabidiol, that treats epilepsy may soon get FDA approval. But it does not make a person get high.