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Marijuana Risks: Fact Or Fiction?

21st January 2021 Print

Since at least the start of Reagan’s War on Drugs in the 1980s, there have been a lot of arguments about marijuana’s status. Was it dangerous – a gateway drug that would lead teens to more serious forms of addiction? Could it harm the developing brain? Did it have any valid uses at all? While these questions were popular topics of public debate, ultimately marijuana’s classification as a Schedule 1 drug created a problem; it made it nearly impossible to research marijuana, and that only increased confusions and caused countless myths about the substance to circulate.

Today, as more states legalize marijuana products at the local level, it’s more important than ever to dispel the myths about marijuana use, while frankly addressing the known risks. It’s time to separate the facts from the fiction.

Myth: Marijuana Is A Gateway Drug

The idea that marijuana is a gateway drug that made teens more likely to abuse other substances has long been recognized by experts as a myth. In reality, the idea emerged as a scare tactic to discourage youth drug use. Any correlation between early marijuana use and later “hard” drug use is more likely connected to the easier accessibility of marijuana, compared to other substances and, in fact, similar age correlations can be seen with cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs. As the saying goes, correlation is not the same as causation.

Myth: Marijuana Is Safer Than Smoking Cigarettes

When marijuana legalization efforts first began, advocates heavily pushed the line that marijuana use was safer – at least in terms of lung health – than smoking cigarettes, but they didn’t really have the data to back up this claim. Rather, lower respiratory disease rates in marijuana smokers likely had more to do with the fact that there were fewer regular marijuana users than cigarette smokers, and that even regular users didn’t smoke as much as heavy cigarette smokers.

Today, with more information about the impact of marijuana on the respiratory system, we know that it can cause chronic bronchitis and cough, frequent respiratory infections, COPD, and other lung conditions. And while marijuana may not be as likely to cause lung cancer as cigarette smoking, there’s still a strong link between the two, given that most of the same carcinogens are present in both products.

Fact: Marijuana Has Appropriate Medical Uses

Despite its status as a Schedule 1 drug, which legally means that it has no valid medical uses, marijuana has a number of proven medical benefits. These include treating nausea and wasting associated with AIDS, as a treatment for glaucoma, and as a source or relief for chronic muscle spasms, migraines, and may other forms of serious pain. In addition, there is now at least one FDA approved pharmaceutical derived from marijuana – though it is a CBD-based medication – used to treat two forms of severe, infantile epilepsy.

Fact: Marijuana Can Increase The Risk Of Psychosis

For many years, concerned individuals linked marijuana use to an increased rate of mental health issues, but they lacked strong data. Instead, they had simple correlation, which proved problematic since individuals with mental health disorders are more likely to self-medicate with various substances, including marijuana. This made it difficult to assess the reality of the situation.

What we now know is that, while it is not a fixed risk factor, in some individuals, marijuana use can increase the risk of developing psychosis. Specifically, individuals with a particular AKT1 gene variant have an increased likelihood of developing schizophrenia or other forms of psychosis as adults if they use marijuana in adolescence. For this reason, many doctors who otherwise endorse or do not have significant problems with marijuana use generally discourage its use during adolescence when the brain is still developing.

The Final Conclusion: Marijuana Is A Mixed Bag

While recent research demonstrates that there are definite benefits to marijuana use under certain circumstances and that many of the risks have been overstated, there are also still concerns that need to be addressed. Luckily, there’s been a significant increase in marijuana-related research in recent years. As we gain more insight into its chemical properties, professionals, families, and individuals will be able to make more informed choices about its use.