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The Hard Side of a “Soft” Drug: The Unexpected Dangers of Marijuana

fThe push to legalize recreational marijuana has been gaining momentum in the United States for years now, with significant success. As of summer 2021, the use of the drug for recreational purposes was legal in 18 states, the District of Columbia, and the US territory of Guam.

It’s not difficult to understand why, as the therapeutic and palliative effects of cannabis, the plant from which marijuana is derived, have long been heralded. Indeed, there is substantial and compelling evidence for the efficacy of cannabis in treating specific ailments ranging from chronic neuropathic pain to treatment-resistant epilepsy to severe cancer pain to generalized anxiety disorders (1, 2, 3, 4).

Even as cannabis and cannabinoid therapeutics assumed greater prominence in the health system, over-the-counter products derived from both natural and synthetic cannabis became ubiquitous. Soon the market was flooded with cannabinoids in diverse forms, from CBD oils to gummies to vaping products. Suddenly, the daily use of cannabis without a prescription was no longer consigned to the more “fringe” elements of society.

In many states across the nation, dropping in to your local dispensary or holistic medicine shop to pick up some variation of cannabis quickly became as commonplace and socially acceptable as apple pie and Sunday dinner with grandma. Hence the recent successes in the legalization movement in recent years.

The cultural shift that has occurred in the past decade or so may be explained not only by the prevalence of the substance in medical and non-medical domains. Rather, there is a deeper and more influential force at work, and that is in the widespread and long-standing belief that marijuana, in contrast to other illicit substances such as cocaine and heroin, is a “soft” drug, one that poses little or no risk of health hazards or addiction (5, 6).

The reality, however, is far different. In fact, despite the evidence that the medicinal use of marijuana may, indeed, have therapeutic benefits, recognition of the risks associated even with prescribed use under the supervision of a physician is also readily increasing. In fact, given all that is currently known about the necessity for careful and diligent monitoring and rigorously-controlled use, anyone who is thinking of trying marijuana or over-the-counter CBD-based products should first consult with their healthcare team in regard both to safety and to the availability of other non-cannabinoid options.

After all, cannabis addiction is very real, as are the significant harms that even short-term, low-level use can inflict on mental and physical health. But what, exactly, are the dangers of marijuana?

The Reality of Marijuana Addiction

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about marijuana is that it is not addictive. In fact, not only is it quite possible to become addicted to marijuana, but it’s also quite easy to do so, particularly for vulnerable individuals. Studies of the neurobiological mechanisms of cannabis addiction have found that exposure to cannabis causes changes in the brain that not only instigate but, over time, strengthen the dependency (7, 8).

Among the most significant of the neurological changes that spur marijuana addiction are those that occur in the deep structures of the brain. Studies show that cannabis exposure reduces the responsiveness of the brain’s “reward” centers, requiring users to consume ever higher amounts of the drug to achieve the same pleasurable high as during the first encounters. The depression of the reward centers significantly increases the likelihood that cannabis users will progress to harder drugs to achieve the high that cannabis no longer provides (9).

Mental Illness, Cognition, Psychosis

The neurological changes which contribute to dependency are by no means the only risks that even short-term, low-level exposure to cannabis poses to the brain. For instance, though the mechanisms are not yet clear, there is mounting evidence that adolescents who use cannabis are significantly more likely to develop schizophrenia than those who don’t. Even more troublingly, this elevated risk appears to apply both to low-frequency and high-frequency cannabis users alike (10).

In addition to evidence of an increased risk of schizophrenia for young cannabis users, the data also suggest a close connection between the drug and the development of other severe mental illnesses. For example, researchers have found that the drug may induce “long-lasting” psychosis, particularly for individuals who are genetically, biologically, or environmentally predisposed to psychiatric disorders (11, 12, 13).

Similarly, though cannabis has been used to treat the symptoms of mood disorders in some patient populations, there is ample evidence to indicate a link between cannabis use and the emergence or exacerbation of conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders (11, 12, 14).  These studies have also found that the neurological changes that appear to be induced by the drug incite behavioral changes that may significantly diminish overall quality of life, including detrimental effects on cognition, loss of motivation, and an increase in suicidal ideations (11, 12, 13, 14).

Heart Attacks and Cancers

As profound as the neurological and psychiatric impacts of cannabis use may be, the threat to other systems of the body may be just as significant. For example, there is mounting evidence that cannabis may induce abnormalities in heart rhythm and blood pressure. These anomalies have been shown to contribute to heart attacks in cannabis users, even in young adults with no evidence of heart disease (5, 15, 16).

Cannabis, especially when smoked, has also been shown to present a substantial threat to the respiratory system. The evidence suggests that those who smoke marijuana face similar outcomes to tobacco smokers, including an increased likelihood of the development of severe respiratory illnesses, from pneumonia to emphysema to lung cancer (16, 17, 18).

The physical risks don’t end there, however. Because cannabis is metabolized in the liver, there is a significant likelihood of dangerous interactions with prescription medications and other substances, especially in vulnerable populations, such as the elderly or those with chronic illnesses (19, 20, 21).

Perhaps the most immediate threat posed by cannabis exposure, though, relates to the motor impairment experienced by users immediately following exposure, including delayed response times, slower sensory and cognitive processing, and imbalance and lateral control. These impairments have been linked to an increased risk of severe and even life-threatening accidents, including motor vehicle accidents, particularly among occasional users (22, 23, 24). Indeed, the elevated risk of impaired driving immediately after smoking marijuana can be especially dangerous for cannabis users and passengers, as the effects of marijuana on driving skills continue to be widely misunderstood and discounted.

How Bayshore Can Help

If you are experiencing cannabis dependency, Bayshore’s compassionate team of recovery specialists can help you break the cycle of addiction and return to the healthy, happy, drug-free life you deserve. We offer an array of services to support the whole person, partnering with our clients to develop customized recovery plans to support wellness in mind, body, and spirit. Contact us today to discuss how Bayshore can help you or someone you love!

At Bayshore Retreat we have extensive knowledge in treating substance abuse and co-occurring mental health issues. We understand that Mental Health Disorders can be the root cause of substance abuse. We use the latest scientific research and holistic approach for drug and alcohol addiction treatment.

  1. Mücke, M., Phillips, T., Radbruch, L., Petzke, F., & Häuser, W. (2018). Cannabis-based medicines for chronic neuropathic pain in adults. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, 3(3), CD012182. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD012182.pub2
  2. Gaston, T. E., & Szaflarski, J. P. (2018). Cannabis for the Treatment of Epilepsy: an Update. Current neurology and neuroscience reports, 18(11), 73. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11910-018-0882-y
  3.  Boland, E. G., Bennett, M. I., Allgar, V., & Boland, J. W. (2020). Cannabinoids for adult cancer-related pain: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ supportive & palliative care, 10(1), 14–24. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjspcare-2019-002032
  4. García-Gutiérrez, M. S., Navarrete, F., Gasparyan, A., Austrich-Olivares, A., Sala, F., & Manzanares, J. (2020). Cannabidiol: A Potential New Alternative for the Treatment of Anxiety, Depression, and Psychotic Disorders. Biomolecules, 10(11), 1575. https://doi.org/10.3390/biom10111575
  5. Kumar, S., Srinivasamurthy, R., Karasik, O., & Javaid, A. (2018). Marijuana-associated ST-elevation myocardial infarction: is this a benign drug. BMJ case reports, 11(1), e226894. https://doi.org/10.1136/bcr-2018-226894
  6. Blevins, C. E., Walker, D. D., Stephens, R. S., Banes, K. E., & Roffman, R. A. (2018). Changing social norms: The impact of normative feedback included in motivational enhancement therapy on cannabis outcomes among heavy-using adolescents. Addictive behaviors, 76, 270–274. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2017.08.030
  7. Zehra, A., Burns, J., Liu, C. K., Manza, P., Wiers, C. E., Volkow, N. D., & Wang, G. J. (2018). Cannabis Addiction and the Brain: a Review. Journal of neuroimmune pharmacology : the official journal of the Society on NeuroImmune Pharmacology, 13(4), 438–452. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11481-018-9782-9
  8. Curran, H. V., Freeman, T. P., Mokrysz, C., Lewis, D. A., Morgan, C. J., & Parsons, L. H. (2016). Keep off the grass? Cannabis, cognition and addiction. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 17(5), 293–306. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn.2016.28
  9. Panlilio, L. V., & Justinova, Z. (2018). Preclinical Studies of Cannabinoid Reward, Treatments for Cannabis Use Disorder, and Addiction-Related Effects of Cannabinoid Exposure. Neuropsychopharmacology : official
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