Does Marijuana Cause Health Problems?

Does Marijuana Cause Health Problems?
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Every year, cannabis is estimated to result in two million years of healthy life lost due to disability. How much is that compared to alcohol and tobacco?

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

“The popular notion seems to be that marijuana is a harmless pleasure…” But what are the potential adverse effects of marijuana use? That’s not an easy question to answer. Most studies [to date have been] cross-sectional or rely on self-reported health.” Cross-sectional means a snapshot in time; and so, you don’t know which came first. Are people sick because they’re smoking marijuana, or are they smoking marijuana because they’re sick? And, if you just ask people how they are, pot smokers may be like: “I feel great!” even if they’re actually suffering from some health problem. “Few longitudinal studies” have been done—meaning studies done over time, using “objective” measures of health—until, now.

More than a thousand “individuals followed up from birth to age 38,…test[ing] associations between cannabis use over [decades] and multiple domains of physical health…” They looked at 12 health outcomes, and tobacco use “was associated with worse health for 8 of…12…,” from impaired lung function to systemic inflammation, and metabolic derangements. And, cannabis use was associated with—just gum disease. That’s it? “[C]annabis use was unrelated to other physical health problems.”

Now, periodontal disease can lead to tooth loss, and there may be other dental health problems associated with smoking marijuana, but when cannabis is described as “nefarious,” the first thing to come to mind is probably not gingivitis.

Is it possible that cannabis users are just living healthier-than-average lifestyles to counteract the effects of the drug? Like eating more fruits and vegetables, or maybe drinking less alcohol? No, neither are pot smokers exercising any more; and so, “[t]he absence of associations between cannabis use and poor physical midlife health could not be attributed to” any of these other things. So, maybe marijuana is just not that bad.

Heroin may increase your risk of dying, cocaine use may increase your risk of dying; but no association was found between mortality and marijuana. Now, they did just follow these folks until age 38. To find out what happens after that, we need to turn to Sweden, where they recently published “the longest [study ever] on cannabis and mortality:” 50,000 men “followed…up to around age 60.” About 30 years ago, when they first reported on this cohort, “no…significant excess mortality was found” among cannabis users, or abusers as they called them. But, back then, these men were in their 30s, like in that other study.

What happens when you follow them past middle age, when perhaps “the health-related detrimental effects” might begin to emerge? Those with “a history of heavy cannabis use” did end up having “a significantly higher risk of death”—a 40% higher risk of dying prematurely.

But, wait a second. I thought cannabis didn’t kill. Cocaine kills thousands of Americans every year, alcohol kills tens of thousands, and tobacco breaks the graph, wiping out hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. every year. But, marijuana doesn’t even make it onto the graph.

But, what they’re referring to is that “no deaths have been directly attributed to the acute physical toxicity of cannabis.” So, when some 19-year-old eats a cannabis cookie and then jumps “off a fourth floor balcony,” the direct cause of death was the fall. But, that doesn’t mean cannabis didn’t contribute.

It’s true that people don’t directly OD on cannabis like you can with opiates, which can shut down your breathing. Unlike many pharmaceuticals, for which a harmful dose may just be a few times larger than the prescribed dose, the “therapeutic index” for cannabis is like 40,000 to 1. Does that mean you could smoke like 40,000 joints without OD-ing? No; you may be able to smoke 2 million joints before a lethal overdose. Cannabis use contributes more to disease than death (in part because people aren’t injecting it), but “[t]he health-related harms of cannabis had never been quantified on a global scale”—until, 2013.

Every year, cannabis is estimated to result in two million years of healthy life lost due to disability. Now, this is tiny, compared to 100 million or so years attributed to alcohol or tobacco, but still results in a lot of pain and suffering.

But, what about our gum disease study? I thought the only physical health problems were dental in nature. Well, they were just looking at a specific set of health problems; they emphasize that the periodontal problems are in addition to all the other potential issues, like increased risk of “accidents and injuries, bronchitis, [heart attacks and strokes],…possibly, infectious diseases, and cancer, as well as [the] mental health concerns…” But, in terms of as a more direct cause of death, marijuana may be suspected in maybe hundreds of deaths over an eight-year period, whereas a single pharmaceutical drug—Viagra—was involved in thousands.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Image credit: tanjila ahmed via flickr. Image has been modified.

Motion graphics by Avocado Video

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

“The popular notion seems to be that marijuana is a harmless pleasure…” But what are the potential adverse effects of marijuana use? That’s not an easy question to answer. Most studies [to date have been] cross-sectional or rely on self-reported health.” Cross-sectional means a snapshot in time; and so, you don’t know which came first. Are people sick because they’re smoking marijuana, or are they smoking marijuana because they’re sick? And, if you just ask people how they are, pot smokers may be like: “I feel great!” even if they’re actually suffering from some health problem. “Few longitudinal studies” have been done—meaning studies done over time, using “objective” measures of health—until, now.

More than a thousand “individuals followed up from birth to age 38,…test[ing] associations between cannabis use over [decades] and multiple domains of physical health…” They looked at 12 health outcomes, and tobacco use “was associated with worse health for 8 of…12…,” from impaired lung function to systemic inflammation, and metabolic derangements. And, cannabis use was associated with—just gum disease. That’s it? “[C]annabis use was unrelated to other physical health problems.”

Now, periodontal disease can lead to tooth loss, and there may be other dental health problems associated with smoking marijuana, but when cannabis is described as “nefarious,” the first thing to come to mind is probably not gingivitis.

Is it possible that cannabis users are just living healthier-than-average lifestyles to counteract the effects of the drug? Like eating more fruits and vegetables, or maybe drinking less alcohol? No, neither are pot smokers exercising any more; and so, “[t]he absence of associations between cannabis use and poor physical midlife health could not be attributed to” any of these other things. So, maybe marijuana is just not that bad.

Heroin may increase your risk of dying, cocaine use may increase your risk of dying; but no association was found between mortality and marijuana. Now, they did just follow these folks until age 38. To find out what happens after that, we need to turn to Sweden, where they recently published “the longest [study ever] on cannabis and mortality:” 50,000 men “followed…up to around age 60.” About 30 years ago, when they first reported on this cohort, “no…significant excess mortality was found” among cannabis users, or abusers as they called them. But, back then, these men were in their 30s, like in that other study.

What happens when you follow them past middle age, when perhaps “the health-related detrimental effects” might begin to emerge? Those with “a history of heavy cannabis use” did end up having “a significantly higher risk of death”—a 40% higher risk of dying prematurely.

But, wait a second. I thought cannabis didn’t kill. Cocaine kills thousands of Americans every year, alcohol kills tens of thousands, and tobacco breaks the graph, wiping out hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. every year. But, marijuana doesn’t even make it onto the graph.

But, what they’re referring to is that “no deaths have been directly attributed to the acute physical toxicity of cannabis.” So, when some 19-year-old eats a cannabis cookie and then jumps “off a fourth floor balcony,” the direct cause of death was the fall. But, that doesn’t mean cannabis didn’t contribute.

It’s true that people don’t directly OD on cannabis like you can with opiates, which can shut down your breathing. Unlike many pharmaceuticals, for which a harmful dose may just be a few times larger than the prescribed dose, the “therapeutic index” for cannabis is like 40,000 to 1. Does that mean you could smoke like 40,000 joints without OD-ing? No; you may be able to smoke 2 million joints before a lethal overdose. Cannabis use contributes more to disease than death (in part because people aren’t injecting it), but “[t]he health-related harms of cannabis had never been quantified on a global scale”—until, 2013.

Every year, cannabis is estimated to result in two million years of healthy life lost due to disability. Now, this is tiny, compared to 100 million or so years attributed to alcohol or tobacco, but still results in a lot of pain and suffering.

But, what about our gum disease study? I thought the only physical health problems were dental in nature. Well, they were just looking at a specific set of health problems; they emphasize that the periodontal problems are in addition to all the other potential issues, like increased risk of “accidents and injuries, bronchitis, [heart attacks and strokes],…possibly, infectious diseases, and cancer, as well as [the] mental health concerns…” But, in terms of as a more direct cause of death, marijuana may be suspected in maybe hundreds of deaths over an eight-year period, whereas a single pharmaceutical drug—Viagra—was involved in thousands.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Image credit: tanjila ahmed via flickr. Image has been modified.

Motion graphics by Avocado Video

Doctor's Note

If you’re interested in more, check out my other videos:

If you want to take a deep dive into this topic, I made a whole DVD download of cannabis research. I’ll continue to produce videos on this, so check out the marijuana topic page for all the latest.

The cannabis issue reminds me of a similar clash of politics and commercial interests in the cell phone debate. If you’re interested, check out my videos Does Cell Phone Radiation Cause Cancer? and Cell Phone Brain Tumor Risk?.

You might also want to check out some of my videos on smoking:

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

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