What are the long term effects of consuming cannabis? Should anyone give you an answer other than, “I don’t really know, although there may be some,” is a person not worth listening to. This is because there have been no real long-term studies into people who use cannabis, at least on a large enough scale that will show us some definite answers. This is partly because cannabis has been illegal for so long, so studying the long-term effects has proven difficult.
There are also two other variables to consider: the method and regularity of consumption. We do not know if there are major differences in health outcomes between occasional and regular cannabis users. Whether eating, drinking, smoking or vaping cannabis makes any difference is also up for debate.
However, though there is no evidence for any major conclusions on the long-term effects of cannabis, it is probably best to assume there would be. This would be the case for any medicine, so we should not treat cannabis as some sort of wonder med with no side effects whatsoever. There are likely to be some, even if they are not deadly to most users. Doctor Frank weighs in below.
Here are four of the biggest potential concerns:
1) The Health Effects of Smoking
Though there is no evidence that smoking cannabis without tobacco causes lung cancer (i.e. there is no statistical correlation), it makes sense that inhaling burning plant matter may have some negative effects on the lungs. Though burning cannabis and inhaling the smoke may have carcinogens in it (as the smoke from any burning matter would), it is not at all the same as smoke from tobacco. Smoking cannabis may be bad for you, but the evidence so far suggests that the smoke is not as bad as tobacco, which contains nicotine.
Interestingly, for some mild-to-moderate cases of asthma and bronchitis, THC may actually be a bronchodilator. Though asthma and bronchitis sufferers may wish to avoid smoking cannabis, there are inhalers that may help to get THC directly to the lungs.
Some studies show that cannabis use may increase the risk of psychotic illness, but many studies show no association between marijuana use and anxiety or depression. As far as I have seen, the evidence for a link between marijuana use and mental health is mixed at best. Indeed, many people use cannabis to help alleviate anxiety and depression. Though cannabis may not be ideal for schizophrenics, cannabidiol (CBD) - a cannabinoid found in cannabis - may actually have significant antipsychotic effects, which may be of use for schizophrenics.
All I can say when it comes to cannabis and mental health is that “everyone’s different.” Depending on the mental health disorder, cannabis may be helpful, hindering or even neutral. Why this is the case, nobody knows. However, if I were to make a few suppositions as to why this might be the case, it could be because:
- Everybody’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) is different and handles phytocannabinoids differently. Where one person suffering from depression may find marijuana helpful, another may find it harmful. This could be because of differences in the ECS.
- The cause of the mental illness. Was it a particularly traumatic event that triggered it? Is it genetic? Is the person depressed because they are in constant physical pain? Where cannabis may be useful for someone who’s depressed because of physical pain, it may not be so for someone whose family has a history of bipolar disorder. Different causes may need different treatments.
- Dosage. Where regular, heavy use may prove harmful for some, they may still respond positively to occasional use. Effective titration and ensuring that the person is using the appropriate strain is important.
- Other factors. As stated already, cannabis is not a wonder medicine. No matter how much cannabis a person in an abusive household uses, it will not take them out of an abusive household. There are some things that can cause mental health problems cannabis alone can’t mitigate against.
Cannabis use disorder is the continued use of cannabis despite significant distress or impairment after use. This means a strong desire to take cannabis, difficulties in controlling usage, social withdrawal, consistently suspicious and paranoid behavior, and increased tolerance. Some people may exhibit symptoms of physical withdrawal (shaking, sweating and nightmares), although this “withdrawal” state is non-harmful and generally short-lived.
Though cannabis isn’t addictive in the traditional sense (the ECS recovers quite quickly after use stops, and permanent damage to the nervous system and its reward centers is unlikely), to say that misuse is not a concern would be problematic. Around 9% of those who use cannabis develop marijuana dependence.
Heavy cannabis users may have an increased chance of developing this disorder, but it must also be mentioned that the risk of developing a disorder from cannabis use are far lower than that from prescribed opioids.
This syndrome usually occurs in long-term, daily users, and is characterized by recurrent nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramps. Hot showers and baths improve symptoms in the short-term, and stopping cannabis use can prove to be a more long-term solution. Cyclic vomiting syndrome (CVS) presents similarly, although cannabis-derived products like dronabinol (brand name marinol) have antiemetic properties and may be used to control some types of CVS.
So, why does an antiemetic like cannabis sometimes cause CVS? Though there is no definite evidence as to why, some people have posited that it’s because long-term cannabis use causes a buildup of cannabinoids, which causes a paradoxical effect on the gastrointestinal system.
Remember that all of the above long-term effects have not been proven to be caused by cannabis use alone as of yet. In comparison to many other drugs and medications (even seemingly innocuous ones like ibuprofen), cannabis is still comparatively safe as far as the current evidence goes.
Also, for most people, stopping use has no significant side-effects. This is one of the major reasons why marijuana’s illegality is so ridiculous, especially when we have legal medications available over the pharmacy counter that are far more dangerous.
Doctor Frank started his medical career as an orthopedic surgeon, but he is no longer in the business of operating on broken limbs, instead he can be found counseling patients daily on the many uses of medicinal marijuana for countless ailments.