Attitudes about marijuana are increasingly becoming more relaxed, especially as medical and recreational use becomes widespread. Still, none of this erases the possibility that some marijuana users will experience changes in their physical and mental health and develop chronic illnesses as a result of long-term use.
Marijuana is a mix of dried, shredded flower buds, and leaves of the cannabis plant called Cannabis sativa. People ingest the herb in many ways. They can drink it as a tea or eat it in mixed foods called edibles. Some people smoke or vape the substance while others use oils.
Federal law still categorizes marijuana as an illegal drug despite being the most widely used one in the U.S. Despite its natural makeup, more than 400 to 500 chemicals have been identified in the substance. However, the main one linked to the substance’s mind-altering effects is a chemical called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), there are more than 100 compounds in marijuana that are similar to THC. Also, the chemical is what determines how strong the substance is and how it can affect the body. This is something to note, as “Marijuana growers have been increasing the THC content of marijuana over the past few decades,” NIDA writes.
Once marijuana is in the bloodstream and circulates throughout the body, the substance affects cannabinoid receptors in the brain just as heroin, cocaine, alcohol, and other drugs do. Users can feel a variety of things once they ingest marijuana, including euphoria and relaxation. This happens when the brain cells release dopamine. The receptors send messages to nerve cells throughout the nervous system, and this changes how the brain works. Once the brain is affected, users may notice they have:
They also may notice they have:
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Heavy marijuana use can lead to various challenges and conditions. These include increased risk of marijuana addiction, learning and memory problems, especially if use began during one’s youth, and increased chances of developing chronic cough or bronchitis. Some people can also develop schizophrenia as a result of marijuana use, particularly those with a higher genetic risk.
A 2018 study found that among nearly 10,000 participants in the Monitoring the Future survey ages 18-50, marijuana use from age 18 into the late 20s or longer was linked to an increased risk of self-reported health problems at age 50.
While researchers cautioned that the study’s findings should be interpreted with care, NIDA reported that “patterns characterized by longer moderate or heavy use were associated with greater risk for certain health problems than patterns of shorter use with the same intensity.” Researchers did take into account respondents’ use of other substances, such as alcohol and the smoking of cigarettes, while they were using marijuana.
Further, from NIDA’s report on the study:
“The participants’ use patterns influenced their risks for self-reported health problems later in life. Compared to nonuse of the drug:
Long-term use can also bring on disease. One of them is cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS), which, according to Cedars-Sinai, “is a condition that leads to repeated and severe bouts of vomiting. It is rare and only occurs in daily long-term users of marijuana.”
The THC in marijuana binds to molecules in the brain and ones in the digestive tract, the health site explains. Extensive marijuana use can change how the molecules in the digestive tract respond and lead to the symptoms of CHS. Symptoms are divided into three stages:
The prodromal phase. Primary symptoms in this stage are nausea that occurs in the early hours of the morning and abdominal pain. Some marijuana users reportedly use more marijuana to self-medicate against nausea, while others develop a fear of vomiting. Normal eating patterns are common during this period, which can last for months or years, according to Cedars-Sinai.
The hyperemetic phase. Users experience repeated episodes of intense vomiting. Nausea lingers and other symptoms such as stomach pain, decreased appetite, weight loss, and dehydration happen during this time. Hot showers have been found to get people through their discomfort, which prompts some to seek medical care. People also stop their marijuana use at this time.
Recovery phase. Symptoms disappear, and normal eating routines resume. According to Cedars-Sinai, this stage can last for days or months, but symptoms can come back if marijuana use starts again.
To confirm a CHS prognosis, a person should consult with a doctor, who can guide them through the appropriate tests and treatment for it.
It is also important to consider marijuana’s possible long-term effects on the body and its organs, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines here. Use can affect the brain, heart, liver, and lungs, and increase the chances of developing a mental health disorder that requires lifelong treatment to manage.
While some may wonder if it’s OK to use marijuana regularly without any health issues or complications, “I don’t think we can definitively say it is safe,” says Jeanette Marie Tetrault, MD, FACP, told WebMD.
(November 7, 2018). State Marijuana Laws in 2018 Map. Governing. Retrieved from https://governing.com/gov-data/safety-justice/state-marijuana-laws-map-medical-recreational.html
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Marijuana. Retrieved April 10, 2018 from https://drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/marijuana
Drug Scheduling. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://dea.gov/drug-scheduling
“Articles.” Cedars-Sinai. Retrieved from https://cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/c/cannabinoid-hyperemesis-syndrome.html
(March 2018) Health Effects. Marijuana: How Can it Affect Your Health? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? Retrieved August 2019 from https://cdc.gov/marijuana/health-effects.html