Cannabis has been legal for recreational use in Massachusetts for half a decade and it looks as though it will also become legal at the federal level within a generation. For decades prior, public health and law enforcement officials have deprioritized cannabis-related cases to better focus on more imminent threats like opioids.
However, this softening of attitudes towards cannabis doesn’t mean that it’s completely safe. As with alcohol and many prescription medications, cannabis has an addictive potential and irresponsible use poses very serious risks to one’s mental and physical health.
Since legalization, rehab centers in Boston have seen more admissions for cannabis-related issues. Marijuana is also now the most implicated drug in Massachusetts car accidents, following a pattern that has occurred in most states that have legalized recreational cannabis.
While not as dangerous as meth or opioids, the risks of cannabis are real won’t go away simply because it’s legal. Below are some reasons we may want to be more cautious about cannabis use or letting younger people have access to it.
Young people are especially vulnerableAdolescent brain development is especially critical when contextualizing the dangers of cannabis misuse. Like with most other widely misused substances, individuals are most likely to develop a substance use disorder (SUD) when they begin using cannabis in their teens. The reason for this likely has something to do with the brain still being in constant flux and development during this time.Today we now know that biological adolescence exceeds the usual legal drinking and cannabis consumption age by several years. Based on what is now known about how our brains develop, biological adolescence in most people lasts from ages 10 to 24, much longer than the 13 to 18 range most of us associate with being a teenager. You might also note that 24 is much older than Massachusetts’ current drinking age of 20.
Multiple studies now seem to show that using addictive substances in one’s teens may more rapidly lead to the creation of abnormal pathways in the brain that are characteristic of an SUD. While this may also happen in fully developed adult brains, it happens more easily in younger brains, perhaps for the same reason why learning is easier when one is younger.
Additionally, heavy cannabis use in teens has been directly linked to retardation in brain growth, sometimes effectively preventing the brain from becoming fully developed. These findings may be enough to consider discouraging younger people not just from consuming large quantities of cannabis, but alcohol and other habit-forming drugs as well.
Marijuana today is much more powerful
Selective breeding has resulted in modern cannabis strains having a THC content several dozens of times higher than what was typical during the 1960s and 1970s. This means that most of the studies done at the time of the early legalization movement may be outdated.
Cannabis is a notoriously difficult drug to study because of the hundreds of compounds that need to be accounted for and isolated during research. As kind of a compromise, most studies on the effects primarily look into the effects of THC, the main psychoactive compound. As with any substance, the dosage of THC can be critical in determining the effect on a specific individual.
What this means is that still-cited studies on THC safety done in previous decades may be rendered moot. The situation would be almost analogous to comparing the effects of a glass of beer to a same-sized glass of grain alcohol. Since powerful strains are a relatively recent phenomenon, we simply don’t know what the potential long-term effects might be.
Cannabis use has been linked to different health conditions
While medical cannabis may very well be a godsend for people with glaucoma, chemotherapy symptoms, epilepsy, and so forth, we can pretty much say the same thing about opioids being a godsend for those with extreme pain or amphetamines for people with narcolepsy.
Just because cannabis seems to have promise for an extremely wide range of conditions, it doesn’t mean that one should be self-medicating with cannabis. Cannabis has been shown to have a host of negative health effects, especially for people who are taking it without proper medical supervision.
We’ve already mentioned the potential for brain retardation in teens, as well as the heightened risk of getting into a serious road fatality when under the influence. However, the direct health risks of marijuana do not stop there.
Heavy cannabis use can lead to the overconsumption of sugary and starchy foods, leading to weight gain, diabetes, and other health issues. Smoking or vaping any substance can cause lung damage over time and leave smokers and vapers more vulnerable to infection. Cannabis has also been linked to lower bone density, a growing cause of concern for older users. Lastly, cannabis use has also been linked to psychotic episodes and schizophrenia.
This means that, unless you have specifically been prescribed cannabis, you should think twice about using it regularly, regardless of whether it’s for recreation or self-medication.
If you do choose to use cannabis recreationally or as part of your maintenance medication, it’s important to be fully aware of the risks so that you could consume it responsibly. Due to the euphoria surrounding the current wave of legalization, we may not see a more nuanced look into the risks of cannabis in the mainstream — unless they start to become a major problem in the coming years. We mustn’t have to wait until then to understand the real risks we’re taking.