By Ken Cohen, M.D., F.A.C.P.
Chief Medical Officer
This is a critical question to answer as there are now more than 15 million marijuana (cannabis) users in the U.S., and many of them are teenagers and young adults. Marijuana can be used in different ways, including smoking, vaping, eating as an “edible,” or dabbing, which means smoking or inhaling marijuana in the form of hash oil or wax. This article doesn’t address the issues of drug use in general, including risks of addiction or driving under the influence, etc. It will focus on what we know about the potential damage to a person’s body. Unfortunately, our ability to study the effects of marijuana in high-quality research trials is severely hampered by the fact that the federal government prohibits funding for research of illicit drugs. However, we do have results of some studies to inform our thinking. The data so far is showing that smoking marijuana is linked to chronic inflammation in the bronchial tubes causing chronic cough and mucus production. This could progress to chronic lung damage over many years of use. Chronic marijuana use is also linked to changes in brain structure and function.
There are studies demonstrating that marijuana use in 18-25 year olds at as small a dose as once or twice weekly can change the shape and density of young brains. These changes were most pronounced with a higher intake of marijuana. The findings show enlargement of the part of the brain located in the “reward center.” The theory is that marijuana and other psychoactive drugs can fool the brain into feeling greater reward than the natural rewards of social interaction, food, and physical contact. This can result in decreased motivation for socialization and other activities as well as cause changes in emotion. There are additional studies suggesting that with prolonged use over many years, there are declines in learning, memory, attention and decision-making. This preliminary evidence should serve as a wake up call for parents and young people about the risks involved, so they will not take marijuana use lightly. There is much still to learn about the impact of marijuana on young people. However, it does seem clear that marijuana use can cause life-long problems for young people who use marijuana chronically. For more information, talk to your doctor or go to https://www.cdc.gov/marijuana/factsheets/teens.htm