(CNN Spanish) — The popularity of marijuana has reached unprecedented levels, standing above that of tobacco. No one is in any doubt that smoking cigarettes is bad for your health anymore, but when it comes to cannabis, the conversation is still different. What harms and benefits does this substance have? How addictive is it? This is what science knows so far.
Marijuana, cannabis, THC and CBD: what is what?
Marijuana is the term used to designate the dried flowers, leaves, stems and seeds of the cannabis plant. as explained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
This plant has more than 100 compounds, among which two stand out that are usually present in conversations about the substance: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a psychoactive that affects the functioning of the brain, and cannabidiol (CBD) that does not alter the functioning of the mind and to which it has been associated with some benefits in special circumstances.
In recent decades, according to the centers, the amount of THC in marijuana has increased: between 2008 and 2017 the average concentration almost doubled, going from 9% to 17%, according to an analysis of research samples released by the centers.
The effects of marijuana on the brain and mental health
Marijuana especially affects the parts of the brain responsible for attention, coordination, decision-making, learning, memory and reaction time, according to the CDC.
There are effects that occur in the short term, that is, after consuming the substance. But there are others, linked to brain development, that may be long term.
Research published this year analyzed studies done on more than 43,000 people and discovered the impact of THC on the higher levels of thinking in the brain, which in addition to the functions mentioned above is also responsible for planning, organizing and solving problems, as well as controlling emotions and behavior.
Marijuana’s impact on the brain can be especially detrimental to the cognitive development of young people, whose brains are still developing.
In fact, according to the CDC, consuming before the age of 18 can affect “the way the brain makes the connections for functions such as attention, memory and learning.” As a result, adolescents who use it may have lower performance in school. (Although keep in mind that long-term effects can also be due to other factors such as genetics or environmental).
paranoia and schizophrenia
A Danish study published in 2021 in the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry also found an increase in cases of schizophrenia linked to problematic marijuana use: in 1995, diagnoses of this disease associated with marijuana addiction represented 2%. By 2010 the figure had quadrupled.
The increased use of marijuana with high concentrations of THC has also been associated with an increase in cases of psychosis, in which the person loses contact with reality and may, for example, hear voices and have delusions.
What about the dream?
Many users believe that marijuana can help them fall asleep and rest better. Scientists, however, they are not so sure that that is true.
An investigation published in 2021 followed consumers and found that adults who had consumed 20 or more days during a month were 64% more likely to sleep less than six hours a night and 76% more likely to sleep more than nine hours a night.
In both cases, the hours of sleep fall outside the recommendations: The CDC defines optimal sleep for adults as seven to eight hours a night.
“Both short sleep and long sleep are associated with increased risk of heart attacks and strokes, as well as long-term progression of conditions such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, coronary artery disease and any of the major cardiovascular disease,” study lead author Calvin Diep explained at the time.
Beyond the brain: the effect of cannabis on the heart and lungs
Marijuana use can have harmful effects on the lungs and heart. In the case of the respiratory system, the biggest problems are often associated with smoking marijuana, since its smoke has many of the same toxins, irritants, and cancer-causing chemicals as tobacco smoke.
Smoking marijuana creates an increased risk of cough, runny nose and even bronchitis, although these symptoms usually improve when you stop smoking. It can also damage lung tissues and small blood vessels. The CDC clarifies, however, that more research is needed to know what the specific effects of smoked marijuana are on respiratory diseases such as COPD and emphysema, as well as lung cancer.
Vaping also comes at a big cost in terms of respiratory health: Teens are nearly twice as likely to report chest “wheezing” after vaping marijuana than after smoking cigarettes or using e-cigarettes, according to a study published in 2021.
Additionally, marijuana use can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Also, immediately after smoking, your blood pressure and heart rate can rise.
7 factors that influence the effects
There are at least seven personal factors that can influence how marijuana affects you, according to the CDC. These include the amount and frequency of use, as well as its use with other substances such as alcohol or other drugs, which can increase the risk of harmful effects.
The effects may also vary depending on the mode of consumption. The most common forms are smoking marijuana in joints (cigarettes), blunts (habanos type) or bongs (pipes), vaping it (teen vaping doubled in the period 2013-2020) or ingest it mixed in food and drinks, for example brownies or soft drinks. In this sense, the consumption of foods or products that have a high concentration of THC can generate late or unpredictable effects, as well as increase the risk of intoxication or overdose.
Three other factors that influence are the user’s previous experience with cannabis or other drugs, as well as strictly biological issues such as genes and sex. According to the CDC, women may feel more dizzy than men after consuming.
Risk of hospitalization and self-harm
recreational marijuana users are almost 25% more likely of needing emergency care and hospitalization, according to a Canadian study that followed 30,000 people for six years.
The main cause of these emergency visits, according to its authors, are physical bodily injuries, closely followed by respiratory issues.
On the other hand, heavy marijuana use by teens and young adults with mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, has been linked to an increased risk of self-harm, suicide attempts and death, according to a 2021 study .
Another study from that same year found that regular cannabis users, including adolescents, are increasingly presenting to emergency rooms complaining of severe intestinal discomfort known as “cannabis hyperemesis syndromeor CHS. The condition causes nausea, severe abdominal pain, and prolonged vomiting.
Consumption by pregnant women, how does it affect the baby?
When a pregnant person uses marijuana, the chemicals, and in particular THC, pass to the baby and could affect its development, according to the CDC.
More research is needed to define exactly what the effects are, the centers say, but avoiding the substance during pregnancy is recommended.
Previous studies have shown that marijuana use during pregnancy is linked to low birth weight, impulsivity, hyperactivity, attention problems, and other cognitive and behavioral problems in children, according to the CDC. Women who use marijuana according to a studyhave a 2.3-fold increased risk of having a stillbirth.
And in 2020 an investigation determined that women who used marijuana during pregnancy had 1.5 times more likely to have a child with autism.
How addictive is marijuana?
About three in 10 people who use the drug in the United States have a marijuana use disorder, which means, in the words of the CDC, that they “can’t stop using it even though it’s causing health and social problems.” “. Another study released by the centers says that approximately 10% of people are likely to become addicted.
This risk, according to the centers, is greater for those who start consuming it in adolescence or youth and also for those who consume it more frequently.
On the other hand, a study published this year in the journal Lancet Psychiatry concluded that using marijuana with higher concentrations of THC makes it more likely to become addicted and that this is in fact what is happening in many parts of the world.
In the scientific community there is no agreement on whether marijuana is a gateway to other stronger drugs such as cocaine or heroin or not. In fact, according to CDC data, most marijuana users do not continue with other stronger substances, although the centers say there is limited evidence that “appears to indicate” that using marijuana increases the risk of using other drugs.
Potential Benefits of Marijuana: Cannabinoid Medications
Some compounds in marijuana, which are called cannabinoids, can help cope with nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, according to studies released by the CDC, as well as for pain caused by damaged nerves, which is called pain neuropathic
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two drugs with synthetic forms of certain cannabinoids, that is, artificial ones, for patients with nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy.
There is also a medicine derived from the cannabis plant that contains purified CBD and can treat seizures linked to two rare and severe types of epilepsy, and seizures linked to a genetic disorder called tuberous sclerosis.
With reporting from CNN’s Harry Enten, Sandee LaMotte and Katie Hunt.