The Latest on Recreational Marijuana

What the science says.

Posted Nov 09, 2020

No author listed, pxfuel, Public Domain
Source: No author listed, pxfuel, Public Domain

17 months ago, I wrote a review of the research literature on marijuana.

Alas, it's already time for an update on what the science says, and not just because there's new authoritative research:

  • In the recent election, four states have legalized recreational marijuana. That means that now, one in three Americans live in states in which it’s legal. Also causing increased substance use is COVID: A June 2020 CDC survey found a 13.3 percent increase in substance abuse from a year ago, and a September 2020 survey found a 36% increase in illicit drug use compared with just the previous month.
  • The marijuana industry has created and heavily promotes concentrates, which are much more potent than smoked marijuana and because concentrates are inhaled in a single breath, the impact is far greater still.
  • The marijuana industry is also promoting marijuana-infused edibles, which can create the illusion of edibles being more benign than the smoked form but in fact, can lull users into ingesting more drug than if smoked, especially since it takes longer to feel edibles' effect.
  • Weed bars are opening.

Here’s the science regarding marijuana use: This attempts to balance the anecdotal praise from pot users and especially the ubiquitous ads touting marijuana. Billboards include “Hello Marijuana, Good-Bye Stress,"  “Let’s Be Blunt. It’s Good," and  “I’m So High Right Meow."

Marijuana and driving

An Oct. 2020 review of the literature by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concludes that “marijuana use affects the driver's concentration and ability to perceive time and distance. This may lead to poor speed control, drowsiness, distraction, and the inability to read road signs accurately.” So it’s not surprising that the U.S. Department of Transportation reported that in 2016, the latest year studied, of drivers killed in a vehicle crash, 18 percent tested positive for marijuana.

Cognitive functioning

Most research on marijuana and brain function has been conducted on rats. That's because studies that sufficiently control for other factors are infeasible to study in humans. The National Institute for Drug Abuse summarizes its literature review: “Marijuana exposure during development can cause long-term or possibly permanent adverse changes in the brain.”  In a separate study, when survey participants were asked how marijuana affected their cognitive abilities, career achievements, social lives, and physical and mental health, the majority of heavy users reported that "marijuana had negative effects in all of these areas.”

Mental health

A National Institute on Drug Abuse literature review reports, “Several studies have linked marijuana use to increased risk for psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders, but whether and to what extent it actually causes these conditions is not always easy to determine.”

Lung disease

 In February, 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported an outbreak of serious lung disease and death attributed to vaping: “2,807 hospitalized EVALI (vaping-related lung disease) cases or deaths.”  A June 2020 update by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is titled, “Lung Injuries Associated with Use of Vaping Products.”

Testicular cancer

A National Cancer Institute study found that people who have smoked more than 50 times in a lifetime are at increased risk of testicular cancer.

Oral disease

The American Dental Association’s literature review reports an increase in gum disease and oral cancer among marijuana users.

Dependency and Addiction

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that 30 percent of marijuana users have some level of  cannabis use disorder, which is characterized by dependency and often, addiction. An October 2020 review of the literature cites NIDA's long-time director, Dr. Nora Volkow:  “When dependence and other factors escalate to cannabis use disorder, a person cannot stop using the drug even though it interferes with many aspects of his or her life . . . Some studies suggest that nine percent of people who use marijuana will become dependent on it, with higher rates in those who start using in their teens.” The literature review adds, “Other studies show even higher rates.”

The takeaway

The increased availability of ever stronger forms of marijuana suggest that, moving forward, the aforementioned dangers may be even more severe. But merely the current evidence should give anyone who cares about their well-being to seek less dangerous recreations. Given marijuana’s dangers, they shouldn't be hard to find.

I read this aloud on YouTube.