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Cannabis Use Associated With Few Health Problems in Midlife

Marijuana isn't harmless—but there are few health problems associated with use.

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As a public health advocate, I strive to be as factual and unbiased as possible—especially when it comes to 'hot-button' topics such as cannabis use. That said, my personal struggles with addiction have made me somewhat of an 'anti-drug' fanatic. However, when a long-term study (such as one published this week) reports that cannabis use is associated with few health problems in midlife, I feel an obligation to report on these findings

Heavy Cannabis Use Made Me "Comfortably Numb" As a Teenager

In previous Psychology Today blog posts, I've written candidly about my excessive use of cannabis as a teenager. During my adolescence, I smoked a ton of pot. At boarding school, I was what some would label a "stoner," "pot head," "burnout," etc. Luckily, when I was seventeen years old, I stopped smoking weed and began substituting the exogenous cannabinoids—that would make me high from smoking marijuana—with self-produced endocannabinoids triggered by aerobic exercise and the 'runner's high.'

My teenage disposition towards depression and dysphoria was exacerbated by heavy cannabis use. Admittedly, my negative experiences with heavy marijuana use in high school instilled a personal conviction to dissuade other teens from smoking copious amounts of cannabis and derailing their lives as I did, when I was younger.

As a science writer, I'm a zealot about young people avoiding alcohol and drug use based on empirical evidence. There is abundant research showing that heavy marijuana use during young adulthood is detrimental to both the structure and functional connectivity of the developing teenage brain.

Also, as a parent, I feel obligated to be outspoken and transparent about my history of substance abuse. I want to avoid ever appearing holier-than-thou when it comes to wrestling with the complex dynamics of substance abuse at any stage of life. I'm empathetic with anyone who struggles with addiction. My vigilance against a young person using drugs or alcohol before his or her brain has fully developed is based on personal experiences and the toll these abuses took on my psychological well-being.

Cannabis use also has other negative side effects on overall well-being as we get older. For example, a few months ago, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, "Long-Term Marijuana Dependence Linked to Problems at Midlife" that was inspired by one of the few longitudinal studies on cannabis. My writing was based on research findings from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study which involves nearly 1,000 New Zealanders since birth.

In the March 2016 study on cannabis dependence, an international team of researchers reported that people who smoked cannabis four or more days of the week—for many consecutive years—experienced a wide range of social and economic problems at midlife.

Cannabis Use Appears to Be Bad For Your Gums and Periodontal Health

Yesterday, Madeline Meier of Arizona State University, reached out to me via email to let me know that she and her colleagues had conducted follow-up research on cannabis users from the Dunedin Study. This time, their research was focused on identifying if cannabis use was associated with specific health problems in midlife. The good news for anyone who smokes marijuana is: it appears that periodontal gum disease is one of the few health problems associated with cannabis use from ages 26 to 38.

The June 2016 study, "Associations Between Cannabis Use and Physical Health Problems in Early Midlife," appears in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

In a statement, Meier emphasized, “We don’t want people to think, ‘Hey, marijuana can’t hurt me,’ because other studies on this same sample of New Zealanders have shown that marijuana use is associated with increased risk of psychotic illness, IQ decline and downward socioeconomic mobility"

Avshalom Caspi, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and co-author of the study added, “What we’re seeing is that cannabis may be harmful in some respects, but possibly not in every way. We need to recognize that heavy recreational cannabis use does have some adverse consequences, but overall damage to physical health is not apparent in this study."

Again, it appears cannabis use from ages 26 to 38 years wasn't associated with individual health decline with the exception of gum disease. Terrie Moffitt, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke and co-director of the Dunedin Study added, “Physicians should certainly explain to their patients that long-term marijuana use can put them at risk for losing some teeth."

Conclusions: Heavy Recreational Cannabis Use Is Not a "Healthy Habit"

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Although this study shows that cannabis use is associated with very few health problems in midlife, there is an important caveat—these findings do not mean that cannabis necessarily promotes well-being. Clearly, medicinal marijuana has multiple benefits for people who are sick. But, please do not misconstrue these new findings as a seal of approval that cannabis is harmless or "good for you."

Cannabis may not present as many health risks as other drugs or alcohol, but heavy marijuana use has potentially harmful consequences. Marijuana can be addictive and cannabis use disorders (CUD) are on the rise in the United States. Additionally, other research has found that heavy cannabis use is linked to lower amounts of dopamine released in the brain.

My motivation for writing about the latest scientific research on the consequences of marijuana use is to educate readers, so that every individual can make an informed personal decision about his or her marijuana use. Hopefully, the latest findings about the risks vs. rewards of marijuana use on your physical and mental health—as well as your long-term socioeconomic security and stability—will help you to make educated decisions when it comes to the recreational use of cannabis.

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

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