More and more states are passing laws legalizing recreational marijuana use, and questions have arisen regarding the possible health effects caused by smoking or ingesting it. The argument for legalization centers around the fact it has not been proven it is any more harmful to overall health than other substances which are legal such as alcohol, cigarettes, fatty foods, not to mention caffeine and sugar-laden “energy” drinks. But what do the studies show?
Common sense must come into play when you are an adult making decisions about what to put into your body, whether it is a plate of cheese fries and a RockStar, that fourth Long Island iced tea, smoke from a cigarette, or a pot-laced brownie. The health effects of most of those are pretty well known:
- Sugar and fat can lead to obesity and diabetes
- Over-imbibing alcoholic beverages can lead to alcoholism, which can lead to heart and liver damage
- Energy drinks can lead to heart palpitations (and a few deaths have been reported from drinking too many)
- Cigarettes are a well-known cause of lung cancer
When you think of the health effects of marijuana, however, you may be limited to thinking it causes brain damage and birth defects, which is what most of us were taught in school. Well, that and you were probably told you can go to jail if you are caught with it.
Marijuana and the Heart
So does marijuana have any effect on your heart? This question is not easy to answer. The known initial effects immediately after smoking or ingesting marijuana are:
- Lowered blood pressure, because marijuana has a dilating effect on blood vessels.This is good for glaucoma patients and those with high blood pressure.
- A racing heart, especially when partaking of cannabis with high levels of THC (not good for those with pre-existing heart conditions or a tendency toward paranoia or anxiety).
If someone has a heart condition which might be impacted by either of these effects, like a cardiomyopathy where the heart muscle is thickened and has difficulty beating in the first place, a racing heart may not be advantageous and could possibly lead to heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest.
The truth is the results of recent studies are vague and there hasn’t been enough clinical testing or evidence to prove it is either good or bad for a healthy person’s heart. All they can do is look at reported heart-related hospital visits and deaths, and compare them with either a patient’s admission to using marijuana or urine samples pointing to such. Trying to decide at that point how far back to attribute the use comes into play. Could there be a link if the cardiac incident happened only directly after use? After 24 hours? After a week? A month? A year?
Considering Smoking vs. Edible Pot Products
Another factor which must be taken into consideration when trying to find links between marijuana use and heart-related health concerns is the way the cannabis is taken in. If inhaled, it could be in the form of a blunt (rolled into a cigarette with tobacco leaves). This would then place nicotine in the system with the marijuana. A joint which is rolled in paper only would only deliver the cannabis, with no nicotine from tobacco leaves. If eaten, it could be ingested along with other things like the fats or sugars in brownies and candies.
Another thing to consider: Was the marijuana pure? Was it purchased in a state where cannabis is legal and purity is regulated, and even then was it purchased in a state-inspected store? Or was it purchased where it was illegal or from a street dealer and could it be laced with other drugs or compounds which may have caused the cardiac event?
Conclusions Are Still Hazy
To date, there do not appear to be significant studies pointing to marijuana use as the cause of increased risk for heart-related illnesses. Cardiac deaths have occurred after use of marijuana in persons who were seemingly healthy barring other risk factors such as obesity or a pre-existing condition. However, there have also been sudden cardiac deaths of other seemingly healthy individuals when there was no evidence of marijuana use.
As stated earlier, always use common sense when you are considering what to put into your body.
- If you feel it is a risk to smoke or ingest marijuana – don’t do it.
- If you know you have an existing heart condition, weigh the risk factors of smoking ANY substance, as smoking anything can play a part in contributing to pulmonary and circulatory issues. Any time we trust our bodies to substances we are unfamiliar with, we take a risk.
- Learn as many facts as you can before making a decision, especially if you are considering marijuana use for medicinal purposes. Talk it over with your physician and get their input.
As more states legalize marijuana products, it can reasonably be expected there will be increasing opportunities for research to take place. There are many unknowns which could be further illuminated, so any associated risks are better understood, and people are equipped to make informed decisions about their health and recreation.
The topics covered in this article are by no means meant to convey medical diagnosis, advice or treatment options. The author is not a doctor of medicine, but a researcher. Any opinions expressed are hers alone.