These days there’s an incessant chatter about the merits of making marijuana legal.
30 years ago it was criminalized every which way. Being American meant eating corn, cracking open a bud, or gnoshing on a good burger……but not smoking a joint.
Now it’s legalized for medicinal use in 37 states and for casual use in 2. There’s probably more to come. The amount of people that actually use it isn’t really changing….that number hasn’t budged since the 80’s and might even be going down.
But there’s a growing zeitgeist (at least on my parts of the internet) that it ought to be legal because it doesn’t do harm, people have a right to their bodies, and that it’s actually beneficial for you. Or at least not nearly as bad as some make it out to be.
As to be expected, most of the arguments people make about weed’s effect on the body aren’t very good. They’re anecdotal and usually coming from a group that represents Christ or rastafarians.
They all make reasonable points but as a whole they lack context.
For example, it’s frequently been pointed out that weed isn’t toxic…that’s true. But what are its physiological effects if taken regularly over long periods of time? Sugar isn’t toxic either, but that doesn’t make it any less of a health menace.
Of course smoking weed is associated with getting high…but how generalizable is that sensation to the different strains of marijuana that can be grown? What are the differences between its acute effects (large amounts at once) vs. its chronic effects (consistent amounts over time?).
And so on.
I have smoked weed twice in my life. The first time I couldn’t stop doing multiplication tables in my head, got scared, and decided to never try it again. The second time I was backstage after a concert and the band’s lead singer offered me some and I was too star struck to say no. That experience was more enjoyable.
In general it’s not my thing. I’m lucky enough to have a personality that isn’t tempted by addictive substances and have an easy time saying no to life’s more debauchorous pleasures. It’s not an accident that I spend my time peddling vitamins…..not exactly something people take great pleasure in consuming everyday.
But most people probably use a superficial filter to think about marijuana that was planted when they were young and undergone little re-evaluation since then.
I shudder at the thought of questioning the teachings of your loving parents from Sunday School or the pagan seance from your childhood, but I highly recommend the curious among you to consider these five very important facts for evaluating what marijuana does and does not do for human health.
1). Many People Might Have a Cannabis Deficiency
My first instinct about the medicinal benefits of marijuana was skepticism. I thought the people making the claims were promoting an ideological agenda and the importance of its health benefits was so tightly linked to political beliefs that I didn’t think there was good reason to give weight to their scientific observations.
However, the active ingredients in cannabis (marijuana) have unique properties that are widely used throughout the body and have no other substitutes.
Your nervous system is designed to transmit electrical impulses to and from the brain that allow it to coordinate various processes…..eating, thinking, walking, stuff like that. Cannabinoids (the biologically active molecules found in cannibus) have a specific selectivity for receptors in your nervous system that’s so specific that it’s been called the endocannabinoid system. Your body makes some of the molecules for the endocannabinoid system on its own, but if you want a substance in nature that can interact with or stimulate it……you’ll need some form of the devil’s lettuce.
Not surprisingly, the biological functions controlled by the endocannabinoid system share a lot in common with the side effects of getting high: mood regulation, appetite control, mental acuity, motor skills, and controlling pain.
And it’s not a trivial part of your body’s physiology. Your brain has more endocannabinoid receptors than any other neurotransmitting system, including dopamine and serotonin which are tightly related to depression.
Obviously, when the endocannabinoid system is overstimulated things get a little goofy.
But what happens if it’s understimulated?
Quite possibly, you begin to develop chronic conditions that dull your body’s ability to control pain.
Fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome are all conditions marked by gradual concentrations of pain perception over time via the same channels that your body’s endocannabinoids are supposed to regulate.
To think of it another way, consider that all of your body’s other neurotransmitting systems have a disease associated with deficiency.
Alzheimer’s and dementia is due to a lack of acetyl choline.
Parkinson’s is due to a lack of dopamine.
Depression is due to a lack of serotonin and norepinephrine.
What’s unnatural about assuming a deficiency in endocannabinoids wouldn’t have some diagnosable medical affect?
Admittedly, there isn’t smoking gun proof that using cannabis is the cure for these conditions. There are just little pieces here and there. But if you sum together what’s known about how the body controls pain and how the ingredients in cannabis affect that, it begins to add up.
2). Using Hemp Products and Smoking Marijuana Have Nothing to Do With One Another
Some people have apprehension over hemp products because they fear it’ll produce some of the same effects that smoking marijuana does.
This is understandable since they seem to come from the same plant genus, but not necessary since the plant species used to grow hemp are different from the plants used to grow marijuana.
Cannabis plants are usually separated into two categories:
Cannabis indica, which has a lot of THC…the substance that gets you high. This is what’s commonly referred to as marijuana.
Cannabis sativa, which has negligible amounts of THC. This is what’s commonly referred to as hemp. All hemp products in the store (seeds, protein, oil, etc) come from this plant and not cannabis indica. Further more, THC is only found on the leaves of the cannabis leaf which aren’t used in hemp products.
And if you’re still scared, it gets even better. Cannabis sativa (hemp) contains large amounts of a substance called CBD, which is a cannabinoid that counteracts the mood altering effects of marijuana. So consuming hemp actually gives you an anti-high.
Hemp products have been around for millennia and it’s one of the most tested and durable crops on earth.
3). It’s Less Addictive and Toxic Than Nicotine and Alcohol
It’s very difficult to directly die from cannabis consumption.
There are three useful ways to think about the addictiveness and toxicity of hemp and marijuana:
- Acute Toxicity – This is the chance that you could kill yourself by overdosing on it in one sitting. The standard way to measure this is something called the LD50, which is how much it takes to kill the average person in one dose (median lethal dose for the 50th percentile). There are no presently recorded cases of marijuana overdose in humans….it’s very difficult, in much the same way it’d be really hard to overdose on spinach or cauliflower.
The LD50 for THC in mice is 1270mg/kg. That figure can be hard to conceptualize, but to put it in perspective the LD50 for nicotine is 50mg/kg, caffeine is 192mg/kg, and cyanide is 6 mg/kg.
A drawback of the LD50 is that it says nothing about how much of an ingredient you need for it to have a biological effect. If the LD50 of something is 5,000mg/kg but you need to have 4500 mg/kg to feel its effect then you’re still cutting it pretty close.
In this regard THC also fares very well. Most people feel its affect after about 3mg total, and even the most resistant people (ie, total potheads) need at most 20-30 mg to feel its effect. So despite THC’s fairly strong affects on the mind, it never really approaches the upper speed limit of what your body can handle.
- Chronic Toxicity. Chronic toxicity is a more difficult nut to crack since people can’t legally smoke weed so it sort of crimps how you can study its effects. THC does get stored in your body because it’s fat soluble (that’s why it works its way to your brain so well), but there are no signs that it’s particularly dangerous once it’s there, and the byproducts of THC breakdown seem to be inert.
Anything you can smoke will eventually wreak havoc on your lungs so it’s cancerous in that regard.
Does it adversely affect your health in other ways over the long run? That’s a lot harder to say. It’s hard to imagine it does nothing since it’s so active in the short run, and practically anything consumed over and over again eventually produces some sort of effect.
The last twenty years have allowed us to observe how all sorts of innocuous things eventually cause cancer if you take them long enough. MSG, soy, corn, carbs, food colorings…at a high enough dosage nothing’s safe.
So there’s no smoking gun to suggest marijuana is particularly dangerous, but a conviction that it’s completely benign seems naive.
- Addictiveness – Many of marijuana’s biggest fans like to claim it has no addictive properties. That’d be great if it were true but that’s not the case. Most people experience some sort of withdrawal after putting the pipe down and there’s no reason to think this wouldn’t be the case. Marijuana wouldn’t be popular if it had no effect on the body, which means your body will gradually change its physiology if it’s exposed to it. That’s common sense. Cigarettes, sweets, bad TV shows, ramen noodles, annoying exes, christmas jingles, caffeine, promiscuous facebook posters and anything else that engages the human mind elicits some sort of learning response after it’s been encountered.
But how addictive is it? About 10% of people who use it regularly get hooked. For comparison’s sake here are the addict rates for various lifestyle drugs:
So it does have an affect, but it’s on the milder side as far as lifestyle drugs go, including ones that are already legal.
4). It Makes You More Girly
Quick: do a mental scan of any friends you have that regularly smoke weed.
What kinds of personalities do they have?
Lazy? Perhaps a bit manic or anxious? Maybe a little fun loving?
One idea that probably doesn’t spring to mind is macho.
Chiefing just doesn’t seem to jive with activities like being a bully, aggression, status-seeking or dominance. It’s not a coincidence.
Aside from its mind-altering short-term effects, regularly consuming cannabis slightly alters your hormonal balance by reducing testosterone levels. Testosterone is the chemical that makes boys act like boys. From their sex drive to their irresistible urges to punch things when things aren’t going their way, it’s what gives males their essential essence.
So how much does marijuana affect testosterone levels?
Enough to move the needle, but probably not enough to produce effects someone might consider dangerous….except for heavy users.
To be a little more precise, in mice you can reduce testosterone levels and sperm count by up to 65% with large, walloping doses of THC. (Controlled studies have not been done on humans).
The good news is that your testosterone levels and sperm count return to normal after you stop.
The bad news is that it looks like over the long run, people who consistently smoke marijuana will probably have consistently lower levels of man-juice when you follow them over several months. Most of the time when you take a group of smokers and non-smokers side-by-side and follow them 90+ it usually turns out that the smokers have depressed testosterone levels across the board.
5). It Doesn’t Affect Behavior Too Much Over the Long Run
An entire sub-genre of movie has been built around the stoner.
At times it’s meant as a personality trait that implies someone doesn’t have it together, like the Dude in the Big Lebowski:
other movies don’t even try to hide that they’re celebrating the absurdities of getting high:
but the common denominator among thematic elements with marijuana is always the same: smoking weed causes you to lose motivation and become lethargic.
In the short run it can’t be denied that this is true. Your own experience will confirm this intuition.
However, over the long run does marijuana use have a transformative effect on your attitude towards life? That’s a trickier question to answer.
Putting aside the fact that it’s mildly addictive, what de-motivating effects does marijuana have simply because of the ingredients that are in it?
The hard part with these sorts of questions is dissecting the effect of the habit vs. the people that are doing it. Marijuana is illegal in most places, which means people who choose to do it anyway will probably have different personality traits than those who don’t. Law and order types will probably shy away. So will people who have other mentally stimulating uses of their time.
If you’re bored, looking for an escape from the vagaries of daily life, or surrounded by friends who practice it’ll look a lot more enticing.
What’s been shown so far is that youth’s who start early are at risk for ruining themselves later on in life, but when you follow adults over time who smoke it doesn’t have any noticeable effect on motivation.
What is noticeable is that the people who smoke weed a lot are different from the people who don’t. They have a higher concentration of behavioral problems and use more drugs than just marijuana.
The pattern of marijuana sales in Colorado provides an instructive example.
Marijuana sales in Colorado have been analyzed since its legalization, and it looks like most people are only occasional smokers but a small minority do it A LOT. (This type of distribution is typical for anything that’s addictive).
It’s this group of heavy hitters who carry the weight for the stoner stereotype. The once-a-monthers contribute a paltry 0.3% to total marijuana sales. The three-times-a-dayers make up a whopping 70%.
And when you compare this latter group to the average Joe, they typically have personality traits that resemble a stoner before they pick up the habit full time. Everyone else seems to make it out alive.
This shouldn’t be interpreted as saying marijuana use is completely benign. Addiction and mood alteration are serious issues even for people that aren’t regularly taking mind altering substances. (I’m currently trying to kick mine for NBA Basketball and….I’m embarrased to say…..the song Ain’t It Fun).
But it doesn’t seem true that for most people with most patterns of use that marijuana has any noticeable affect on the way you behave after i passes through your system.
Slightly Less Harmful Than Other Lifestyle Drugs
I’ll be honest: I’m afraid that relatives who read this blog will become afraid that I smoke pot after reading this article. I don’t. But the truth is that many of the alleged fears about marijuana are just not as severe as they’re made out to be (with the important exception that it might neutralize your pubes!).
Of course little kids and pregnant women shouldn’t do it. People suffering from chronic pain probably should do it (the low THC/high CBD variety mind you). Most of the people doing it all the time would probably be doing something equally unproductive if they weren’t busy hashing. The other people who try it use it like most people drink beer or a glass of wine: here and there with friends, but not too frequently overall.
Like other psychiatrically powerful substances, people’s genetics can determine how much innate addictiveness it’ll have for you. Most of the time this means about 85-90% of people can use casually without long-term effects, but there’s a small but significant minority who should avoid it altogether.
However there’s usually an adverse selection problem with these things and the people who should avoid it the most are usually the ones sneaking around legal barriers to try it.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Marijuana Effects on the Endocrine and Reproductive Systems.” http://archives.drugabuse.gov/pdf/monographs/44.pdf
Kolodny, Robert. “Depression of Plasma Testosterone Levels After Chronic Intensive Marijuana Use.” http://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJM197404182901602
Anthony, James C. et. al. “Comparative Epidemiology of Dependence on Tobacco, Alcohol, Controlled Substances, and Inhalants: Basic Findings From the National Comorbidity Survey.” http://www.umbrellasociety.ca/web/files/u1/Comp_epidemiology_addiction.pdf
Rosenkrantz, Harold, et. al. “Inhalation, parenteral and oral LD50 values of ?9-tetrahydrocannabinol in Fischer rats” http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0041008X74901264
Russo, EB. “Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD): can this concept explain therapeutic benefits of cannabis in migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and other treatment-resistant conditions?” http://europepmc.org/abstract/MED/15159679/
The Health and Physiological Effects of Cannabis Use. http://www.beckleyfoundation.org/pdf/hall_HealthAndPsychologicalEffects_2001.pdf
Hollister, Leo. “Health Aspects of Cannabis Use.” http://proxy.baremetal.com/druglibrary.net/crl/receptors/reviews/Hollister_86_Health_Aspects_PharmacolRev.pdf