How harmful can marijuana be?
Do you think marijuana is addicting? Many people do not believe it is, however, it is addicting. It used to be thought that marijuana was not addicting because there did not seem to be withdrawal symptoms when people quit, however, that was with the "old time" marijuana.
Back in the 60s, 70s and 80s the THC (the component that gets you high) in marijuana was less than 2%. Since the late 90s when states started legalizing medical marijuana, the cannabis industry has increased the potency of the THC and now the average potency in the plants is 20% and the concentrates like wax, shatter, vape oil, have an even higher concentration, some up to 95%.
This makes the drug much more addicting and there is a definite withdrawal syndrome associated with quitting after using regularly. Marijuana withdrawal symptoms include irritability, anxiety, anger, insomnia, poor appetite and strong cravings for marijuana. This can last for weeks to months depending on how much and how often the person was using because marijuana is fat soluble and sticks around for a while. There is no medication that has been approved to help with marijuana withdrawal, so people usually need support from others to help them quit.
Many people like to believe that marijuana is safer than alcohol or tobacco, but that is no longer true. Comparing the old-time marijuana (less than 2% THC) to the current high potency THC concentrates is like comparing chewing the coca leaf to smoking crack cocaine.
Many people use the justification that you cannot die from a marijuana overdose so there for marijuana is safer because it does not kill you. While it is true that you cannot die from an overdose of marijuana, it is not true that marijuana use cannot kill you.
Nicotine, for example, is fatal in overdose and there is enough nicotine in a cigarette butt to kill a baby if they eat it, however, very few people ever die of a nicotine overdose, just like how people do not die of a marijuana overdose. It takes years of smoking tobacco daily to develop the medical conditions that can kill you. Alcohol ingested heavily by an alcohol naïve person can kill them, however, it usually takes years of drinking regularly to cause the medical problems that most people die from related to alcohol.
Marijuana on the other hand, especially the high potency THC marijuana, is causing problems much faster than regular tobacco or alcohol use. This is especially true for those who start using the drug before their brain is fully developed which does not occur until the mid-20s. The population using the most marijuana regularly in Colorado is those 18-25.
While all three drugs are not good for the developing brain, marijuana seems to have the most detrimental impact. The biggest concern has been the fact that the higher potency products are more addicting
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so people use more often, and this can result in devastating conditions. These can include cannabis induced psychosis where people lose touch with reality and are paranoid and experience delusional thinking such as thinking someone is putting things into their brain and monitoring them.
We know from research that using THC higher than 15% can result in three times the risk of developing psychosis and using it daily can result in five times increase risk. Using THC less than 5% does not appear to increase the risk of psychosis. The psychosis can and has resulted in violence and people have died from suicide or homicide related to marijuana use.
Another serious, potentially deadly, condition related to regular marijuana use is cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS) which is an idiosyncratic reaction to marijuana. While marijuana is supposed to be helpful with nausea and vomiting, more and more people are experiencing CHS and are flooding emergency departments in Colorado. Those affected experience severe abdominal pain, nausea and cyclical vomiting that is difficult to control. The cause for this is not actually understood but it is thought to be related to the higher potency THC causing people to use more often.
People have died from CHS due to severe dehydration, loss of electrolytes and the kidney function dying. The only solution for this condition is for the person to quit using marijuana.
Hopefully with more education and knowledge about the downsides of the drug marijuana, people will make healthier, informed decisions about what they put in their body and when and how often. If you decide that you already have a problem and cannot quit on your own, please ask for help, it usually takes connecting with others for support to be successful.
Libby Stuyt is an Addiction Psychiatrist and contributing member of the Substance Use Response Ecosystem.