How safe is marijuana?
Updated: Mar 31, 2020
As marijuana is now legal in more and more states (11 states have legalized recreational marijuana use, and a total of thirty three states have some form of legalized marijuana), I’ve seen this create confusion with many clients. If it’s legal, it must not be dangerous, right? This is not the case. Alcohol is legal, and it’s one of the most dangerous and toxic drugs. And, yes, marijuana is much less dangerous and toxic than alcohol, but this does not mean it is without risks. The argument for marijuana legalization is a valid one, but it often overlooks the fact that marijuana can be problematic for people. Yes, one can be addicted to marijuana.
Marijuana is a drug
As with any drug, the symptoms of marijuana addiction can include tolerance, failed attempts to stop using or reduce using, neglecting activities or responsibilities due to using, and withdrawal. Unlike withdrawal from alcohol, marijuana withdrawal is not medically dangerous. But it can be psychologically unpleasant. When regular marijuana users stop using, their withdrawal symptoms generally include difficulty sleeping, anxiety, irritability, and depression. When regular users stop using, they initially do not feel good, which often pushes them to use again.
Although marijuana addiction is not as dramatic or potentially dangerous as many other additions, it is this very difference that can make marijuana addiction especially insidious. Marijuana addicts can potentially be much more functional than those addicted to other drugs. While a serious alcoholic’s life generally falls apart, it’s possible to be an all-day marijuana user and still hold down a job or safely drive a car. But after working with addicts for 25 years, I’m convinced that marijuana addiction keeps people from bringing their A games, from being their best selves. With very few exceptions, marijuana addiction impairs motivation. It impairs memory. There’s also some evidence, which I have seen confirmed in my clinical work, that habitual marijuana use impacts one’s ability to regulate emotions in a healthy way.
Marijuana is a much stronger drug than it used to be
Another important piece of this conversation is that the THC content in marijuana has increased exponentially in the last 20 years. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical responsible for most of marijuana's psychological effects. Into the 1980s, the THC content in marijuana averaged about 2%. Today, the THC content in different strains of marijuana is between 20% and 40%. The fact is, marijuana today is a very, very different drug than it once was.
Marijuana is especially dangerous to developing brains
Marijuana use by adolescents is especially dangerous. Experts agree that our brains are still developing until sometime in our 20s. The last part of the brain to develop is the frontal cortex, which many consider to be the rational part of a teenager’s brain. This is the part of the brain that helps us set and achieve goals, focus our attention, predict the consequences of our actions, and control our impulses. Any of us young enough to remember being teenagers know how difficult it is at this age to really understand the long-term consequences of our actions. This is why teenagers drive so unsafely that their car insurance premiums are so high.
While the brain is still developing, it is especially sensitive to drug and alcohol use. A number of clinical studies have found changes in the brains of adolescents that use marijuana. While this issue is still a matter of some debate in the medical and scientific field, my belief is that the risks are simply too high to condone the use of this drug in those whose brains are still developing. The research is also clear, that teens are more susceptible to developing an addiction to marijuana than adults. I’ve worked with thousands of teens over the last 25 years. I have never met one who regularly smokes marijuana who isn’t struggling academically, socially, or emotionally.
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