Guide to the Long-Term Effects of Marijuana
The country music singer Willie Nelson once said, “I think people need to be educated to the fact that marijuana is not a drug. Marijuana is an herb and a flower. God put it here. If He put it here and He wants it to grow, what gives the government the right to say that God is wrong?” While it might be true that marijuana is a plant, it is also a drug. The two conditions aren’t mutually exclusive. Similarly, while marijuana might be considered natural, most people wouldn’t consider it to be completely safe. In fact, it might be safe to say that marijuana is dangerous.
Marijuana causes a variety of health problems in chronic users. Some of these health issues may abate, as the user goes through the recovery process and stops using marijuana. Other health issues may be more severe, and the user may need medical treatments or interventions to correct the damage that has been done as a result of the drug abuse. This article will outline the common health problems caused by marijuana addiction. The information isn’t presented in order to cause fear or panic. Instead, we hope the information will encourage you to get help for marijuana addiction.
At Alta Mira, we know that marijuana addiction is dangerous. We also know that recovery is possible, and we’d like to talk with you about the treatment programs we provide that can treat addiction. After reading this article, feel free to call us and find out more.
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The active ingredient in marijuana, THC, attaches to receptors dotted throughout the body when the user takes in the drug. As the THC binds to these receptors, a wide variety of symptoms begin to float to the surface. Some are pleasant, causing the user to feel relaxed and carefree. Others are much less benign. For example, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana can increase the heart rate in a user by 20 to 100 percent, and that effect can last for up to three hours. The heart is designed to beat quickly from time to time. During exercise or periods of stress, for example, the body needs more oxygen and more blood, so the heart begins to beat faster to meet this need. But, subjecting the heart to this severe amount of stress, day in and day out, may not always be good for the heart. People who have underlying heart damage, for example, may exacerbate their heart conditions through their drug use as their hearts, already weakened by disease, are forced to work at an elevated level for a long period of time. This may all sound terrifying, but there is good news. This rapid heart rate doesn’t occur when a person is not taking marijuana. By ceasing use, the addict can help the heart return to a more normal heart pattern.
The heart isn’t the only organ that can be impacted by marijuana use. People who smoke marijuana may also develop a variety of lung problems. In a study published in the American Review of Respiratory Disease, people who smoked marijuana developed:
These symptoms were much more prevalent in marijuana smokers than they were in people who did not smoke marijuana, but the symptom severity between people who smoked cigarettes and people who smoked marijuana was not significant. In other words, people who smoked marijuana developed a variety of lung problems that are similar to the lung problems cigarette smokers face. These problems may be severe and significant, but sometimes, the lungs can clear themselves once they’re no longer exposed to irritants like marijuana smoke. For example, an article published in Science Daily suggests that cigarette smokers who stop smoking see improvements in their lung function by more than 15 percent in less than two months. This is damage that can be quickly addressed and amended.
The reproductive system, in both men and women, can also be severely impacted by marijuana. The ovaries and testicles contain a large number of receptors for marijuana, and when the user takes in the drug, a variety of changes take place. For example, researchers at the University of Buffalo found that long-term male users of marijuana produced sperm that behaved abnormally, swimming erratically and tiring before reaching an egg to fertilize. These men also produced fewer sperm overall. This type of damage could keep a couple from getting pregnant, but it is also damage that tends to abate when people stop abusing marijuana on a regular basis.
Marijuana can also cause damage to a person’s ability to learn and remember new information. In study after study, people who abuse marijuana perform poorly on tests of recall and understanding, even when the people studied haven’t used marijuana in the days prior. The drug keeps working for this lengthy period, suppressing the person’s ability to think clearly and function properly. Sometimes, however, the brain does wake up and clear out the cobwebs after a sustained period of abstinence, allowing the user to return to a more optimal level of functioning.
Sometimes, the effects of marijuana abuse aren’t just caused by the marijuana alone. According to an article published in the journal American Family Physician, marijuana can be contaminated with a variety of substances including salmonella and fecal matter. These substances can work their way into the heart, the lungs or the digestive system and cause a variety of infections. Healthy people may harbor these infections with no real symptoms, but people who have compromised immune systems due to diseases such as HIV/AIDS may be at risk for serious health consequences due to these infections. Thankfully, many of these infections can be addressed with antibiotics and other medications. The user just needs to know that the infections are there, and then get the proper help in order for healing to take place.
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The problems mentioned above may be serious, but they may also be completely resolvable once the person stops taking in marijuana. There are other health issues, however, that don’t simply resolve when the person stops taking marijuana. Some of these conditions can be treated, but in other cases, the damage that has been done is more permanent in nature. People with this level of damage may need assistance as they adjust to living with the consequences of drug use.
As mentioned, people who smoke marijuana may be subjected to transient lung problems such as infections, coughing and increased sputum production. While it might be true that many of these issues can resolve when the person stops abusing marijuana, the website Parents. The Anti-Drug also states that long-term users of marijuana seem to sustain lung damage that is so severe that it can persist, even when the drug use ceases. It could be that lung damage is cumulative, meaning that the more drugs the person takes in, the more damage is done. By stopping damage early, that major damage may be prevented. People with long-term damage, though, may need medications or other therapies to help them live with lung damage.
Marijuana’s impact on the brain may be similarly cumulative. The brain has multiple receptors for THC, but many of these receptors are located in the portion of the brain known as the hippocampus. This part of the brain is responsible for:
When a person uses marijuana for a long period of time, the hippocampus is consistently in a depressed and sedated state. The neurons begin to slow down and break down with disuse, and the hippocampus itself begins to shrink. These are changes that are normally seen during the aging process, and they’re associated with memory lapses and an inability to learn quickly. It’s unclear if these changes are reversible with time, but some studies suggest that people who abuse marijuana, particularly if they start that abuse when they’re young, develop brain changes that persist even when the person stops taking drugs altogether. For example, a study published in the Journal of Addictive Diseases found that people who starting using marijuana before they were 17 had smaller brains than people who started when they were older than 17. This isn’t the sort of change that can be amended later in life. Instead, people with this sort of abuse may need to learn new ways to lay down memories, recall information and learn new ideas.
This same study in the Journal of Addictive Diseases found that people who used marijuana when they were younger than 17 were physically smaller. They were shorter, and they had a smaller body mass. Marijuana works on the pituitary gland, and this gland has a key role to play in adolescence, helping people grow to their proper size and weight. People who begin using marijuana early in life may be turning off this gland at a critical time, and they may be shorter for the rest of their lives as a result. There’s no real way to correct this.
Long-standing marijuana abuse has also been linked to mental disorders. For example, a study published in the journal The Lancet found that people who used marijuana on more than 50 occasions had a much higher risk of developing the mental illness schizophrenia than people who did not use marijuana on more than 50 occasions. Researchers suggested that marijuana use was an independent risk factor for schizophrenia, meaning that the mental illness developed as a result of the drug use, but this finding is still considered a bit controversial. It could be that these people had asymptomatic schizophrenia, and the disease took hold due to their drug use. In the end, whether the drug use or the mental illness came first is of little concern. This mental illness is chronic, and it doesn’t seem to disappear in addicts who stop their marijuana abuse. These people may need schizophrenia therapies and/or medications permanently in order to control symptoms of the disease.
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It’s clear that, whether or not you consider marijuana a “plant” or a “drug,” that it’s dangerous. It can cause a wide variety of devastating symptoms that can be hard to ignore and that can have a huge impact on a person’s ability to lead a healthy and successful life. That’s why getting treatment is so important. By stopping use now, before more damage takes place, users can begin the healing process and learn how to keep future use from jeopardizing their health and safety. And, they can get needed treatments for the damage they have already sustained. It’s an important process. Please call us today to find out more about how we can help.
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