From Our 2009 Archives
Daily Pot Smokers Court Health Risks
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Study Shows Regular Marijuana Users Have Risk of Respiratory Problems and Psychoses
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
Oct. 15, 2009 -- Marijuana smokers who take up the habit in their teens, as well as those who smoke daily or nearly every day, are at the greatest risk for dependence and other ill health effects, according to a new review of marijuana use worldwide by Australian researchers.
About 9% of those who ever use pot will become dependent, the researchers estimate.
But a U.S. expert on the health effects of marijuana says the public health impact of pot is "miniscule" compared to the effects of alcohol. Likewise, the Australian experts acknowledge that the public health burden of marijuana is probably modest compared to that of alcohol, tobacco, and other illicit drugs.
About one in 25 people ages 15 to 64 have used marijuana worldwide, according to Wayne Hall, PhD, professor of public health policy in the School of Population Health, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, and the co-author of the review published in The Lancet.
"It is an update review [and] was motivated by the collection of better epidemiological information over the past decade on the health risk of cannabis," Hall says in an email interview with WebMD.
Hall searched the medical literature for the past 10 years, looking for studies that focused on adverse health effects of marijuana.
In the U.S., marijuana use peaked in young adults in 1979, then decreased until the early 1990s, when it again increased before leveling off toward the end of the 1990s, Hall says.
But marijuana use varies globally, Hall found. "Trends in use over the past decade have varied between regions and countries," Hall says. Use has stabilized or fallen in many developed countries while increasing in some developing countries, he says.
"The main points of the paper are that evidence has strengthened for the existence of a dependence syndrome, an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents if users drive while intoxicated, impaired respiratory function in daily smokers, psychoses in young people who begin in their mid-teens and use daily or near daily, and poorer psychosocial outcomes in adolescents who initiate early and become regular users," Hall tells WebMD.
Marijuana and Health
In the medical literature review, Hall found:
Avoiding Health Risks of Marijuana
Hall notes that some people are at greater risk for adverse health effects from smoking marijuana, especially "young persons under the age of 18 and ... persons with any disease or condition (for example, pregnancy, cardiovascular or respiratory disease, mental illness, or other types of substance abuse) which increases their vulnerability to its adverse effects."
Information from the new review doesn't reflect much of a change, says Mitch Earleywine, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University at Albany State University of New York. He's the author of Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence.
"The rates [in the new report] are literally identical to data that came out in the 1990s," says Earleywine, who reviewed the Australian report for WebMD.
He cautions that the new review shouldn't be blown out of proportion. "The impact [of marijuana] is miniscule compared to alcohol," he says. "'Nobody turns to prostitution because of a cannabis habit."
The research findings about heavy early use and its effects are troubling, Earleywine says. "That's a genuine concern." Teens who begin smoking at 13 or 15, he says, "are really putting themselves at risk for a lot of problems. Those seem to be the kids more likely to drop out of high school."
SOURCES: Wayne Hall, PhD, professor of public health policy, School of Population
Health, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.