From Our 2009 Archives

Daily Pot Smokers Court Health Risks

Study Shows Regular Marijuana Users Have Risk of Respiratory Problems and Psychoses

By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News

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:

  • About 9% of those who ever use marijuana become dependent. But the risk rises to one in six if use begins in teen years. About 10% of ever-users become daily users, and 20% or 30% become weekly users.
  • Driving after smoking marijuana increases the risk of a motor vehicle accident by two to three times, research suggests, while driving after drinking alcohol increases accident risk six to 15 times.
  • Symptoms of chronic bronchitis were more commonly reported among regular marijuana smokers than nonsmokers. The smokers reported wheezing, chronic cough, and production of sputum.
  • Studies looking at a possible link between an increased risk of cancers in the upper respiratory tract and marijuana use have produced mixed findings, with some finding a link and others not.
  • Marijuana use increases the heart rate, and adults with existing heart disease may be at higher risk of a heart attack after pot use, some research suggests.
  • Regular marijuana users, especially if they started at a young age, are more likely to later use other drugs such as heroin and cocaine, according to some studies.
  • Regular and heavy pot use has been linked with problems in memory, attention, and verbal learning, but researchers aren't certain whether those changes are transient and disappear once marijuana use is stopped.
  • The use of marijuana by age 18 is linked with more than a doubling of risk for a later diagnosis of schizophrenia, according to a large Swedish study.
  • Early marijuana use, before age 15, has been linked with school dropouts. But researchers are unsure exactly how to explain the association. One possibility: poor school performance can trigger the pot use, which in turn makes school performance even worse.
  • Smoking pot during pregnancy has been linked with underweight babies, but there is little evidence it's linked to birth defects.

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.

Hall, W. The Lancet, Oct. 17, 2009: vol 374: pp1383-1391.

Mitch Earleywine, PhD, associate professor of psychology, University at Albany, State University of New York; author, Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence.

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