Harmful Effects of Cannabis

Marijuana, also known as cannabis or pot, is the most commonly used drug worldwide and is a hot topic in contemporary society. A variety of forces—economic, legislative, technological, and even horticultural—have markedly changed the politics, polemics, and public perception of pot. The resultant upsurge of cannabis use in some parts of the United States has already had a collateral impact on individual and societal health, similar to that seen with the prescription opiate epidemic. Unfettered by more permissive laws and attitudes, capitalism has embraced cannabis as the newest cash crop. Market research suggests that widespread legalization of marijuana has the potential to create a 35-billion dollar marijuana market. The growing body of scientific research provides a clearer understanding of pot's potential harms.

Pulmonary fungal disease caused by cannabis smoking Source: Mediterr J Hematol Infect Dis. 2011; 3 (PubMed)

The first cannabis-related harm is dependence. Substance dependence is a debilitating, brain-based disorder characterized by compulsive use, inability to desist in the face of negative consequences, and withdrawal symptoms upon cessation.

Every time an impaired motorist decides to get behind the wheel, he or she extends the risk of potential harms to other drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and cyclists.

Elevated marijuana use between ages 14 and 21 years was associated with the lower likelihood of getting a bachelor’s degree, lower income, higher unemployment and welfare dependence, and lower levels of relationship and life satisfaction.

Marijuana use has been associated with several specific brain-based illnesses. Much of this research has focused on the role of cannabis in psychotic illness.3

The effects of smoking cannabis on respiratory symptoms are better documented: even moderate levels of cannabis use are associated with airway inflammation and symptoms of bronchitis.4

When harmful microbes or fungal spores are inhaled during vaporizing or smoking, they may directly enter the bloodstream and cause infections. Such contamination risks are not merely hypothetical: cases of chronic associated with smoking unsafe cannabis have been widely reported.1

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Decontamination of medicinal (herbal) cannabis is a necessity, as it has yet not been possible to grow cannabis plants under sufficiently sterile conditions to keep contamination levels below the required safety limits. Even if this were feasible, the multiple steps involved in harvesting, drying, processing and packaging cannabis buds would make it extremely hard to maintain near-sterile conditions throughout the entire production procedure. As a result, medicinal cannabis in some countries is treated by gamma irradiation before it becomes available to patients.

Herpes simplex virus (HSV) causes lower respiratory tract infections in individuals with chronic habitual marijuana use. The squamous oral ulcers from chronic marijuana use are likely to promote viral replication in the lower respiratory tract. In adults who predominantly smoked resin cannabis (hash) mixed with tobacco, additional adverse effects were observed on respiratory health relating to cannabis use: coughing, shortness of breath when hurrying on level ground or walking up a slight hill, wheezing or whistling in the chest, and pneumonia.2,6

While cannabis presents certain subjective, health related, and pecuniary benefits to users, growers, and other entities, it is also associated with several brainbased risks.

Mothers using cannabis had babies on average 565 g lighter, and were more likely to have infants with a low birth weight, and small for gestational age.


  1. Evaluating the Effects of Gamma-Irradiation for Decontamination of Medicinal Cannabis. Arno Hazekamp
  2. Herpes simplex virus bronchiolitis in a cannabis user. Daniel H. Libraty, Lisa Bocelli, and Armando Fraire
  3. WHY NOT POT? A Review of the Brain-based Risks of Cannabis. Kai MacDonald, MD corresponding author and Katherine Pappas, BA
  4. Effects of quitting cannabis on respiratory symptoms. Robert J. Hancox, Hayden H. Shin, Andrew R. Gray, Richie Poulton, and Malcolm R. Sears
  5. Use of cannabis during pregnancy and birth outcomes in an Aboriginal birth cohort: a cross-sectional, population-based study Stephanie J Brown et al.
  6. Cannabis, tobacco smoking, and lung function: a cross-sectional observational study in a general practice population. John Macleod



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