Cannabis-Use Physical Disorders: The Forgotten Side of Marijuana Abuse

Today’s potent marijuana is a nasty drug. Due to selective breeding and post-harvest processing, the active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), can comprise upwards of 40% of herb marijuana and more than 90% of shatter, wax, and other Butane Hash Oil (BHO) products. Compared to the 1-2% THC “Woodstock” pot people got up in arms about during the 1960s, and the low-THC street weed of the following decades, modern pot products are a narcotic-strength.

Sadly, that same “hard” marijuana is now legal throughout most of the United States, either directly so, as in states like mine, Colorado, or because states like Texas have decriminalized ownership. It’s not legal to buy it there, but users are no longer penalized for possession.

How It Hurts Us

Marijuana causes harms for adolescent users. Period. There is no level of marijuana that is safe for the developing mind. Read that carefully. I’m not harping on “your right” to use medicinal, adult, consenting use of marijuana. Yes, THC can still cause harms to adults and psychosis, even with one use. I personally would never use it and don’t recommend you do, either. With that said, our focus at Johnny’s Ambassadors is on YOUTH use. I have yet to meet anyone who believes that children should smoke marijuana illegally, recreationally. My 19-year-old son, Johnny, died by suicide from an incident resulting from the delusion he experienced from marijuana psychosis after five years of use, starting at the age of 14. For this reason, I focus on the brain developmental issues marijuana causes or aggravates in the blog articles I write. These include, briefly: Cannabis Use Disorder, anxiety, bipolar disorder, panic attacks, depression, paranoia, psychosis, schizophrenia, and suicidal thought and behavior.

All these psychological issues actually arise from physical damage to the user’s brain, caused when chemicals in marijuana called cannabinoids take the place of very similar brain chemicals called endocannabinoids in certain brain receptors and fool your brain. Cannabinoids have just the right shape to fit in our endocannabinoid receptors and block natural endocannabinoids from producing and doing their jobs. This results in misfired signals, causing problems with mood, hunger, sleep, anxiety, memory and learning, metabolism, reproduction, and brain development and growth.

This last is most significant for adolescent marijuana users, because abusing marijuana can literally stunt mental growth in kids. Mental defects become obvious in young marijuana users. As a culture, we often laugh at the dulled intellect displayed by “stoners,” but it’s a symptom of something much worse. In a scientific sense, at the age of first use, cannabinoids arrest the development of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the seat of motivation, decision-making, personality, and other complex behavior. The PFC doesn’t stop forming until the mid-to-late 20’s, so very real damage occurs when the reward center of the brain is hijacked by marijuana.

Other Physical Symptoms

Once upon a time, users and advocates of marijuana could plausibly argue that smoking marijuana was less dangerous than smoking cigarettes. However, that’s since changed—not just because marijuana, potency, and delivery methods have changed, but also because we now have the decades of medical data on the physical effects of marijuana use we didn’t have before.

Some of the physical side effects of regular marijuana use are well-known in the user community, though they either ignore them or don’t talk about them much. Users may cough heavily while smoking; they are susceptible to chronic bronchitis symptoms, resulting in persistent, deep, hacking coughs. And no longer does pot-smoking lack a hangover: the potency of modern versions often results in marijuana toxicity, the symptoms of which include nausea, vomiting, high blood pressure, fast heartbeat, anxiety, fear, panic, depression, and more. It can also cause severe dehydration due to vomiting from cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS), nicknamed “scromiting,” because it’s victims come into the emergency room, screaming and vomiting simultaneously.

CHS is a punishing ailment specific to long-term marijuana users, in which THC and related chemicals bind to molecules in the digestive track to slow digestion and relax the esophagus. The result is repeated, violent vomiting, leading to severe dehydration and associated effects, including decreased strength and stamina, cognitive impairment, electrolyte and sodium imbalances, and in extreme cases, death. It can be preceded by nausea, belly pain, weight loss, decreased food intake, and fluid loss. For reasons not entirely understood, users often feel better after taking hot showers (in fact, it’s one aspect of CHS treatment).  Unfortunately, not all physicians are familiar with CHS, as it was defined relatively recently; it can resemble a variety of ailments and may take multiple, expensive tests and scans to diagnose properly. CHS can be treated with IV-delivered fluids, meds to decrease vomiting and pain, and sometimes capsaicin cream. However, the ONLY way to cure it is to stop smoking marijuana altogether. When marijuana isn’t in the picture, the illness usually vanishes in a day or two. Users often refuse to believe the marijuana is their problem. There are now some great support groups out there of former CHS victims who are working to help others.

But Wait, There’s More!                                                    

Recent research has reinforced the fact that marijuana does have negative physical effects beyond the above. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) laid these out in their 2013 edition of the psychiatric guide, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. The DSM 5 recognizes four significant Cannabis-Use Physical Disorders: (1) Lung Damage; (2) Heart Disease; (3) Cancer; and (4) Pregnancy Complications.

The first seems ironic, since as previously mentioned, users and advocates have long argued that marijuana is much less toxic and harmful to the body than tobacco. However, inhaling any kind of smoke can damage your lungs (three breaths from a household fire can kill you); and for decades most marijuana users weren’t exposing themselves to the amount of smoke and chemicals cigarette users typically do daily. Many smokers are at least one-pack-a-day users, whereas until recently, very few pot smokers did the equivalent of 20 cigarettes a day.

With modern marijuana, the equivalent of a few joints a day can cause as much damage as 20 old-time joints since pot is so much more potent now. The THC in herb marijuana is commonly 8-15% or more, due to decades of selective breading. Therefore, lung damage is very much in the offing, and we’ve learned that marijuana does, in fact, cause severe lung damage at least equal to that of tobacco.

A high risk of heart disease has also risen out of the data. Marijuana increases the risk of heart attacks because it increases something called carboxyhemoglobin, a blood factor that limits blood’s ability to transport oxygen. This increases the risk of inadequate blood supply, especially in heart tissue, by five times. Marijuana also bumps up the heartrate by as much as 40 beats a minute, which can cause high blood pressure and multiplies the risk of heart failure.

Marijuana has also been revealed as a carcinogen, especially with the shatter and concentrates, which list chemical solvents in their ingredients, which aren’t completely removed in the extraction process. As with lung damage, this was less obvious when users were smoking less. Kaposi’s sarcoma, brain tumors, and prostate and cervical cancers have been associated with excessive marijuana use.

Finally, marijuana’s impacts on pregnancy can’t be ignored. It can damage DNA and result in developmental delays for the child. Children born to women who abuse marijuana tend to have a higher-pitched cry, tremble more, and respond differently to stimuli than other children. Some research also suggests nursing babies can receive moderate amounts of THC in their mother’s milk if the mothers are using.

Down with the Sickness

While brain damage and associated mental defects are usually the most obvious consequences of marijuana abuse, there are significant physical effects as well as listed in DSM-V for the cannabis-related disorders, CHS, marijuana toxicity, and bronchitis-like symptoms. Some users consider these acceptable trade-offs for using marijuana; however, I’d say youth chronically compromising their physical and mental health to get high is frankly a stupid idea (and I repeatedly told Johnny so). Budtenders telling women that marijuana is good for nausea during pregnancy is irresponsible and unacceptable. Be aware of these physical disorders, even the minor ones, so you can stay ahead of teen experimentation and keep young people safe.

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