The marijuana question: If (and when) it’s legalized, should you use?

This little plant is causing quite a stir in state legislatures across the country.

This little plant is causing quite a stir in state legislatures across the country. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

One of the more interesting and fast-moving developments over the past few years has been the changing stance many people – and some states – have toward marijuana.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have chosen to legalize medical marijuana. Two states – Washington and Colorado – have made recreational marijuana legal. The pros and cons of legalizing the drug are being hotly debated in many other states.

What I want to do here is explore this issue from a practical standpoint. I don’t want to get into the politics of the war on drugs, nor do I feel qualified to say much about the medical benefits of marijuana use.

But there is information out there about the health impacts of marijuana.

Respiratory issues: The most common way marijuana is used is by smoking. Smoking pot has been shown to increase respiratory problems. To quote an abstract from one National Institutes of Health document, “Habitual smoking of marijuana has been shown to be associated with chronic respiratory tract symptoms, an increased frequency of acute bronchitic episodes, extensive tracheobronchial epithelial disease, and abnormalities in the structure and function of alveolar macrophages, key cells in the lungs’ immune defense system.”

Potential cancer risks: Though comprehensive studies on the link between pot smoking and cancer is lacking, the chemical makeup of marijuana looks startlingly similar to what is found in cigarettes. In fact, some chemical characteristics look even worse. Quoting an information sheet from the University of Washington, “Marijuana smoke contains about 50% more benzopyrene and nearly 75% more benzanthracene, both known carcinogens, than a comparable quantity of unfiltered tobacco smoke.”

That same site also notes that smoking pot through a bong does not lessen the risk of inhaling carcinogens, and vaporizers may actually increase the intake of ammonia, another toxin.

It should be noted that the body of work looking at cancer risks of marijuana smoking is pretty thin, and because a lot of pot users are also tobacco users, any conclusions thus far are muddied.

(It should be noted that data on the consumption of edible pot is lacking, but clearly eating pot is not going to affect your lungs directly.)

But the real point is this: If you’re serious about your health, you’ll steer clear of this stuff, even if your state legalizes it. If it’s used in some form of your medical treatment and it’s working, that’s one thing. But for most people, it’s a recreational drug. If you’re a recreational user, you’ll have to ask yourself if using it is worth the potential risks.

If you’re an athlete, or you are interested in pursuing athletic endeavors, this should be a no-brainer. Smoking anything compromises your respiratory system, and the importance of heart/lung strength and efficiency is of the highest rank when you’re competing in a sport or even just trying to get in shape. When athletes smoke pot – or even endorse it – I find myself stunned. Surely there are other ways to mitigate pain, relax and have fun without having to compromise your cardiovascular health.

I believe that the nationwide legalization of marijuana is coming, but debating that future is something for another time, and definitely in a different space than this one. Just keep in mind that just because something is legal, or considered socially acceptable/fun/cool or whatever doesn’t mean that it’s right for you. It’s a choice you’re free to make. But even if legal problems cease to become a concern, just remember that there are consequences to putting toxic substances in your body.

Instead, I’d suggest breathing deep, feel the power of a set of healthy lungs and do what you can to preserve that.

Bob Doucette

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8 thoughts on “The marijuana question: If (and when) it’s legalized, should you use?

  1. Great post. I like to look at marijuana as a coping mechanism. It can help with many emotional, mental and physical problems. Humans use many things to cope with life. Exercise, religion/spirituality, alcohol, drugs, entertainment, etc.

    For you and I, exercise is one of many ways we make it through the game of life. Is everything we do in the realm of exercise healthy? We’d like to think so but is running that ultra marathon really going to make us live longer or improve our quality of life as we age? Many would argue the opposite.

    I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life and find them repulsive. In no way do I encourage marijuana use but few years back, I was daily smoker via vaporizer. It was a great time in my life. Not much to worry about or many responsibilities besides work. Decreased productivity was the only downside I found. Really, the only reason I quit was because someone I loved more than marijuana came into my life. She didn’t approve of my habit. Now exercise is how I cope with life.

    I would argue that recreational use of marijuana and using it medically are one in the same. We all self medicate in our own way. Some forms are healthier than others but I do agree with you that SMOKING marijuana will not help me run a marathon or increase my bench press.

  2. Questions:

    1) Are the levels of carcinogens you quoted directly linked to marijuana or combusted carbon? Methinks it’s more about burnt carbon, present in any material people want to inhale, and less about marijuana. If so, it’s not the marijuana you should be vilifying.

    Which leads to 2)

    If associated cancer risk of edible thc is near zero (at this point), why demonize it? What are the associated health risks that affect athletic performance? (Assuming you aren’t high while performing. :-p )

    • If I read the reports correctly, the comparison was one of marijuana vs. tobacco, and comparing the chemical makeup of both. I’m sure the chemical processes of smoking has something to do with it, but we’re talking about comparing two substances ingested in the same way, and marijuana has higher levels of the two carcinogens mentioned.

      As far as edibles, I didn’t go into that much at all, other than mentioning that it exists. So I’m not demonizing it. In fact, I’m not sure there is enough information out there about the effects of edibles to comment one way or another on health risks, though THC seems to stay in the system longer through edibles than through smoking (hangs out in your fat cells longer).

      The most common way marijuana is used is through smoking (though that trend might change as edibles get more popular), so I solely addressed the issue of smoking marijuana. If you smoke pot, or anything, for that matter, you increase your risk of developing respiratory problems (coughing, wheezing, decreased immunity from lung-related illnesses, etc.), which would deter athletic performance.

      So to conclude, I’m not advocating that marijuana is evil or whatever. But you have to make intelligent choices based on your goals and the information at hand. With the activities I like to do, and my family’s history with cancer, I can’t imagine taking up the habit. If people choose to use, that’s up to them. But I do believe that just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s harmless.

  3. We already have a problem with drunk driving in the country….and we’re gonna add more from “pot high” drivers. Are they gonna legalize meth next?

  4. Soldiers use it for PTSD. Children use if for seizures. It actually can kill cancer cells. You completely dismiss taking it orally and I’m not sure why. Sprays under the tongue, edible, drops, pills, oils, topically via creams, patches ect. It hasn’t killed anyone, unlike prescription medications which kill daily. It’s becoming known as an exit drug due to it ability to replace addiction to painkillers. Since legalization, there has been a decrease in crime which is a big plus. Your article seems like an opinion piece that is very uninformed and a disservice to your readers.

    • I probably should have been more clear that this piece was not meant to be directed toward people with legitimate medical needs. And the lack of information on the effects of edibles and anything else not related to smoking marijuana is the reason why that aspect of marijuana use is not addressed. Only the smoking of marijuana is addressed here.

      And that brings me to this: The piece is designed to address whether a recreational user should smoke marijuana. And you’re right, this is an opinion of mine, backed up by research cited here. It’s my opinion that for the average person (not in need of marijuana for medicinal purposes), smoking marijuana carries more potential risks than benefits, and even more so for athletes and others for whom cardiovascular health and power are of prime importance.

      However, if the research cited here can be proven wrong, I’m all ears.

      Thanks for commenting, I appreciate the dialogue!

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