Marijuana Use and Quitting Smoking: Do Risks Outweigh Benefits?

Editor's Note: This article was originally written by patient expert Carol Southard.

A very common question from people trying to quit smoking is: "Will smoking marijuana help or hurt as I try to quit smoking cigarettes?"   Whether marijuana will relieve side effects or withdrawal symptoms is dubious.   But the risks of using any tobacco product and of smoking pot are unmistakable.

Marijuana has been used as a medical treatment for thousands of years.   Marijuana was listed as an approved drug in the United States until the 1940s, when probably due to political pressure, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state laws allowing medicinal use of marijuana must adhere to the federal law banning it.   However, proponents still contend that marijuana successfully treats pain, nausea and other uncomfortable side effects of conventional medical treatment as well as some disease symptoms.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2006, 14.8 million Americans aged 12 or older used marijuana at least once in the month prior to being surveyed.

About 6,000 people a day in 2006 used marijuana for the first time, the majority of whom were under age 18.   This makes marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States.

Marijuana is a dry, shredded green and brown mix of flowers, stems, seeds, and leaves derived from the hemp plant Cannabis sativa. The main active chemical in marijuana is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).   Marijuana contains at least 60 chemicals called cannabinoids.   Research has indicated that some of these cannabinoids might be effective in controlling symptoms in certain situations:

  • THC. THC is the main component responsible for marijuana's mind-altering effect.   It also may help treat signs and symptoms such as nausea and vomiting that are associated with a number of medical conditions.
  • Cannabinol and cannabidiol. These compounds have some of the properties of THC, but cause less psychoactive effects or the "high".
  • Dronabinol (Marinol). Dronabinol is the prescription form of THC.   It is used to prevent nausea and vomiting after cancer chemotherapy and to increase appetite in people with AIDS.

Marijuana has also been found to help treat a variety of other medical conditions.

  • Nausea.   One of THC's medical uses best supported by research is the treatment of nausea. It can improve mild to moderate nausea caused by cancer chemotherapy and help reduce nausea and weight loss in people with AIDS.
  • Glaucoma.   In the early 1970s, scientists discovered that smoking marijuana reduced pressure in the eyes though how the cannabinoids in marijuana produce this effect remains unknown.
  • Pain.   People widely used marijuana for pain relief in the 1800s.   THC may work as well in treating cancer pain as codeine.   Cannabinoids also appear to enhance the effects of opiate pain medications to provide pain relief at lower dosages.
  • Multiple sclerosis.   Research results on the effectiveness of cannabinoids in the treatment of the tremors, muscle spasms and pain of multiple sclerosis (MS) are mixed though one fairly recent study found that cannabinoids significantly reduced pain in people with multiple sclerosis.

But in addition to marijuana being illegal, smoking marijuana poses several health risks, including:

  • Impairment of thinking, problem-solving skills and memory.
  • Reduced balance and coordination.
  • Increased risk of heart attack.
  • Heightened risk of chronic cough and respiratory infections.

Potential for hallucinations and withdrawal symptoms

When someone smokes marijuana, THC rapidly passes from the lungs into the bloodstream, which carries the chemical to the brain and other organs throughout the body.   THC acts upon specific sites in the brain, called cannabinoid receptors, causing cellular reactions that ultimately lead to the "high" that users experience when they smoke marijuana.   The highest density of cannabinoid receptors are found in parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thoughts, concentration, sensory and time perception, and coordinated movement.

Not surprisingly, marijuana intoxication can cause distorted perceptions, impaired coordination, difficulty in thinking and problem solving, and problems with learning and memory.   Research has shown that marijuana's adverse impact on learning and memory can last for days or weeks after the acute effects of the drug wear off.   As a result, someone who smokes marijuana every day may be functioning at a suboptimal intellectual level all of the time.   Research on the long-term effects of marijuana use indicates some changes in the brain similar to those seen after long-term abuse of other major drugs.

Long-term marijuana use can lead to addiction in the sense of compulsive drug seeking.   Long-term marijuana users trying to quit report irritability, sleeplessness, decreased appetite, anxiety, and drug craving, all of which make it difficult to quit and all of which mimic nicotine withdrawal.   These withdrawal symptoms begin within about 1 day following abstinence, peak at 2-3 days, and subside within 1 or 2 weeks following cessation.

A number of studies have shown an association between chronic marijuana use and increased rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and schizophrenia.   It not clear whether marijuana use causes mental problems, exacerbates them, or is used in attempt to self-medicate symptoms already in existence.   Chronic marijuana use, especially in a very young person, may also be a marker of risk for mental illnesses, including addiction, stemming from genetic or environmental vulnerabilities, such as early exposure to stress or violence.

Perhaps most alarming is the documented adverse effects marijuana has on health:

  • The Heart.   One study found that the risk of heart attack more than quadruples in the first hour after smoking marijuana.   This might be from marijuana's effects on blood pressure and heart rate (it increases both) and reduced oxygen-carrying capacity of blood.
  • The Lungs.   Marijuana smokers can have many of the same respiratory problems as tobacco smokers, such as daily cough and phlegm production, more frequent acute chest illness, a heightened risk of lung infections, and a greater tendency toward obstructed airways.   Numerous studies have shown marijuana smoke to contain carcinogens and to be an irritant to the lungs.   In fact, marijuana smoke contains 50 to 70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco smoke. Marijuana users usually inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer than tobacco smokers do, which further increases the lungs' exposure to carcinogenic smoke.
  • Head and Neck.   Smoking marijuana has been linked with an increased risk of head and neck cancers.   Several case reports have found an unexpectedly high number of marijuana users among persons with cancers of the head and neck region, including the mouth, tongue, throat, and larynx.

The bottom line: The risks of using marijuana far outweigh the benefits.

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