Smoke screen: new scientific research challenges marijuana’s “safe” reputation

by Tripp Underwood on March 3, 2011

Is smoking marijuana more harmful than most people think?

After nearly a decade of declining popularity, marijuana use among teenagers is on the rise—at a time when use of the drug is becoming more socially acceptable and has an increasingly benign reputation. According to a study released by the Partnership for a Drug Free America, 25 percent of U.S. teens reported smoking marijuana in the last month, up 6 percent from previous years.

Coincidentally, marijuana’s popularity boost is being reported just as science sheds new light on its harmful effects. The British Medical Journal recently released a study showing young people who smoke marijuana regularly double their risk of developing psychotic symptoms as they grow older. It’s one of many studies published in the past few weeks indicating that marijuana may not be as benign a drug as some people think.

“In terms of perceived danger, marijuana repeatedly gets a free ride because of a common misconception that it’s non-addictive and doesn’t contribute to any serious health issues,” says John Knight, MD, director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research(CeASAR). “I think many teenagers and their parents would be surprised to learn that medical science tells a very different story.”

The BMJ study took place over the course of a decade, monitoring the marijuana use and reported mental health of 2,000 young people throughout the years. Researchers discovered that participants who had never smoked pot and had no prerecorded psychotic symptoms were almost twice as likely to report psychotic symptoms later in life if they started using marijuana during adolescence.

“Exposure to cannabinoids during critical stages of development can change both the function and structure of the brain, possibly forever.”
-Dr. Knight

“Kids who smoke marijuana during development are far more likely to suffer from a devastating mental disorder like addiction, schizophrenia, depression or anxiety, sometimes by as much as 5 or 6 percent,” says Knight. “This latest study is further evidence that exposure to cannabinoids during critical stages of development can change both the function and structure of the brain, possibly forever.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the U.S., and 28.5 million Americans over the age of 12 have abused it in the past year. When you combine these staggering numbers with new research on the drug’s ability to impact development and eventual health, marijuana’s recent spike in popularity could have serious repercussions for the future.

“We need to help our children understand the real dangers associated with pot, especially as it relates to their development and health as they grow towards adulthood,” says Knight. “Otherwise, as this generation grows older, we’re going to see a sharp increases in mental illness rates and the associated burdens of high treatment costs and human misery that goes with it.”

7 comments

  • Kap4237

    alcohol is still worse

  • Successful and Stoned

    Cigarettes, too. Both of which are legal for adults but would negatively impact a child’s development. Still, we see teenagers smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol regularly, with devastating effects. Consider drunk driving, abuse, sexual assault… often precipitated by using and abusing a legal substance. There is no evidence that anyone has ever died from using or abusing marijuana. Marijuana is simply not associated with violence and motor vehicle accidents to the same degree that alcohol is, and (unlike cigarettes) can be consumed edibly, eliminating the potential for throat and lung cancer than can be caused by smoking. Legalizing and taxing marijuana, as well as saving money and time spent in the prosecution of marijuana smokers, makes purely fiscal sense in light of the current economic crisis. Additionally, it would likely reduce the cash flow that funds the violent acts of the Mexican drug gangs who currently supply much of the southern United States with marijuana.

    Correlation is not causation. This study cannot say that marijuana causes mental illness, simply that marijuana use in adolescence is correlated with a higher likelihood of presenting with symptoms of mental illness in adulthood. Perhaps these adolescents who abuse marijuana are doing so because they are already experiencing symptoms of mental illness and are self-medicating.

    I am an intelligent, successful medical professional who had a mental illness long before I began smoking marijuana. I have no intention of quiting until I have children or read of a study that demonstrates its supposedly ill effects more conclusively that those that have been published of late.

  • Melanie Pennison

    One of the first things you learn in basic epidemiology is that correlation does not equal causation. The adolescents in this study are not randomly assigned to either “smoke” or “not smoke” pot, so there is no scientific way to say that marijuana is causing mental disorders later in life. Arguably, those that are more likely to develop these mental disorders are also the ones more likely to smoke pot as adolescents. I am not advocating marijuana use in adolescents, but I also believe that marijuana use is not dangerous (much safer than both cigarettes and alcohol) and research money spent on this topic can be put to a much better use.

  • sisi

    is there a possiblity that people with mental disorders may use marijuana to quiet down the voices?

  • ADM3432

    The number of people writing to rationalize their use of marijuana is in itself alarming. That alcohol and cigarette use may be more damaging is irrelevant (as they are also not legal for use by minors.) It’s this sort of logic that perpetuates the belief by kids that pot use is in no way damaging. Go ahead and smoke your pot if you want. But please stop advocating for marijuana. Your words are being used by 12 year olds who are being damaged by your arguments.

  • Ewaazr

    and its ignorant people that you that will look like jackasses when marijuana is developed into a cure for many illnesses and diseases. and those twelve year olds you’re talkin bout are most likely suffering from abuse or going through other stressful situations that they shouldnt have to deal with,so its only right that they smoke marijuana to escape from the pain they are suffering from.

  • Sing_ur_soul92

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