Deep Dive: How Marijuana Harms Users Mentally, Physically, and Financially
As President Joe Biden pardoned a few thousand people convicted of marijuana possession on October 6, he announced a process that could “expeditiously” remove all federal barriers to “medicinal” marijuana nationwide. Yet a voluminous and growing body of evidence proves that marijuana — especially marijuana containing high levels of THC — causes a host of psychological, physical, mental, and emotional harms, often to the most vulnerable and frail members of society.
“The federal government currently classifies marijuana as a Schedule I substance” under the Controlled Substances Act, “the same as heroin and LSD, and more serious than fentanyl. It makes no sense,” said Biden in a video announcing the pardon. Rather than increase the classification of fentanyl, he asked “secretary of Health and Human Services [Xavier Becerra] and the attorney general [Merrick Garland] to initiate a process to review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.” Changing the drug’s schedule could see the government backtrack from classifying marijuana as a harmful substance with a strong potential for abuse — and remove federal laws that have constrained the 37 states that have legalized so-called “medicinal marijuana.”
A well-financed, decades-long campaign has erroneously convinced Americans that marijuana is harmless, or possibly an all-purpose, natural cure. An August Gallup poll found that 53% of Americans believe marijuana has mostly positive effects on those who smoke it — an attitude that affects those with the most serious illnesses. Half (49%) of breast cancer survivors who use cannabis believe marijuana fights cancer, according to a study published in January. In reality, “immediate acquisition of a medical marijuana card increased the incidence and severity of cannabis use disorder (CUD) and resulted in no significant improvement in pain,” a Harvard psychiatrist reported in March. Instead, research shows that Americans — especially young people — have developed intense psychoses, stunted their mental development, and taken their own lives thanks to the influence of marijuana.
The most significant change has come from the high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a compound that induces a brief period of pleasure, and can trigger lifelong addiction. “The use of higher potency cannabis [with higher THC levels] … associated with an increased risk of psychosis and” severe addiction known as Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD), according to a systematic review of all available studies. Yet for decades, the compound associated with marijuana’s (quite modest) health benefits, CBD, has steadily fallen, while its THC content has climbed from 2% in the 1960s to as high as 95% or more today. While some have associated low potency (5% THC) with pain management, the “vast majority of products in all states, including medical-only programs, contained THC” at three-times that level (15% or more), academic researchers discovered in 2020. The problem is only likely to worsen, as a Gallup poll recently revealed more Americans smoke marijuana than regular cigarettes.
A ponderous body of science shows that marijuana harms its users in the following ways:
Psychosis, schizophrenia, and severe mental illness. Shortly after Colorado legalized recreational marijuana, addiction psychiatrist Dr. Libby Stuyt said she began “seeing people with the worst psychosis symptoms that I have ever seen. And the worst delusions I have ever seen.” They had not ingested hallucinogenic narcotics such as LSD or peyote; they got high on THC.
Emergency room cases of cannabis-induced psychosis increased 54% within three years after California legalized marijuana in 2016. Things have gotten so bad that the Golden State is considering slapping yellow warning labels on legal marijuana products, warning, “Cannabis may contribute to mental health disorders, including psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia.”
Numerous studies for years have backed up these experiences: Marijuana use makes people more likely to develop a psychosis and makes the symptoms even worse. The developing adolescent brain is most susceptible to the psychosis-inducing impact of cannabis. The American Psychiatric Association reported a “strong association of cannabis use with the onset of psychiatric disorders” in 2019. Researchers have found those who use high-potency marijuana every day are five times more likely to develop psychosis than those who never smoke pot. Eradicating marijuana use would reduce all cases of schizophrenia by 10%, wrote a global team of experts in an April study.
“Frequent cannabis users have increased risk of developing psychosis/schizophrenia and that too, at an earlier age. … An increase in frequency and dose of cannabis use are most predictive of future psychosis/schizophrenia development,” found a systematic review of the research published in July 2020. “THC in cannabis also makes schizophrenia and psychosis symptoms worse and causes more relapses and hospitalizations.”
Some try to argue over the cause, claiming that those predisposed to have psychiatric symptoms begin smoking marijuana to manage the symptoms. But Canadian researchers revealed that teenage marijuana use one year predicts the onset of psychotic symptoms 12 months later. They wrote that marijuana use causes psychosis “and not the opposite.”
Depression and suicidal thoughts. “An analysis of survey data from more than 280,000 young adults ages 18-35 showed that cannabis (marijuana) use was associated with increased risks of thoughts of suicide (suicidal ideation), suicide plan, and suicide attempt,” according to the National Institute of Health. People who use marijuana are more than twice as likely to consider suicide as non-users; daily use triples the chance of suicidal ideation, according to the June 2021 NIH study published in JAMA Network Open. “The risks were greater for women than for men.”
High anxiety. While many people turn to marijuana to relax and reduce symptoms of anxiety, “anxiety and panic reactions are the most commonly noted negative acute effects of marijuana intoxication,” notes the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. It points out that THC “appears to … increase anxiety at higher doses.” The institute also found those already suffering from anxiety, with genetic predispositions, and those with a history of such panic were more likely to experience high anxiety while using marijuana — the very groups seeking relief from “medicinal” marijuana.
Cannabis Use Disorder (addiction). Legislators categorized marijuana as a Schedule I drug, because it is addictive, especially in high-potency doses. While studies vary, they show between 10% and 30% of marijuana users will develop Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD), defined as an addiction so serious users cannot quit using the drug even though it is causing them problems in their lives. The problem holds true for the use of “medicinal” marijuana, as well. Researchers compared those who obtained a medicinal marijuana card with a control group that began using medicinal marijuana 12 weeks later. Those who used medicinal marijuana earlier were twice as likely to develop Cannabis Use Disorder as those who began later — and three times as likely, if they suffered anxiety or depressive symptoms, according to a study published in March. Medicinal marijuana caused addiction but had “no significant changes in pain severity or anxiety or depressive symptoms.”
Memory loss, poor executive decision-making skills, and verbal learning. A January 2022 meta-review of studies covering 43,000 people concluded that marijuana users have a “diminished ability to learn, retain, and retrieve verbal information.” This deficit “may have repercussions for users’ occupational functioning, independent living, and ability to navigate through their daily life adequately,” it said. Harvard Medical School researchers agreed, “There’s no question” that marijuana “can produce short-term problems with thinking, working memory, executive function, and psychomotor function (physical actions that require conscious thought, such as driving a car or playing a musical instrument).” New research shows marijuana’s mental impairment could last for weeks, if not longer. A review of 62,454 brain scans found that marijuana abuse added 2.8 years to the brain’s age and greatly reduced blood flow.
Lower IQ. “Youth who use marijuana on a regular basis lose on average eight points in their IQ, and it never comes back even when they stop the use of marijuana,” Dr. John Fleming, who served as an assistant deputy chief of staff for President Donald Trump, told “Washington Watch with Tony Perkins” Monday. The statistics come from a New Zealand study, where researchers found those who began consuming marijuana during adolescence lost six to eight IQ points. Subsequent studies claimed the IQ of cannabis users “was already low” before they began: In other words, using marijuana is a low-IQ decision.
Severe vomiting. As many as one in every three regular marijuana users will experience cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS), chronic and prolonged bouts of vomiting often accompanied by stomach cramps. The New York Times reports on Elysee, who vomited 20 times in an hour after she began vaping waxes and oils with 90% THC levels at age 14. Cases of cyclical vomiting have increased 60% from 2005 to 2014, in tandem with the increase in marijuana use. CHS has caused dehydration and, in extreme cases, death. Thankfully, doctors report their patients experience a “resolution of the symptoms after cessation of cannabis use.”
Fetal development issues. Marijuana use has long been associated with lower birth weight, yet it may lead to a host of other, long-lasting problems. “Marijuana use during pregnancy may cause fetal growth restriction, premature birth, stillbirth, and problems with brain development, resulting in hyperactivity and poor cognitive function,” reports the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. A 2019 study concluded that exposing unborn children to marijuana after the mother knew she was pregnant “was associated with increased offspring psychosis proneness.”
Increased risk of heart attacks. “Monthly marijuana users had a higher chance of having a heart attack and were more likely to have a heart attack before the age of 50, according to a Stanford Medicine study. Marijuana ingestion also caused atherosclerosis in lab mice and inflammation of the endothelial cells that line blood vessels.
Bronchitis, emphysema, and lung damage. “Smoked marijuana, regardless of how it is smoked, can harm lung tissues and cause scarring and damage to small blood vessels,” according to the CDC. “Smoking marijuana can also lead to a greater risk of bronchitis, cough, and mucus production, though these symptoms generally improve when marijuana smokers quit.” In fact, “prolonged cannabis use led to over-inflated lungs and increased the resistance to airflow to a greater extent than tobacco,” said Bob Hancox of New Zealand’s University of Otago in February. Extreme users can develop an advanced form of emphysema that doctors have dubbed “bong lung.”
More ER visits and hospitalizations. Marijuana users were 22% more likely to visit the emergency room or be hospitalized than those who do not partake, according to a Canadian study this June, implying that cannabis leads to overall poor health.
Shorter life expectancy. Men who used marijuana heavily at age 18 and 19 were 40% more likely to die by age 60 than those who never touched the drug, according to a groundbreaking study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Lower income, worse relationships, and more prone to suffer physical abuse. A study that tracked 1,000 regular marijuana users from age 18 to 38 found that “found that regular cannabis users experienced downward social mobility and more financial problems such as troubles with debt and cash flow than those who did not report such persistent use,” said one of the study’s authors, Magdalena Cerdá of the University of California-Davis Health System. Those who use cannabis habitually end up in “lower-paying, less skilled, and less prestigious jobs” than their parents. “Regular long-term users also had more anti-social behaviors at work, such as stealing money or lying to get a job, and experienced more relationship problems, such as intimate partner violence and controlling abuse.” The study also showed that pardons will not help them: “Even among cannabis users who were never convicted for a cannabis offense, we found that persistent and regular cannabis use was linked to economic and social problems,” said study co-author Avshalom Caspi of Duke University.
Participation in human trafficking/slavery. Legal marijuana dispensaries in California have sold marijuana cultivated by human trafficking victims, noted NBC’s Jacob Soboroff. In his documentary “Captives of Cannabis,” a law enforcement officer estimated that 45% of the illegal dispensaries he raided involved human trafficking victims from Asia, often the People’s Republic of China. “Chinese organized crime has gotten involved,” Soboroff told Forbes. These operations have victimized “potentially thousands of trafficked Chinese workers” in at least seven states.
Marijuana use also harms non-users. While marijuana use is presented as an individual choice, it undeniably has an impact on the rest of society, especially those present in the cannabis user’s home. “There are more DUIs. There are more poison control calls, because children are finding these gummies that look like candy,” Jaime Zerbe, chief of staff for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told “Washington Watch” guest host Joseph Backholm last Friday. Smokers also subject other people in the house to secondhand marijuana smoke, which “contains many of the same toxins and carcinogens found in directly-inhaled marijuana smoke, in similar amounts if not more,” according to the American Lung Association.
What should a Christian think about marijuana use? God created the human race in His own image and likeness. The great scientist Johannes Kepler once observed humanity strives to “think God’s thoughts after Him.” Whether “medicinal” or recreational, marijuana use renders it impossible for the user to engage the full power of his or her God-given intellect. It impedes the higher functions of wise decision-making. It harms the body, which Scripture tells us is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and shortens the number of years disciples have to serve Christ. When addiction ensues, it reverses the pattern God established at creation, that mankind should have dominion over the plants of the Earth, as Pat Robertson noted in his book “The Secret Kingdom.”
Intoxication creates problems of its own. The Apostle Paul classifies “drunkenness” alongside murder and witchcraft as a work of the flesh, as contrasted to the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:18-23). The need for intense intoxication comes for a desire to escape reality rather than improving it, much less to serve God and others in obedience. As Charles Spurgeon said, “The man who is all aglow with love to Jesus finds little need for amusement. He has no time for trifling. He is in dead earnest to save souls, and establish the truth, and enlarge the kingdom of his Lord.” The believing Christian would heed the words of the Apostle Paul: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1; see also Romans 8:21).
Ben Johnson is senior reporter and editor at The Washington Stand.