Marijuana's Unknown Health Impact Leaves Experts Concerned

By Kelly Burch 06/18/18

The drug’s Schedule I designation has limited research on the effects of cannabis and one expert says this is cause for major concern.

Woman smoking a joint

Sixty-one percent of Americans now believe that marijuana should be legalized, but one expert says that among growing acceptance of the drug, people need to remain aware that cannabis can cause real health concerns. 

“It’s a giant experiment,” Christian Hopfer, a professor of psychiatry at University of Colorado School of Medicine, told The New York Post

Hopfer, who voted against recreational cannabis legalization in Colorado, is co-leading a $5.5 million study of 5,000 sets of twins funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The study will examine the impact that legalization of cannabis has on mental health and substance use, as well as giving information on how using marijuana affects health. 

Despite the fact that research on the effects of cannabis has been limited by the drug’s Schedule I designation, Hopfer says that some health consequences have been well-established.

“Smoke a couple times a day and marijuana will knock off your memory. That is pretty certain,” he said. 

He rebuked the claim that people will use marijuana whether it is legal or not. 

“There is no question that legalization has a normalizing effect on something that used to be against the law,” he said. “By age 21, 98% of the population has had a drink. But only 10% of the population has tried cocaine, and 50% [have] tried marijuana.” 

Hopfer is particularly concerned about the fact that teens could become exposed to marijuana more frequently, despite the fact that other research has shown no increase in teen marijuana use when the drug is legalized. Though a recent study found that while teens are abstaining from drug use, when they do decide to use, they are choosing marijuana as their first drug.

However, teens who do use the drug face severe consequences, said Hopfer.  

“If you start smoking pot as a teenager, you have a four times higher likelihood of getting addicted,” he said. “The brain of a teenager is more sensitive to the effects than the brain of an adult would be. [Marijuana] is likely to have a more detrimental effect on kids.”

Despite claims that marijuana is not addictive, an estimated three million Americans have marijuana use disorder, he added.

“You can’t stop and you give up other things to keep using,” Hopfer says. “People go to work stoned and are stoned with their loved ones. Performance in life and on the job both get negatively impacted.”

Another public health risk associated with marijuana occurs on the road. In Colorado, marijuana-involved traffic fatalities have doubled since the drug was legalized, according to the Denver Post. In general, states with legal marijuana have about 3% more traffic accidents reported to insurance companies than states where cannabis is prohibited. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.