Cannabis has been on the receiving end of a no-holds PR campaign that has for decades painted it as a gateway drug, a substance that causes schizophrenia and promotes laziness, a plant that can lead to a life of crime. As marijuana is legalized in more and more states, very few are buying these arguments anymore. And as more and more people and parents are using marijuana responsibly, the question has turned to more specific — and less concerning — health benefits and drawbacks of weed. Is weed bad for you? Not entirely. But it’s also by no means an innocuous substance.
The study of medical marijuana is a very promising field, and the substance is currently being used to treat a wide range of conditions, from PTSD to chronic pain to multiple sclerosis. It may help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Yet for most people, the biggest and most obvious benefit of marijuana is, like a beer in the evening, some good old-fashioned dissociation. Stress relief is crucial for parents, and cannabis is safer than many other recreational drugs, including alcohol.
But marijuana isn’t harmless. When smoked, it can cause lung issues. Taken in any form, it can lead to issues such as pregnancy problems, impaired learning and memory, and schizophrenia and psychosis. Here’s what users and the pot-curious should know before diving in.
The Benefits of Weed
The biggest benefit of recreational weed is the kind of high it gives. Compared to alcohol and other drugs, “it’s a much safer way to go home and relax without doing damage,” says Sarah Mann, a physician at the Mindful Medicine Clinic. “I’m a critical care physician with most of my time, and I see alcohol overdoses every single day, in every form. And I have never had a cannabis overdose.” Taking too much weed can make you uncomfortably stoned, but there are no recorded cases of lethal marijuana overdoses.
Cannabis can also improve some aspects of physical and mental health. “Medically speaking, there’s a wide array of benefits,” Mann says. “It’s particularly good for neurologic conditions, including pain conditions.” Adults who use cannabis to treat chronic pain are less likely to experience symptoms of their condition, according to a comprehensive report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. “Sometimes it can even be a definitive treatment,” Mann says.
Some people smoke weed for better sleep, which is probably effective — at least at first. There is “moderate evidence” that weed improves “short-term sleep outcomes in individuals with sleep disturbance associated with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and multiple sclerosis,” according to the National Academies report. However, frequent use of medical cannabis is associated with issues falling asleep and staying asleep, according to a study of 128 people taking the drug for chronic pain treatment. The researchers suggest that users may develop a tolerance to pot’s sleep-boosting benefits over time.
Another benefit of marijuana is its ability to help manage certain mental illnesses — particularly PTSD. It may also relieve depression, although more research on the subject is needed to be sure, according to a review of studies on medical marijuana and mental health. The National Academies found that cannabis may also help adults with social anxiety, but that regular use could increase the risk of developing the disorder.
For people who struggle with alcohol or opioid addiction, swapping those drugs out for marijuana could help with overcoming their substance use disorder, according to the mental health review. However, this technique is controversial, particularly because using weed increases a person’s risk of developing substance abuse of another drug.
The Drawbacks of Weed
If you smoke weed, first and foremost, a drawback is the risk to your lungs. Most research on smoking has been done on cigarettes, so researchers don’t know exactly how marijuana smoke affects the lungs. However, the American Lung Association is confident that smoking pot damages them. It injures the cell linings of the large airways and causes chronic bronchitis. It can also lead to chronic cough and phlegm production, according to the National Academies report.
It’s possible that smoking weed could increase the risk of developing lung cancer, but there isn’t enough evidence to be sure either way, according to a 2014 review. There is modest evidence to link only one kind of cancer to cannabis: a particular subtype of testicular cancer, according to the National Academies report.
Weed doesn’t only pose a threat to the body, but also to the mind. Several studies suggest that pot can damage memory, learning, and attention. These effects stick around even after you quit. Yes, there’s some truth in the schizophrenia scares from past days. While using marijuana can’t cause schizophrenia, it does double the risk of developing schizophrenia in people who are vulnerable to the condition, according to a 2018 review.
Smoking pot could also add unnecessary health risks to parents’ future children — and may prevent them from having kids altogether. Cannabis can cause issues with sperm that lead to infertility. Using marijuana while pregnant could also lead to lower birth weight, preterm birth, and a higher risk of autism.
Some people who smoke pot develop a condition called cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, or CHS for short. Only those who regularly use marijuana (daily or weekly) develop it. CHS is categorized by symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain that come and go in cycles, according to a 2011 review. It’s likely more common in men, and people with the condition often take hot showers to ease their symptoms. Symptoms generally stop when you shelf the cannabis.
Because marijuana is illegal at the federal level, it’s difficult for researchers to study how it affects health. There are still a lot of unknowns about how it could both hurt and help your body. Scientists won’t understand the full picture for many years.
In the meantime, the only person who can weigh the know risks against the benefits is you or your doctor.