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Consequences of Blissful Ignorance: Marijuana’s Health Risks

Marijuana use has increased recently as it gains the reputation for being a natural, risk-free drug. But it might not be as safe as you think. Marijuana does offer a variety of medicinal health benefits to those managing chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel diseases, and chemotherapy. It can also improve sleep quality and reduce anxiety at low doses. But 30% of people who use it are dependent on it, and there are plenty of side effects to consider, especially based on how it’s consumed.

Cannabis or marijuana with cannabis oil in cartridge of vape pen


Smoking is one of the most popular ways people consume marijuana, which is concerning given it may be the most dangerous. Regardless of how it is smoked (e.g., pipes, bongs, bowls, joints, blunts), it can be detrimental to heart and lung health.

For example, smoking marijuana can increase the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and other cardiovascular diseases, particularly in older adults.

Most notably, smoking can significantly damage lung tissues (e.g., scarred blood vessels, excess mucus, air pockets). Thus, marijuana smokers also have a greater risk of chronic bronchitis and report more health care visits than non-marijuana smokers.

Compared to cigarette smoke, marijuana smoke is more carcinogenic and deposits four times the tar because of different inhalation techniques. Though, there has yet to be a connection to lung cancer. Since there is a lag time of 30-40 years before lung cancer presents itself in tobacco smokers, scientists believe it is only a matter of time before we see the data show it for marijuana smokers as well.


A newer consumption method, trendy among adolescents, is vaping. This involves inhaling vapor that is produced by heating dried cannabis flower (“dry herb”), oil concentrates or wax extracts at 160°C-230°C.

When comparing the effects of vaping and smoking, several studies have shown that vaping marijuana eliminates exposure to harmful byproducts created by combustion (e.g., tar, carbon dioxide). Similarly, another study found that vaping dry herb produced a higher ratio of cannabinoids with fewer hazardous compounds.

While seemingly a healthier alternative to smoking, other research shows heating marijuana above 200°C can still expose you to carcinogens, like benzene. Oil concentrate vaporizers with vitamin E acetate are also strongly linked with the lung condition, E-cigarette or Vaping Product Use Associated Lung Injury (EVALI). Despite this, teens are still vaping marijuana and are twice as likely to report wheezing and whistling in the chest than when they smoke tobacco.

Edibles and General Brain Health

Edibles come in many forms such as baked goods or gummies, but despite what you hear, none of them are harmless because of the general impacts of marijuana on brain health.

Marijuana affects brain health by impairing learning, memory, and focus, no matter how it’s consumed. This is why it is particularly dangerous for adolescents and pregnant people to partake. Research shows that users under age 18 have an increased risk of depression and suicidality, and can suffer permanent changes to their developing brain. Babies born to users can also have lower birth weight and behavioral issues.

We also know that marijuana increases the likelihood of developing psychoses (e.g., schizophrenia) and is associated with accelerated brain aging (e.g., smaller hippocampi). All of these negative impacts on brain health are why consuming marijuana edibles isn’t the risk-free golden ticket.

Reducing Harm

There really is no healthy way to consume marijuana: potency has dramatically increased in the last 20 years and research has only scratched the surface on the potential health effects. But there are ways to mitigate some of the risk.

For those who plan to continue smoking, there are a couple ways to soften the blow. It’s important to learn about the materials in your rolling papers before use and avoid holding smoke in your lungs for more than one or two seconds.

For those who choose to vape, consider switching from oil concentrate and wax extract vapes to a less harmful dry herb vaporizer. Make sure to still research the quality of materials in the device, as some are made from low-quality plastic.

For edible users, try limiting your dose and usage altogether. It is also important to stay in a safe place during the high to avoid other standard risks like motor vehicle fatalities.

Although edibles seem to offer the least amount of risk, future studies should explore the long-term impact of all consumption methods. For now, the best ways to protect yourself are to be educated about the risks of marijuana use and minimize its harms whenever possible.

Kristina Carvalho, MSW, is a Policy Analyst, at Partnered Evidence-Based Policy Resource Center (PEPReC), a partnership with the Boston University School of Public Health.


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