Asked by Pat, Kansas
I don't smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol, but I have smoked marijuana daily for the last 25 years. Although I have enjoyed good health all my life, I would like to know what concerns I should have with long-term marijuana usage.
Living Well Expert
Dr. Jennifer Shu
Children's Medical Group
Thank you for this important question. Roughly 40 percent of Americans have tried marijuana, and about 10 percent continue to use it on a regular basis, so this issue is probably more common than one might expect.
The active chemical in marijuana, THC, works on receptors in the brain. In the short term, or within hours of smoking the drug, lower doses can cause feelings of relaxation or distort your senses, whereas higher doses may create hallucinations, learning and memory problems and impaired coordination -- which is why it's not a good idea to drive or play sports when under the influence.
Over the long term, the tar in marijuana may put a person at risk for lung cancer, much as cigarette smoke does. Smoking marijuana can also cause asthma, bronchitis, sinus infections and a sore throat, especially in heavy users. Marijuana may also impair the immune system's ability to fight off certain infections. There is also some evidence that marijuana can trigger heart attacks in people who already have or are at risk for coronary heart disease.
Because marijuana acts on the brain, chronic use can also make it difficult to concentrate, pay attention and learn. Some studies have shown that regular marijuana smokers may function at a lower intellectual level all the time since the drug can keep affecting the brain for weeks after using.
People who try to stop using marijuana after years of use may have withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, drug craving and insomnia, making it hard to quit. Because of the possible difficulty quitting the drug and the many health concerns associated with long-term smoking, I advise regular users to consult with their doctor or an addiction medicine specialist to help them stop.
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