Words of Wellness: Why not smoke pot?

The end result.

The end result.

Ever since the days of Reefer Madness, the hysterical propaganda from the “war against drugs” camp and the oppositional don’t worry about it from the “pot’s a natural God given gift” camp has created a cultural split that can make it complicated to arrive at a thoughtful informed decision about whether or not to smoke pot. The lack of unbiased funding for good scientific studies undermined for decades our ability to collect a solid body of accurately interpreted data to guide us in our personal decision-making and clinical practice. This has improved significantly in the past 10 years, thanks in a big part to the medical marijuana research that is getting funded from a variety of “interested parties”. You can find all the studies I’ll be referring to on the jointogether.org website if you search under “marijuana studies”.

Regarding pros and cons, recently there have been some excellent studies that have demonstrated very positive medical outcomes for cannabinoids, such as the one indicating that endocannabinoids show promising results in killing cancers and having anti-inflammatory properties. On the other hand, are those demonstrating problems with permanent cognitive decline related to chronic heavy use, which even NORML didn’t argue with. While NORML disagrees with prohibition they are in favor of delaying use until adulthood, and not driving while under the influence of pot in their “Principles of Responsible Use”.

With such conflicting good science, how are we to weigh it for ourselves? Is it good for us? Are there concerning side effects or are these concerns all bull, hype and scare tactics? If side effects are legit how big of a deal are they? If you’re going to smoke anyway, can you reduce your risk of side effects?

Looking at it primarily from a health standpoint we’ll ignore the matter of illegality as well as refrain from justifying how it’s not as bad as alcohol and harder drugs, etc… in order to give the holy weed’s side effects our full consideration, hype free as best we can, so you can think on it, perhaps look further into it on your own and make an informed decision for your own well-being.
My clinical take on it is yes, there really are concerning side effects. All medicinal herbs have powers and because they have powers they can have side effects. How concerning, depends on the condition of your body-mind as well as what’s important to you as you weigh the pros and cons for yourself. Quantity, quality and frequency are also significant factors related to the severity and duration of consequences.

Regarding occasional use:
Every single use has significant immediate and short term side effects. There are excellent studies that show an increase in heart rate and significant immediate motor and cognitive impairment in attention, memory and learning upon use, lasting from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. This is very important for students, athletes and all others who need and want to function at their highest levels to keep in mind. It has been found to reduce academic and work performance, and significantly impair driving ability among other things.  People who love the herb may have the mind-set that this isn’t true for them and that they function better on it but this has not been demonstrated in any study I could find.  If you know of a valid study refuting this, or any of the other points made here, please share it with me.

I did find one piece of good news regarding long term effects: People who use pot on a low quantity, low frequency basis, like once or twice a month or less and take regular prolonged holidays from using pot recover their mental and physical function completely within 28 days after stopping use and feel fine. I could find no studies confirming long term consequences from this very light level of use.

We’ve known about the physical side effects for a while but in case you forgot, smoking pot exposes the lungs to multiple chemicals including a substantial amount of tar. Smokers get more frequent colds and bronchitis. There are toxins. People tend to think of their weed as natural, organic and pure however you just don’t know. The specialized weed grown these days may have higher concentrations of heavy metals and other toxins due to grow formulas designed to enhance plant growth and THC levels. Chemical additives like K-2/spice and other synthetic enhancements can have majorly unpleasant and potentially devastating toxic side effects.

Not everyone gets to have an enjoyable high. Some get relief from anxiety at times and at other times get very anxious when they are high or end up having prolonged anxiety, social phobia, paranoia, and for the small part of our genetically vulnerable population psychosis. This variation in anxiety is due to the different effects of cannabinoids on the cannabinoid receptors of different brain areas in which some are activating and some are inhibiting of anxiety. It can also be related to dose and or tolerance issues. You’ll want to consider your personal and family physical and mental health history and current life stressors when weighing your risk of potential mental health side effects.

Regarding heavy chronic use:
As a Mental Health provider, another one of my major concerns is that chronic heavy use results in permanent cognitive decline, as in a loss of about 8 IQ points over 10 years of regular smoking. That’s permanent brain damage. The evidence is showing that cognition and memory doesn’t come all the way back even after many years of not smoking. Maybe you feel you can afford to lose some IQ points and memory and still be ok? Your choice.

Addiction is the outcome for 1 in 6 users who start smoking in adolescence (prior to mid-twenties). Early on, people argued that you couldn’t get addicted to pot however, some regular users aren’t anxious and irritable unless they stop using (withdrawal symptoms lasting up to two weeks also include, insomnia, appetite disturbance and depression) causing them to think that they always feel better with it than without it, making it likely that they will use chronically, not getting the benefits of breaks to clear out the toxins and reset normal cellular metabolism and function. Most people at the more light to moderate levels of using who don’t have underlying anxiety or depression typically feel fine after a couple of weeks off .

Those with underlying anxiety or depression that has been otherwise untreated typically remain emotionally and mentally pretty uncomfortable for long periods after not using pot. Medication without addressing the life issues causing the discomfort won’t create healthy change regardless of whether it’s a natural herb or a pharmaceutical synthetic. Additionally, heavy, chronic pot users find themselves as having been somewhat disconnected from their feelings and their sense of self for years because of their self-medication, so when they do stop smoking, they are often unclear of what they are feeling or why, uncomfortable with feeling their feelings or numb, and this can last for months or years after stopping use. Emotional dysregulation impairs one’s ability to have clear insight and judgment about things that normally our emotions would inform us about regarding our relationships and other important life areas. This is often the major focus of the personal work done in recovery and or therapy and or spiritual practices beyond establishing and maintaining being pot free – a return to, recovery or discovery of authentic self, of feeling at home in one’s skin and trusting one’s feelings and self again.

Chronic use can also impact relationships due to the impaired ability to be fully present cognitively and emotionally while interacting. Devotees may organize their social lives mostly around other people who also get high a lot, mainly for the purpose of getting high together and maybe not much else. They end up missing out on the positive benefits of having wider circles of other interesting, diverse and successful people to interact with in different contexts and activities and the social life gets smaller and lacks enrichment.

The stats say that about 70 % of college students don’t smoke or smoke rarely, about 30% smoke more consistently and about 10% have an abuse or dependence level problem with pot.

So there’s some food for thought for you about this question “why not smoke pot?” Perhaps it will prompt you to revisit how it is for you these days and the people you care about. Hopefully, this finds you well and taking pretty good care of yourselves and each other.

If you have been thinking that it may be time to change your relationship to pot or any other drug for the better – whatever that means for you – and would like an opportunity to have some support to take better care of yourself – you are welcome to connect with us at the Counseling and Health Center. You’ll find us in the back of Senators South and can walk in or call X1265 to make an appointment.

You might also like some of the links on our self help web page at: http://www.jsc.edu/StudentLife/CounselingServices/Self-HelpInformation.aspx