The Science of Marijuana: Benefits, Side Effects & Myths About Cannabis (Weed)

Cannabis is a plant that goes by many names. Marijuana has been used in some shape or form in various Central Asian cultures. Vedas mention a drug called “soma” that some theorise references to this psychoactive drug. Some say the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung discovered weed back in 2700 BC. While no one can say for sure when or who used weed recreationally for the first time. Much can be said about its popularity today.

According to reports and surveys, almost 180 to 230 million people worldwide smoke pot. Canada became the second country that legalised this popular herb (Uruguay was first). Scientists have published over 10,000 research studies proving its cultural popularity as well. From children’s cartoons asking their viewers to “Puff the Magic Dragon” to the popularity of Snoop Dog & Bob Marley in the “Stoner hood”, Gaanja has got its roots deep into our society.

Given the popularity of this medicinal and recreational drug, we are exploring the science behind the enigmatic effects of Mary Jane (cannabis).

This article will discuss the latest medical research and findings related to marijuana. It will distinguish facts from popular myths. It will also explore the medical benefits of cannabis and the side effects of prolonged over consumption. So put on your headphones and listen to these top 20 weed-themed songs as you learn the science of marijuana.

What is Cannabis?

Cannabis is a plant belonging to the Cannabaceae family that originated in Central Asia. Today, this aromatic herb is cultivated year-round worldwide, say the editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

There are over 400 chemical entities (60 + cannabinoid compounds) that make up this complex plant. There are three major parts of this plan.

  • Cannabinol: Discovered in 1899
  • Cannabidiol (CBD): Discovered in 1963
  • Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (d-9-THC): Discovered in 1964. Identified as the main active compound of Cannabis.

THC is the psychoactive ingredient that results in enhanced psychological effects upon consumption. As per Zerrin Atakan’s study published in Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, Cannabis Sativa has higher amounts of THC. Hence, it is the preferred type of strain (subspecies) of this plant.

So, What Does The Science Say About Marijuana?

Many studies have been carried out that study the medical effects of marijuana on the mind and body. Some state that it can treat a few medical conditions such as chronic pain, depression & social anxiety, alcohol and drug addiction. But, excessive and regular prolonged consumption of marijuana can have several side effects. Researchers have dubbed this plant to have a “Jekyll and Hyde” effect.

Let us begin by looking at the medical benefits of Marijuana.

Top Medical Benefits of Marijuana

Medical Benefits Of Marijuana

Marijuana For The Elderly

Mice, unfortunately closely resemble humans in genetic, biological and behavioural characteristics. Hence, they make up for over 90% of lab subjects in all experiments carried out. A study published in the journal ‘Nature Medicine’ by Andreas Zimmer and team tested the effects of THC on mice. Their study found that a controlled dosage of delta-9-THC restores cognitive function in old mice. It was found that THC boosted connections between cells in the hippocampus, an area in the brain involved with memory formation. If subsequent human trials confirm their findings, it may be concluded that a controlled dosage of THC can benefit the elderly. It can improve their memory and decrease cognitive decline related to old age.

Other Studies about Marijuana and the Elderly:

  • Marijuana is a viable substitute for several opioids that treat pain, depression, anxiety and more. A study found that senior citizens with access to medical marijuana were prescribed 11 percent fewer opioids. In U.S. states where medical marijuana was legal, a study found that opioid overdose death rates were 25 percent lower. Opioids have serious side effects and marijuana could be a viable substitute for some conditions.
  • In patients with Alzheimer’s disease, THC was found to protect neurons from death in several ways. Campbell’s study found that THC boosts the depleted levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (contributes to weakened mental condition), suppresses toxicity of a beta protein that kills neurons and stimulates the growth of new neurons. All these suggest that THC in marijuana can be beneficial for the elderly.
  • As reported by scientists from Ohio State University, Marijuana may help ward off Alzheimer’s and keep recall sharp. Chemical components of marijuana can reduce inflammation and stimulate the production of memory-enhancing brain cells. They even devised a synthetic THC-like drug that they will be testing soon in a clinical trial.

These studies tell us one thing, marijuana is best consumed in your later years. It’s a drug for the old age as opposed to its widespread use amongst teens and young adults.

Ingredients in Marijuana Can Treat Epilepsy

Epilepsy is a widespread disease that affects millions around the world. Almost 2 million people each year are diagnosed with epilepsy that causes violent seizures. In America, there are almost 100,000 children that have “intractable epilepsy”. This kind of epilepsy does not respond to standard anti-seizure medicines.

Fortunately, a chemical in marijuana (cannabidiol) has been found to tame seizures. An article on the Scientific American discusses how its positive effects led GW Pharmaceuticals to develop a cannabis-based drug called ‘Epidiolex’. This is the first cannabis drug that has been approved by the FDA in the USA. If this drug shows promise, then more research is likely to follow in developing other marijuana-based drugs.

Weed Helps Alleviate Chronic Pain

A study commissioned by the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health was published in JAMA. It reviewed several clinical studies that tested marijuana. Their review concluded that there is strong evidence to support that weed can have positive effects. It can help those suffering from chronic and neuropathic pain, and muscle problems related to multiple sclerosis.

Another large review was led by National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Over 10,000 scientific studies on the health and medical benefits of pot concluded that marijuana can relieve chronic pain. In the USA, almost 25 million people are affected by chronic pain which is also the leading cause of disability.

A Canadian study also found that out of the 30 patients who smoked marijuana reported less pain caused by muscle spasms and contractions. Several studies support the use of marijuana to ease the pain caused by Multiple Sclerosis (MS: affects 2.3 million globally).

Marijuana Treats Depression, Anxiety & PTSD

A review published in Clinical Psychology Review found that cannabis has the potential for treatment of PTSD. It can be used for substance use disorders as well. It also found some supporting evidence that chemical components in marijuana may help treat social anxiety and reduce depression & PTSD symptoms.

Along with the United States of America, several armies are also studying the use of marijuana to treat those affected with PTSD (those returning from wars). Another Harvard led study found that in low doses, marijuana can relieve pain, suppress nausea and even reduce anxiety. It can also act as a sedative in low doses. However, higher doses may increase anxiety and cause paranoia.

Some chemical compounds in cannabis have also been found to reduce symptoms of anxiety-related disorders, psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia and motor control issues experienced in Parkinson’s disease.

Weed Does Not Cure Cancer! But it Helps

Cancer cannot be cured by smoking pot! However, its legalisation has led doctors to prescribe medical cannabis to treat cancer-related side effects. Chemotherapy has several side effects. Smoking marijuana can relieve pain and stimulate appetite in those suffering from cancer.

A study led by D. I Abrams found that marijuana can treat cancer related symptoms including anorexia, chemotherapy-induced nausea, pain, insomnia and depression.

While currently, marijuana can help ease symptoms of the most common treatment for cancer, it cannot cure the disease itself, yet. There are various cannabinoids with different chemical profiles that require further study. For example, a study published in the International Journal of Oncology found that cannabinoids kill cancer cells. The benefits increase when coupled with chemotherapy.

A survey carried out by WebMD comprising of 1566 physicians in the United States of America found that 82% of oncologists were in favour of prescribing medical marijuana to cancer patients. Clearly, smoking grass can help those suffering from cancer. This stresses the need for more nations to legalise the use of medical marijuana.

Smoking Pot Can Help Those Suffering From HIV/AIDS!

It goes without saying that smoking weed can’t cure AIDS. However, several studies suggest that chemical components in marijuana (THC) can help manage the disease better. There are cannabinoid receptors in the brain (CB1 & CB2) with which THC is linked. The CB1-THC linkage stimulates appetite which is a boon for AIDS patients trying to maintain body weight.

Cannabis Treats Glaucoma

Glaucoma is one disease that has been conclusively shown to be treatable with marijuana. Glaucoma causes pressure in the eyeballs that injures the optic nerves, thereby causing loss of vision. A study carried out by the National Eye Institute in the 1970s found that smoking weed lowers intraocular pressure (IOP) which helps prevent blindness.

Pot Fights Superbugs!

According to a study published in the Journal of Natural Products, common compounds in weed can kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The five common cannabinoid compounds in weed (tetrahydrocannabinol [THC], Cannabidiol, Cannabigerol, Cannabinol and Cannabichromene) have anti-bacterial qualities that kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA that claimed more lives than AIDS in 2007. Further research is needed to conclusively prove that these compounds are effective anti-bacterial agents and whether or not they can be used to develop topical antiseptics and other medicines.

Fighting Alcohol & Drug Addiction With Weed

Alcohol and opioid addictions are some of the hardest to overcome. New research has given some prospects to marijuana as a viable treatment for alcohol and other drug addictions. Researchers explored the potential of cannabidiol for prevention of relapse to drug use. The study was conducted on rats and found that cannabidiol prevents relapse even when exposed to stressful situations. They also found that the effects are long-lasting with only brief treatment. While this is only a proof of principle, further trials will be required to solidify cannabis as a treatment for alcohol and other drug addictions.

Scientifically Proven Side Effects of Smoking Weed

So far, we have looked at the bright side of marijuana consumption. However, it is also important to address scientific claims about the side effects of excessive and prolonged consumption of cannabis. Here are some side effects regular marijuana smokers can expect:

Long Term Marijuana Use May Fog The Brain

A new study suggests that long-term marijuana users can experience a decline in cognitive skills and become worse at learning and remembering things. Lambros Messinis led the study at the University Hospital of Patras in Greece and found some interesting results.

In a study that required participants to recall a list of 15 words, she found that long-term users could recall only seven words, short-term users recalled nine and non-smokers could recall 12. Another study showed that smoking marijuana for a long time may result in a slight decline in IQ points. However, these studies have multiple interpretations and are by no means conclusive.

Addiction & Related Drawbacks

9 percent of those who try marijuana can develop a dependency for it, says this study. Such an addiction can not only “fog” your brain, but also result in an overall loss of quality of life. Adolescent exposure can result in dropping out of school. Long-term addiction can also increase the risk of psychosis.

Marijuana Use in Pregnancy May Damage Kids’ Learning

A study found that women who smoke pot during pregnancy can damage their kids’ learning ability. An Italian team studied rats who were given marijuana when they were pregnant. They found that in addition to the offsprings being hyper active during infancy, they also perform poorly on learning tests throughout their life. A psychologist at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada confirmed having found similar results in human experiments. The Italian team concluded that cannabis used by pregnant women disrupts chemical and electrical processes in the brain during gestation which can cause these effects.

Smoking Pot May Increase The Risk Of Psychosis?

The causal link between marijuana and increased risk of psychosis and schizophrenia is highly debated. There seem to be studies that support both claims. For example, a 15-year old Swedish study of 45,000 Swedes found that those who smoked marijuana by age 18 were 2.4 times more likely to develop schizophrenia. However, a later study found that Swedes in general experienced an increase in schizophrenia. Another Australian study found that despite increased cannabis usage among teens, no increase in schizophrenia was found. Researches have concluded that while marijuana does not increase the risk of psychosis, it may do so in those individuals already prone to developing this disease.

Synthetic Marijuana Is Bad News

Several studies have found that synthetic marijuana which contains higher amounts of THC can have serious effects on health. This article discusses how pot or natural marijuana has CBD that counteracts the harmful effects of THC which is not the case with synthetic marijuana. K2 & Spice are examples of synthetic weed that have come under scrutiny for having harmful effects, unlike natural pot. An article published in Psychological Medicine found that corpus callosum (largest collection of white matter that facilitates communication between two hemispheres) was negatively affected in those who used high THC and low CBD strains.

Marijuana May Affect Men’s Sexual Health

Although there is no strong evidence, several studies suggest that marijuana can have adverse effects on men’s sexual performance. A study of 8,656 Australians found that men who smoke weed are four times more likely to not reach sexual orgasm. Marian Pitts at La Trobe University in Melbourne found that those who smoked pot experience premature ejaculation three times the rate of non-smokers. Another article suggests that high amounts of THC can aggravate infertility in men and may even reduce sperm count.

These studies are not entirely conclusive. These studies do not assess the impact of other drugs and alcohol on male fertility in addition to the use of marijuana. Further studies need to be carried out to say anything with confidence. Also, see a study that found that smoking marijuana does not hinder sperm count. In fact, they found that men who had smoked weed at some point in their life had higher sperm count than those males that never did.

Fishing Fact from Fiction: Popular Marijuana Myths Busted

There are several myths about marijuana that people believe in blindly. This section will briefly bust a few myths around marijuana use.
Popular Myths About Marijuana

Does Marijuana Permanently Reduce IQ?

This is untrue! Researchers from Canada followed volunteers from birth to early adulthood and found that smoking marijuana has no long-term effect on intelligence. Heavy pot smokers did experience a mild dip in their IQ but recovered back to normal once they gave up heavy usage. Another study found similar results where authors credited falling IQ in those who were dependant on marijuana to socioeconomic factors and not weed. Hence, it can be said safely that smoking weed does NOT reduce your IQ.

Marijuana Makes You Really Hungry!

Everyone knows smoking weed makes you hungry. However, only lately have scientists figured out how. French researchers found in their study that THC can increase the sense of smell, which in turn can cause the user to feel hungrier.

Is Marijuana As Bad As A Cigarette?

Nope! Several studies have found that while tobacco smoking can increase your risk of developing lung cancer, marijuana does not have that effect. In fact, casual marijuana smoking may not even diminish lung capacity as opposed to tobacco smoking which does so prominently. Furthermore, cigarettes have far more side effects than marijuana does.  However, it is important for smokers to know that mixing tobacco in your joint is just as bad for your lungs as smoking cigarette.

Do All Marijuana Strains Ruin Memory?

This is simply untrue. Researchers have found in several studies that only those strains with high THC levels are bad for your memory. Strains that have a higher concentration of cannabidiols cause no impairment to short-term memory or cognitive function. Unfortunately, THC is the component that gets you high and cannabidiols counteract that high. This has caused an almost 80% spike in THC concentration in popular strains today.

Can Smoking Weed Cause Lung Cancer?

It is easy to believe that smoking pot can increase the risk of lung cancer. The latest study turned this notion upside-down. Donald Tashkin from UCLA who led this research reports that in a study of over 2000 people, they found no increase in the risk of developing lung cancer for marijuana smokers. Tobacco, on the other hand, is just as likely as it is claimed to increase the risk of cancer.

Occasional Marijuana Use Can Increase Lung Volume!

A study led by Mark Pletcher of the University of California found that pot smoking is associated with an increase in lung capacity. While this increase was very small, it is important to note that this was observed only for casual marijuana smokers. For heavy smokers, similar lung capacity falls as tobacco smoking was observed. Hence, marijuana is not as bad as a cigarette.

Excessive Marijuana Smoking Can Cause Memory Decline!

Yes, it is true. We have quoted several studies that have proven that heavy pot smoking can lead to cognitive decline and make it difficult to recall & learn new things.

Can Casual Marijuana Smoking Cause Memory Decline?

Nope! Contrary to conventional wisdom, marijuana might actually fight memory loss, says a new study. Researchers found that a small dose (equivalent to one puff a day) of THC can reduce inflammation in the brain and actually promote the growth of new cells in the brain. Human trials are needed to confirm this hypothesis.

Can You Overdose on Marijuana?

It is impossible to overdose on weed. The CDC itself has not once reported a death caused by marijuana. In fact, an article states that to consume a lethal dose of marijuana one would need to ingest 1500 pounds (680 KG) of marijuana in 15 minutes! That is physically impossible!

Weed is a good sleep aid!

Yes! Smoking marijuana can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. A study found that based on your frequency of use, cannabis can actually aid sleep in some people. However, the same study also found that once someone stops smoking pot, their sleep cycle worsens, and it becomes far more difficult to fall asleep.

Is Marijuana A Good Pain Killer?

Nope, marijuana is not a pain killer, it is a pain distracter. A new study finds that marijuana doesn’t reduce the pain, it just makes the same pain more bearable. So, smoking weed will not reduce the amount of pain you feel, rather it will just reduce the emotional response one has to pain.

Final Word: Is Marijuana Good or Bad?

Marijuana is a plant that has a long history. It has recently seen a wave of legalisation which begs the question: Is smoking weed good or bad?

We have seen that there are several benefits of smoking marijuana. It can be used to bring relief from chronic pain, alleviate depression and anxiety and treat symptoms of cancer and AIDS. However, much like anything else, over-consumption can have possible side effects. The truth is that no one has ever died because of smoking marijuana. It is impossible to overdose on marijuana and in that regard, it can be considered safe. However, a marijuana habit can result in long-term effects that impair cognitive function and hurt memory. This is clear beyond any doubt. However, more research is needed to explore the medical effects of marijuana.

Dhruv Wahal

Dhruv Wahal

Weaving together scientific curiosity and extensive research to create meaningful content that provides relevant and engaging information applicable to the readers lives. A full-time bookworm and a part-time writer driven by passion, motivation & dedication!

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