April 20 is upon us, and if you have acquaintances who mark “4/20” on their calendars each year in anticipation of “Weed Day,” you’ve heard the mantra: “Marijuana is harmless.”
It’s a belief that is growing legs. With more and more states legalizing pot for medicinal and even recreational use, marijuana use has never been more acceptable.
But before lighting up, two segments of the population in particular should pay heed to new research about the drug’s effects on the body. If you’re pregnant or suffer from heart disease, marijuana is indeed a risky choice.
What Happens If You Use Marijuana During Pregnancy?
It’s no secret that smoking tobacco cigarettes during pregnancy poses serious health risks to both mother and child. But there seems to be the belief among many mothers-to-be that smoking or otherwise consuming marijuana has little to no effect on their developing infants. In fact, according to a new federal report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, marijuana use by pregnant women in the United States is on a major upswing, having shot up 62% between 2002 and 2014. Many women say it helps relieve the typical ailments that come with pregnancy like morning sickness, back pain and anxiety.
“Although the evidence for the effects of marijuana on human prenatal development is limited at this point, research does suggest that there is cause for concern,” said Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, writing in an editorial that accompanied the study. “A recent review and meta-analysis found that infants of women who used marijuana during pregnancy were more likely to be anemic, have lower birth weight, and require placement in neonatal intensive care than infants of mothers who did not use marijuana. Studies have also shown links between prenatal marijuana exposure and impaired higher-order executive functions such as impulse control, visual memory, and attention during the school years.”
Marijuana and Pregnancy: Brain Changes in Children
While research about the effects of marijuana on babies in utero is incomplete, a landmark study out of the University of Pittsburgh found that 10-year-olds born to mothers who had smoked marijuana daily showed significantly increased hyperactivity and impulsivity and were less able to pay attention than children of mothers who hadn’t used the drug. “These findings indicate that prenatal marijuana exposure has a significant effect on school-age intellectual development,” the authors wrote.
Those findings were buttressed by a Netherlands study that found children whose mothers used marijuana had abnormal brain development. The results showed that children ages 6 to 8 who had been exposed to cannabis in utero had thicker frontal cortices compared to the non-exposed and even tobacco-exposed children, suggesting that cannabis has different effects on brain development than tobacco.
Animal studies have produced similar results. Recent research published in the journal Psychopharmacology found that even low doses of cannabis in pregnant rats produced pups with learning and memory difficulties.
“Of course it is alarming if any pregnant woman is using any drugs, said Lloyd Gordon, MD, FASAM, medical director of The Ranch Mississippi drug rehab facility. “The most recent study on marijuana in adolescents shows cognitive development problems in all who smoke cannabis prior to 17 years old so it would seem to be obviously deleterious to an unborn fetus.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted an easy-to-read chart warning about the dangers of cannabis use during pregnancy, noting that edible marijuana products like brownies and cookies are also considered harmful to the developing fetus.
The message is clear, experts say. Don’t use pot when you’re pregnant. Any substance that doesn’t directly benefit mother or fetus should be avoided.
Does Smoking Marijuana Cause Heart Problems?
People with a history of heart disease, take notice: A study has found that smoking marijuana can increase the odds of both stroke and heart failure.
After analyzing 20 million medical records of hospital patients between the ages of 18 and 55, scientists at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia discovered that smoking marijuana increased the patients’ risk for stroke by 26% and heart failure by 10%.
Heart specialist Dr. Shazia Alam, who directs stroke services at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, New York, told CBS that she’s seeing an uptick in the number of patients of all ages with a history of marijuana use.
“We have been seeing increased strokes in the younger population, therefore routinely inquiring about marijuana use may become an integral part in stroke prevention,” Alam said.
What’s more, additional research on marijuana’s effects on the heart found that use of the drug may double the risk of stress cardiomyopathy, a frightening, temporary weakening of the heart muscle that mimics the symptoms of a heart attack. Often referred to as “broken heart syndrome,” stress cardiomyopathy occurs most often in older women after the death of a loved one or in response to fear, extreme anger or surprise. However, the marijuana users affected by the condition are typically young men.
Taken together, the data indicate there is something about cannabis that affects the human heart.
The study’s lead author warns cannabis users this way:
“If you are using marijuana and develop symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath, you should be evaluated by a healthcare provider to make sure you aren’t having stress cardiomyopathy or another heart problem,” said Amitoi Singh, MD, chief cardiology fellow at St. Luke’s University Health Network.
So at a time when half the country has legalized medicinal marijuana and a growing number of states seem poised to accept pot for recreational use, the most important fact researchers know about marijuana is how much they still don’t know about it. Science needs to keep pace if people are to make informed decisions about the effects of cannabis use, because if we have learned nothing else from tobacco and alcohol, opioids and fried foods, “legal” doesn’t always mean “safe.”