Smoking Marijuana

Separating fact from fiction on this controversial drug

By K. Alexander, JD
Published: Summer 2004
Marijuana, pot, weed - call it what you will. There are so many negative stories circulating about how smoking this drug can hurt you that it is easy to dismiss all of them as nonsense. Let’s see . . . have you heard these?

Marijuana leads to hard drug use
Marijuana is addictive
Marijuana makes you stupid

What is fact and what is fiction? Let’s start with the fiction:

Marijuana is a gateway to harder drugs. While it’s true that some marijuana smokers move on to harder drugs, this association has not been shown to be a cause in drug progression. Alcohol has a stronger connection. In fact, most heavy drug users began their habits with alcohol and nicotine.

Marijuana is addictive. Only 9 percent of marijuana smokers in studies were clinically addicted. That compares with 32 percent for tobacco users, 15 percent for alcohol users, and 17 percent for cocaine users.

Marijuana causes brain damage and makes you apathetic. Remember Sean Penn’s character Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High? That’s the image of a typical stoner. But is it accurate? Initial studies indicated that smoking marijuana damaged the part of the brain where memories are formed. Later studies, using more sophisticated testing equipment, were unable to replicate those findings. Laziness seems to depend on the person—some will slip into apathy, some won’t.

So, it sounds as though you could be off the hook, doesn’t it? Not so fast. When you look at the research on this drug, there are many dangerous risks associated with marijuana use. Here are some facts you should consider:

Smoking marijuana increases your risk of disease. You are at much higher risk of infertility and illness in general, particularly respiratory diseases. THC, an active ingredient in marijuana, lowers immune resistance to bacterial and viral infections. As an athlete, you know that’s the last thing you need. Certainly, the tar in marijuana cigarettes, which are unfiltered, is four times the level of tar in tobacco cigarettes and is a key factor in lung cancer. Sure, lung cancer risk seems a long way down the road. But how will it help your game to have lungs that just aren’t up to the challenge or to be sidelined by a bad case of the flu just when your team needs you most? Why throw away all your hard training by sabotaging yourself with marijuana? And there is some evidence that the effect on the immune system sets you up for cancers.

Marijuana increases your risk of accidents due to impaired judgment. The biggest risk here is automobile accidents. In 1998, 77,000 people were admitted to emergency rooms as a result of accidents involving marijuana use. But you might not even know you are dangerous. For example, a study involving pilots found that the day after they had smoked marijuana—when all reported they felt no effects whatsoever from the previous day’s single marijuana cigarette—showed impaired judgment in flight simulator tests. (Judgement is espically at risk when pot is tainted with hallucination PCP or other substances.)

So, what’s the bottom line? Marijuana makes you sick. Marijuana makes you do stupid and dangerous things that could ruin your life. And, just so we don’t forget, marijuana is illegal. These truths set you up, and those around you, for a world of hurt. A true “11” will pass on the pot.

(Information for this article came from a 1999 Institute of Medicine report funded by the National Academy of Sciences.)