In recent years, more states have legalized medical marijuana, and some have even legalized marijuana for recreational use. With these legal changes, the conversation around the safety of marijuana has also changed. Yet despite this evolution in the way we view it, there are still misconceptions about its use, especially when it comes to risks.
Regardless of legalization, the fact remains that marijuana is a drug that has psychoactive effects on the user. With any psychoactive drug (anything that alters your state of mind), there is a possibility of negative effects and even overdose.
Marijuana comes from the plant Cannabis sativa, which produces the chemical delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). When marijuana is smoked or consumed through food, the chemical THC is carried through the bloodstream to the brain, and this is what causes an intoxicating “high” feeling. For many people, this is felt as a sense of happiness or calm, but it is also common for someone to have the opposite reaction, experiencing anxiety, fear, or panic.
Can You Overdose on Marijuana?
Experiencing this negative reaction to marijuana can happen to anyone, but there is a greater chance of it happening when someone uses too much or a higher potency. There is also a risk of overdose that involves more serious complications. Serious overdose symptoms are unpredictable, and there have been conflicting cases, where some users have suffered from one symptom while others have had the opposite effect. For example, some cases of overdose have had heart arrhythmias, while others have had sudden cardiac arrest. Similarly, there have been cases of individuals experiencing seizures, while others have had fewer seizures with marijuana use.
Some of the most common cases of THC toxicity (marijuana overdose) have included psychosis or paranoia, uncontrollable vomiting, and heart arrhythmias. When used alone, the likelihood of dying from a marijuana overdose is low, but these mental and physical reactions can still have serious effects on your health.
The Broader Risks of Marijuana
Besides the potential for negative effects or overdose from using marijuana on its own, the broader picture of how marijuana affects us is more complicated, and this is often where the danger lies.
One concern today is that research has shown newer crops of marijuana to have higher levels of THC than they did in the past. THC is the primary chemical responsible for marijuana’s psychoactive effects, and higher THC may increase the risk of negative effects and overdose. At the same time, legalization of marijuana has contributed to an increased popularity of edibles, or food products that deliver marijuana. Edibles have a delayed effect, which may lead unsuspecting users to consume higher quantities than they intend. When combined with potentially higher levels of THC, this risk becomes even more problematic.
There are also synthetic versions of marijuana on the market today that pose an increased risk to users. These synthetic drugs are often portrayed as a safer alternative to marijuana, but the reality is that they are much more dangerous and have been linked to serious adverse reactions, including seizures, psychosis, and death.
Risk of Accidental Injury
Regardless of other factors, one of the biggest health risks from marijuana use is the potential for injury from accidents. The intoxicating effects of marijuana include impaired judgment, lack of coordination, and delayed reaction time. These effects have a drastic impact on your ability to perform everyday activities, especially driving. Studies have shown a strong link between marijuana use and motor vehicle crashes, including those that have fatalities.
Mental Health and Addiction
We know that even occasional marijuana use has the potential for immediate adverse reactions. While these reactions wear off once the drug is out of your system, the greater risk is what happens with repeated use and the possibility of addiction. Of course, not everyone who uses marijuana will become addicted, but it is a risk that carries harmful long-term effects.
Research has shown that having a severe dependence on marijuana is associated with a lowered release of dopamine in your brain. In one study, brain scans showed lower dopamine in the part of the brain that controls memory, impulsiveness, and attention. This means that heavy marijuana users may have a harder time learning new skills and retaining memory.
Dopamine is also tied to the brain’s ability to associate rewards with positive experiences. This can lead to a suppressed desire to engage with life on a daily basis, and lack of motivation to set and work toward goals. Over the long term, this can have a major impact on relationships, career prospects, and your general health and well-being.
Besides the risk of becoming dependent on marijuana, there is also the concern about addiction to other drugs. Some people talk about marijuana as a “gateway drug” that may lead someone to end up using, and become dependent on, riskier drugs or alcohol. There is no definitive answer as to whether marijuana is a gateway drug, but there is a concern that the suppressed dopamine from heavy marijuana use may impact someone’s decision to use other drugs. This is because someone who is unable to get that reward signal from everyday life may be at a greater risk of seeking other drugs to compensate.
Another thing to consider is the connection between drug use, the risk of addiction, and mental illness. Having both addiction and mental illness is called dual diagnosis, or a co-occurring disorder. Of course, not everyone who uses drugs becomes addicted or has mental illness, but if you do have a mental disorder, it increases your susceptibility to addiction. At the same time, long-term drug use can also make symptoms of mental illness worse. It’s not uncommon for someone who has untreated mental health concerns to use drugs in an attempt to manage symptoms. The reality, though, is that doing so can make mental health worse and could even increase the likelihood of addiction. Becoming dependent on any substance, whether marijuana, alcohol, or other drugs, has the potential to impact your life in negative ways. While you aren’t likely to die from a marijuana overdose, there are real risks of harmful effects on your physical and mental health. If you or someone you know is struggling with dependence on any substance, it’s important to get the right help in a caring and supportive environment.