Marijuana is not only the most commonly used illicit drug in the U.S., but it also happens to be a celebrated component of its popular culture. Movies like “Up In Smoke” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and music anthems like Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” and The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” pay homage to the substance that has a reported 1,200 slang terms —from the conventional (reefer, pot, Mary Jane) to the colorful (gas, kush, that sticky icky icky).
A bevy of celebrities has pledged allegiance to it, everyone from Willie Nelson to Rihanna. In recent years, marijuana has found legitimacy, thanks to its legalization in a growing number of states and utility as a palliative and pain reliever.
During the past quarter-century, 10 states have legalized recreational marijuana, while 22 states have legalized medical marijuana, according to this 2019 PBS NewsHour report.
Once demonized as the “devil’s lettuce,” marijuana has become about as mainstream as football and Facebook.
It does not mean that it is without negative effects. In high doses, marijuana can inflict psychosis and hallucinations, and it can also impact brain development in young people.
Another common effect is what it can do to male sexual function and testosterone levels. Some studies suggest that frequent marijuana use can lead to drastic reductions in testosterone, according to MD Magazine. And with that effect can come a host of associated conditions that come with low testosterone such as weight gain, infertility, and gynecomastia, a condition marked by swollen male breast tissue or “man boobs.”
In essence, marijuana is not as safe as you think. Read on to learn why.
History of Marijuana
There was a time in the early 20th century when marijuana was associated with deviancy, a thing that drives people to commit depraved acts. For example, the 1936 film Reefer Madness served as a cautionary tale for people who smoked marijuana. Every character in that film who smoked marijuana suffered devastating circumstances. One of them was committed to an asylum “for the rest of his natural life” and was deemed “criminally insane” from marijuana use.
Alarmist posters from the Reefer Madness era contained exaggerated messages about the effects of marijuana. A poster from 1942, for example, depicted a large burning cigarette with the word “marijuana” emblazoned across it, followed by these declarations: “The Smoke of Hell!” and “Devil’s Harvest.”
Before it was deemed “the weed with roots in hell,” the cannabis plant was the source of a variety of products since early civilization, including fiber. There is evidence that marijuana first gained use around 2727 BC in Central Asia before spreading to the Western hemisphere in the mid-16th century.
Mexican immigrants who fled the violence of the Mexican Revolution brought cannabis to the U.S. in the early 20th century. It was also brought to America’s shores by Brazilian and Caribbean sailors when they docked in New Orleans. The story goes that jazz musicians from the city got access to marijuana and started smoking it.
The historical use of the term “marijuana” has negative connotations. Prohibitionists named it that to appeal to xenophobic and racist sentiments about who used it and where it was from.
States banned marijuana use starting with Utah in 1915. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 placed cannabis under the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and made it illegal to own.
Though medical use of the drug is being legalized in an increasing number of states, the DEA still designates it as a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning that it has no accepted medical use in the U.S.
The Reality of Marijuana Today
Marijuana is more potent than ever. Back in the 1970s, the concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the principal psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — was no more than 2 percent. These days, it is not uncommon for THC levels in marijuana to hover around 13 percent.
A newer wave of cannabis products that look like honey or butter, which are called marijuana concentrates, have extremely high THC levels, anywhere between 40 percent to 80 percent, sometimes higher. They are often included in food and beverages or are smoked through an oil or water pipe. These super potent concentrates yield extremely intense psychological and physical effects including hallucinations, paranoia, anxiety, and panic attacks. They are powerful enough to spike heart rates and blood pressure while producing withdrawal effects and addiction.
Use of these products has also led to increased hospitalizations.
While “regular” marijuana is not nearly as dangerous, in high enough doses it can negatively impact the brain and body, including fertility and testosterone levels.
How Marijuana Impacts the Brain and Body
When marijuana is smoked, eaten, or consumed in a liquid, THC enters the brain and binds to the cannabinoid receptors. This action leads to an overproduction of cannabinoids that flood numerous parts of the brain that govern motivation and reward, unconscious muscle movement, short-term memory and learning, complex thinking and feeling, and eating habits. It also impacts the spinal cord, blocking pain signals and generating a numbing effect.
While the substance is not known to cause physical dependence, it has been known to be psychologically addictive. For example, a smoker may feel the need to take larger hits than a previous occasion to experience the same effect.
How Marijuana Impacts Testosterone and Sexual Function
Long-term marijuana can adversely affect testosterone levels in men and hinder sexual and reproductive function. Cannabis has been found to increase the likelihood of impotence, according to Verywell Mind.
A man can experience difficulty getting and maintaining an erection due to diminished levels of testosterone. They may also experience premature or delayed ejaculation because of how marijuana inhibits the central nervous system (CNS).
Plus, men who smoke it regularly are twice as likely as nonsmokers to have sperm that was abnormal in shape and size. According to one study, males who smoked marijuana at least once a week experienced a reduced sperm count.
Women who smoke marijuana can be impacted as well. A journal article revealed a connection between the use of the substance and abnormalities in the ovaries.
Verywell Mind substantiates the negative impact marijuana has on female reproduction:
Women who smoke marijuana have an increased risk of infertility due to abnormal ovulation, even for those women who have used low levels of marijuana within a year of trying to get pregnant.
Cannabis use also increases the risk of miscarriage and is known to cross the placenta, although the effects of marijuana exposure in the womb are not as well documented as the effects of alcohol and some other drugs
The Other Effects of Marijuana
In addition to impairing sexual function, there are harmful short-term and high-dose side effects.
The short-term effects of marijuana use include:
- Altered perception of time
- Altered sensory perception (colors, sounds, etc.)
- Impaired motor skills
- Dry mouth
- Red, glassy eyes
- Impaired motor skills
- Impaired memory and other cognitive processes
- Elevated heart rate
When taken in high doses, marijuana can produce these side effects:
- Panic attacks
Dangerous Long-Term Side Effects
Long-term marijuana use can bring on disastrous side effects, some of which can be life-threatening or result in permanent damage. They include:
- Increased risk of stroke or heart attack, especially if the user has a pre-existing heart condition
- Potentially permanent memory impairments
- A higher risk of developing lung infections
- Respiratory problems, including chronic coughing
- Psychological dependence
How Professional Addiction Treatment Can Help You
A professional treatment program can help you by removing marijuana from your body through medical detoxification.
Those therapies are often employed in marijuana addiction treatment. They include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Motivational interviewing
- Contingency management