In the 1990s, cannabis is in the news again as research reveals an upturn in
use and governments struggle to develop a policy response that weighs the
potential harm of the drug against the potential harm of drug policy itself.
Cannabis--sold as marijuana, hashish and hash oil--is the most frequently used
illicit drug in Canada. Roughly one in four Canadian adults report having used
cannabis at some time in their lives. And use has been on the rise among young
people. For example, a 1997 Addiction Research Foundation (ARF) survey found
that 25 percent of Ontario junior high and high school students used cannabis
in the previous year, up from 13 percent in 1993.
One feature of the renewed interest in cannabis is the frequency with which
questions on the subject have been put to political candidates. Their
responses--often including admissions of cannabis use--are typically
lighthearted, but the humor is perhaps lost on the hundreds of thousands of
Canadians with criminal records for cannabis possession.
In October, 1995, Canada's House of Commons passedThe Controlled Drugs and
Substances Act, a law criticized for its continuing harsh approach to cannabis
To deal with ongoing concerns about cannabis policy, the basic questions that
must be addressed remain the same:
What do we know about the health risks associated with cannabis
What is the most effective and least costly way to minimize these
What is the most effective way to minimize potential harms resulting
from our drug policy response?
Some health consequences of cannabis are clearly known, while
others--such as the effects of chronic exposure--are less obvious..
There is no doubt that heavy cannabis use has negative health
consequences. (For detailed documentation of research and
reference material, please see Hall et al, 1994, and WHO, in
preparation). The most important effects are:
Respiratory damage: Marijuana smoke contains higher concentrations of
some of the constituents of tar than tobacco smoke. As well, it is hotter when
it contacts the lungs and is typically inhaled more deeply and held in the
lungs longer than tobacco smoke.
Research has shown a link between chronic heavy marijuana use and
damage to the respiratory system similar to that caused by tobacco..
Long-term marijuana smoking is associated with changes--such as
injury to the major bronchi--that leave the lungs open to injury and
infection. Frequent, heavy use has been linked with bronchitis
(Bloom et al., 1987; Tashkin et al., 1988.) There is no established link
between marijuana smoking and lung cancer. But case reports of
some cancers in young adults with a history of cannabis use are of
concern. (Polen et al., 1993).
These adverse effects are, of course, related to smoking the drug, and
don't occur when cannabis is eaten.
Physical co-ordination: Cannabis impairs co-ordination. This brings
with it the risk of injury and death through impaired driving or accidents such
North American studies of blood samples from drivers involved in
motor vehicle crashes have consistently found that positive results
for THC (the mood-altering ingredient in cannabis) are second only to
positive results for alcohol. However, blood levels of THC do not
demonstrate that a driver was intoxicated at the time of the accident..
In addition, many drivers with cannabis in their blood are also
intoxicated with alcohol.
Experimental studies of driving that show that cannabis use can
impair braking time, attention to traffic signals and other driving
behaviors . The studies found that subjects appear to realize that
they are impaired, and compensate where they can. However, such
compensation is not possible when unexpected events occur, or if the
task requires continued attention.
Pregnancy and childhood development: Cannabis use by women who are
pregnant may affect the fetus. As with tobacco smoking, risks such as low
birth weight and premature delivery increase with use.
The longer-term effects on children whose mothers smoked cannabis
while pregnant appear to be subtle. Recent research suggests that
exposure to cannabis in the womb can affect the mental development
of the child in later years. By age four, for example, offspring of
women who used cannabis regularly showed reduced verbal ability
and memory. By school age, decreased attentiveness and increased
impulsiveness were also found in children whose mothers used
cannabis heavily (Day et al, 1994; Fried, 1995).
Memory and thinking: The effects of cannabis on memory appear to be
variable, and may depend on the test that is used. Overall, the effects seem
to be modest. However, it's not yet known whether chronic use would produce
serious impairments of memory, particularly is such use occurs during
development. Several years ago, studies of adult cannabis users suggested that
the drug has little effect on cognitive function. More recent research has
demonstrated that long-term use produces deficits in the ability to organize
and integrate complex information (Solowij et al., 1995).
Psychiatric effects: Cannabis use has been linked to a number of
psychiatric effects. The most significant is called cannabis dependence
syndrome. A person with this condition will continue to use the drug despite
adverse effects on physical, social and emotional health (Anthony and Helzer,
1991). Impairment of the person's behavioral control, combined with effects on
thinking and motivation, can adversely affect a person's work or studies. The
risk of dependence increases with use. It has been reported that one-third to
one-half of those who use cannabis daily for long periods may become
There is clearly a link between cannabis use and schizophrenia, but it
is not yet known whether cannabis use triggers schizophrenia, or
whether schizophrenia may lead to increased cannabis use
(Andreasson et al., 1987; Andreasson et al., 1989). Health
professionals have identified a condition of "cannabis psychosis"
following heavy use of the drug (Chaundry et al., 1991; Thomas,
1993). The condition disappears within days of abstinence..
However, this disorder has not been well defined, and it is not clear
that it differs from the effects of high doses of the drug.
Reference has also been made to an "amotivational syndrome"
resulting from extensive cannabis use. While heavy use of cannabis
may interfere with motivational, the existence of a syndrome with
identifiable symptoms outlasting drug use and withdrawal has not
been demonstrated. (This question may have been clouded by
studies of effects of cannabis use on educational performance in
adolescents, in which individuals most likely to use the drug may
have lower motivation to succeed academically.)
Hormone, immune and heart function: Research has shown that cannabis
can also alter hormone production, and affect both the immune system and heart
function. The implications of these findings for human health are unclear at
The link between cannabis and the use of other drugs is also of
concern. In particular, people have questioned whether cannabis
acts as a "gateway drug" to heroin, cocaine or other drug use.
There is a statistical link between the use of cannabis and other
drugs. Cannabis users are more likely to use tobacco and alcohol, for
example. They are also more likely to try other illicit drugs than
those who have never used cannabis. As well, the earlier a person
uses cannabis and the more he or she consumes, the greater the
likelihood that the person will use other illicit drugs.
The reason for this link is less clear. It's likely, however, that the use
of cannabis does not in itself lead to the use of other illicit drugs. For
example, roughly one in four Canadians has used cannabis, yet only
four percent have ever used crack or cocaine. Similarly, just two
percent have ever used amphetamines and about half of one percent
have ever used heroin (Health Canada, 1995).
A more likely explanation is the cannabis use may be one of many
social and cultural factors--including family relationships, mental
health, peer influences, social attitudes and beliefs--associated with a
higher likelihood of the use other substances as well. In other words,
the same factors that contribute to cannabis use may lead a smaller
number of individuals to go on to other illicit drugs. This may also
explain the statistical link between cannabis use and lower academic
and professional achievement and other personal and social
Cannabis and other street drugs are also linked by the very fact that
they are illegal--a dealer who sells cannabis may also offer other
Many of the negative effects of cannabis are associated with long
term heavy use. As mentioned earlier, however, most Canadians
who use cannabis do so sporadically and in small amounts. Certainly,
the typical pattern of cannabis use is much different from that of
cigarette smoking. For most marijuana users, damage to the lungs is
therefore likely to be limited.
Given the current patterns use, probably the most important health
effects of cannabis use are:
injury or death resulting from intoxication--for example, from a traffic crash
respiratory disorders and ailments linked to heavy use
dependence on cannabis, arising in a small proportion of users.
By any accounting, the impact of health problem linked to cannabis is
much less than that resulting from alcohol or tobacco use. Survey
data from the US., for example, show that dependence on nicotine
among smokers is several times more prevalent than cannabis
dependence among marijuana users (Kandel et al., 1997). Moreover,
the legal drugs tobacco and alcohol account for the bulk of the
economic costs of substance use. For example, a recent Ontario study
found that annual health care costs resulting from cannabis use were
small ($8 million) when compared to those for tobacco ($1.07 billion )
and alcohol ($442 million). (Xie et al., 1996; Unpublished analysis of
economic cost date, ARF, 1997)