What effects does cannabis have on health?

Youth and young adults (up to 25 years of age) are considered a high-risk group when it comes to cannabis use. Cannabis use can cause unpleasant, unwanted, or negative effects on mental and physical health, with both short and or long-term use.

Mental Health

Youth and young adults under the age of 25 who use cannabis are at higher risk of harmful effects on brain development and function, which may become permanent. The brain continues to develop until the age of 25, forming the pathways the brain uses to communicate. Introducing chemical substances, such as those found in cannabis, can impact the development of these important pathways.

Some of the most important and impactful outcomes of this is on the brain’s ability to store and retrieve memories, focus and concentrate on tasks, decision-making, and learning. These effects can last days, even after the “high” has worn off.

A large concern among youth is the thought around cannabis being a coping method for stress and anxiety. Youth will self-medicate with cannabis (using the recreational form of the drug, not the medicinal form), to help with any stress or anxiety they may experience. However, using cannabis is a risk factor for the development of mental health issues including anxiety, depression, and even psychosis. Risk is higher in those who have a family history of mental health illness, have had a mental health illness previously, or who use cannabis regularly.

The mental health concerns can be both short and long-term, including:

Short-term use can lead to:

  • confusion and difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty focusing and paying attention
  • difficulty remembering basic facts
  • anxiety, fear, or panic
  • psychotic episodes of paranoia, delusions, or hallucinations

Long-term use can lead to:

  • mental illness (depression or anxiety, schizophrenia or other psychosis, behavioural issues)
  • difficulties with relationships at home, school or work
  • harms to memory and concentration
  • lowering of intelligence or IQ
  • negative effects on your ability to think and make decisions

Physical health

Much like tobacco smoke, cannabis smoke is an irritant to the lungs and throat. Cannabis contains many chemicals and toxins, which can cause damage to the organs. Namely, inflammation of the airway and lungs, chronic lung infections, and an impaired immune system which makes the user more prone to illness. Behaviours like smoking frequently, or holding smoke in the lungs, increases the risk of more serious problems and long-term effects.

Quickly after inhaling cannabis smoke, the heart speeds up and blood vessels expand. The increase in heart rate can increase the risk of a heart attack, even in healthy people and more so in people with heart conditions.

Research is still being done on long-term chronic diseases, like lung cancer, and cannabis. With many of the same chemicals and carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) as tobacco, it is thought cannabis can lead to similar outcomes. However, research is new is and still ongoing to study these health issues.

The physical health concerns can be both short and long-term, including:

Short-term use can lead to:

  • poor co-ordination and slow reaction time
  • increased risk of injury (e.g., motor vehicle collision, falls)
  • sleepiness, fatigue
  • breathing problems (e.g., chronic coughing, phelgm build-up, frequent lung illness like bronchitis)
  • delayed reaction time (a concern for people who use and choose to drive or operate machinery)
  • increased risk of heart attack
  • dizziness, fainting from a drop in blood pressure
  • nausea and vomiting

Long-term use can lead to:

  • lung and respiratory problems
  • slow reactions and poor co-ordination
  • chronic health problems (e.g., heart disease, lung cancer) *
  • addiction

*more study is needed to find conclusive information on these outcomes.