Anyone who ever watched marijuana scare movies like Reefer Madness might, understandably, ignore anything the establishment says to disparage the "evil weed." But in fact, all forms of burning and inhaling seem to incur health problems -- whether cigarette smoking, burning gas in an automobile, lighting wood fires, or burning incense -- so it shouldn't be that big a surprise that smoking marijuana might not be an exception. I know there are people who get upset when I say anything bad about marijuana. I too am a child of the 60's. I absolutely understand. Nevertheless, it seems inescapable that anything that involves burning and then inhaling is going to have health issues. It would not make sense for marijuana to be the lone exception -- no matter how much fun it may be to smoke.
And so it is that a new study just came out in the journal Cancer reporting that smoking marijuana leads to a 70 percent increased risk of developing an aggressive form of testicular cancer. (Okay, girls, you can rest easy...for a moment.) Testicular cancer is the most common form of the disease in males between the ages of 15-34, with 8000 new cases diagnosed annually in the United States.
The study looked at data on 369 men between the ages of 18-44 who had been diagnosed with testicular cancer and compared their marijuana intake with that of 979 cancer-free men. After controlling for family history and lifestyle factors including tobacco and alcohol use, the researchers found that those subjects who reported smoking marijuana at least once a week, or had been smoking since early adolescence, more than doubled their risk. The risk went up to 70 percent if the subject currently smoked. Plus, the type of testicular cancer associated with pot smoking was the most aggressive form of the disease, nonseminoma. No association was found between smoking marijuana and a more common form of testicular cancer -- seminoma.
While researchers concede that the data may be skewed as it relies on self-reporting and the typical marijuana aficionado hardly wants to advertise his habit to authority figures, they also note that the data made clear the association between smoking and just one particular type of testicular cancer. According to study director Dr. Janet R. Daling of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, the fact that the elevated risk applied to only one form of the disease rather than to the disease in general, "...certainly makes us feel better that the associations are true associations."
Apparently, other research indicates that marijuana impacts male reproductive function in general and can lower sperm count and quality. The male testes, along with the brain, heart, uterus, and spleen, carry specific receptors for THC, which is the main psychoactive element in marijuana. This could make cells in these organs particularly vulnerable to mutations. Can you say "bummer"?
While the results are preliminary and need to be duplicated in follow-up studies, they do raise concerns. Meanwhile, other studies indicate that smoking may increase the risk for other types of cancers. For instance, a New Zealand study last month found that smoking one joint had the equivalent impact of smoking 20 cigarettes in terms of lung cancer risk. According to chief researcher Richard Beasley, subjects who smoked a joint a day for 10 years had a 5.7 times higher lung cancer risk than nonsmokers even after adjusting for tobacco use.
Then again, (and just to confuse the issue) a study last year out of Harvard University found just the opposite -- that marijuana can actually cut lung cancer tumor growth by 50 percent. In that study, THC was the "good guy," inhibiting tumor growth in aggressive forms of lung cancer that aren't responsive to chemotherapy. But in that study, the subjects (mice) didn't smoke the weed: it was delivered intravenously. Could it be that the ill effects are a byproduct of burning, and not of the substance itself -- at least in the case of respiratory diseases? (Those brownies are looking better all the time!)
It certainly seems possible given that yet another study, this one published in the journal Respirology, found that marijuana smokers develop a condition known as bullous lung disease -- where the lungs become blocked and eventually destroyed -- 20 years faster than their tobacco-smoking peers. Lead author Dr. Matthew Naughton says, "Marijuana is inhaled as extremely hot fumes to the peak inspiration and held for as long as possible before slow exhalation. This predisposes to greater damage to the lungs and makes marijuana smokers more prone to bullous disease as compared to cigarette smokers."
Obviously, there are arguments on both sides of the marijuana/health issue. For instance, yet another pro-pot study found that a component of marijuana called CBD may help to halt the spread of breast cancer. And as is widely known, THC has been shown to be extremely useful in reducing the side effects of chemotherapy and in helping patients to regain appetite. Smoking pot also can reduce the impact of glaucoma.
Bottom line? Since at least some of the studies have shown negative health consequences from smoking marijuana, it would be wise to be cautious. While some research touts the positive effects of pot, in most of those studies the marijuana was delivered either through injection or ingestion -- not from smoking it. If you must smoke, at least go organic; and if you want the fun without the fumes, perfect your baking skills. Another advantage is that you're much less likely to have embarrassing pictures taken of you using a bong at parties.