In the United States, it is legal to use marijuana for a variety of health problems in 30 states and counting, including for anxiety, nausea, chronic pain, and more. Smoking is the quickest way to get “high” and feel marijuana’s effects on the heart. Yet, cannabis smoke contains some of the same irritants, toxins, and carcinogens found in tobacco smoke, a known cause of heart disease, even cancer.
People have been growing and using marijuana for well over 6,000 years already. Despite this, marijuana’s effect on blood pressure and the cardiovascular system remains understudied. This is largely because, under federal law, cannabis remains an illegal Schedule II drug, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
Although that classification is outdated and incorrect, it places a variety of restrictions on scientists, making it very difficult for them to conduct any form of rigorous research on any medical marijuana benefits. The little we do know about marijuana’s effects on heart health are inconclusive, which means that more study is imperative for us to learn more with any certainty.
“As a result of the federal ban, everything we are told about what marijuana does or does not do should be viewed with a certain amount of caution,” says Dr. Kenneth Mukamal, associate professor of medicine at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “This holds equally true for the risks as well as the benefits.”
The medical benefits of marijuana are many and well documented, just not all of them yet. Some of the strongest evidence to support using cannabis medically is for managing chronic pain. Cannabinoids, the compounds in marijuana, interact with receptors in the nerve cells to ease discomfort and slow pain impulses. Science also shows them effective at quelling both vomiting and nausea.
Additionally, cannabis is a powerful appetite stimulant. The combination of all the medical benefits of marijuana makes it a therapeutic alternative for anyone dealing with the side effects of chemotherapy, as well as those in danger of losing too much weight for other reasons. However, in situations where putting on weight might exacerbate existing medical issues, such as diabetes, it may prove unhelpful.
What science knows for sure about the effects of marijuana on heart health is that those with established heart disease, particularly when under immense stress, develop chest pain much faster after smoking pot than they would otherwise. This is because of the complex effects that cannabinoids have on the cardiovascular system, such as raising heart rates, dilating blood vessels, and making the heart pump harder.
Data indicates that there is a several times greater risk of having a heart attack in the hour after smoking weed. While this poses little to no risk to most people, it should be something to consider for anyone with a history of heart problems. Although evidence is very weak, there are links to a higher risk of ischemic stroke or atrial fibrillation after smoking.
Issues with the Science
Questions remain, even after the few studies published their inconclusive results. Most evidence linking cannabis to stroke and heart attack comes from stories told by those who smoke it. This makes it difficult to separate the effects of marijuana on heart health from the dangers posed by the carcinogens and irritants found in the smoke.
Since we already know that cannabis smoke can inflame the airways, cause wheezing, and tighten the chest, those with lung diseases should refrain from smoking and consume it in another way, such as oils or capsules. Other people who should also consider ditching the joints for concentrates instead include anyone who may be vulnerable to developing addiction or schizophrenia.
Cannabis plants contain over 100 cannabinoids, which are the active compounds that bind to specific receptors in the body, most notably in the brain. The two most studied are the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and the non-psychoactive cannabidiol, or CBD. Science proves that cannabidiol effectively counteracts the effects of too much mind-altering THC.
The severity of weed’s psychoactive effect depends on how much THC is in a particular strain of plant, which parts of the plant are used, and the route of administration into the body. In some states, legalization has influenced the breeding of strains to increase their potency, with some seven times more potent than those commonly used just three decades ago ever were.
Naturally, these factors also affect heart health. The impact of inhaled or smoked pot occurs within minutes. You feel effects immediately and they can last up to several hours. Pot ingested in beverages or food takes longer to feel and lasts longer too, which is why anyone with a history of heart disease should quit smoking and consume it in other ways instead since all potential harm relates to smoking it.