New information about the health risks of marijuana may point to a connection between a weakened immune system and higher risks of diseases like cancer. The research may also suggest that medicinal uses of marijuana, such as for treating chronic pain, could actually trigger a reaction that may prevent the body from responding fully to cancer treatments.
Published in the European Journal of Immunology, a team of researchers from across the globe suggests that marijuana weakens a person’s immunity for diseases and infections. The reaction is believed to be caused by a little-known variety of immune cell that actually suppresses the body’s ability to respond to cancer therapy. This type of cell — called myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSC) — becomes activated when exposed to certain compounds found within marijuana.
Researchers said that when marijuana is used, cannabinoid receptors seem to cause a chain reaction that engages large numbers of MDSCs, resulting in a suppressed immune system and a reduced ability to fight off cancer.
Marijuana remains the most widely abused U.S. drug. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that in 2008, about 6% of people at age 12 or older said they have experimented with marijuana during the past 30 days.
According to the 2008 Monitoring the Future study, conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 10% of students in the eighth grade, nearly 24% of students in the tenth grade and more than 32% of students who were in the twelfth grade had used marijuana at least one time in the year preceding the survey.
Marijuana causes distorted thought patterns, perceptions and memory, as well as difficulty concentrating and responding to problems. Users may also have a dry mouth, faster heart rate and problems with balance. When under the influence of marijuana, users may be unable to safely drive and can experience hallucinations. While the immediate effects of marijuana can pass within a few hours, the drug is stored in tissues including the lungs or liver and will be detectable in urine for several days to several weeks.
Experts have long warned that marijuana is linked to long-term health problems and contributes to a higher risk for cancer, but additional dangers exist for teens. Aside from altering school performance and leading to poor decision-making abilities, teen marijuana users are believed more likely to experiment with other illegal drugs, especially cocaine.
The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes remains under intense debate across the globe. In the U.S., marijuana is listed as a Schedule I drug due to high likelihood for abuse and a lack of formally recognized medicinal benefit, yet states vary on its medicinal use.
Study researchers also said that the results are spawning more overall research into the functions of cannabinoids found in marijuana, not only to encourage people to avoid the drug but to better understand the exact effects of marijuana on the body.