The recent decriminalization of recreational marijuana use in Colorado and Washington State has reignited the debate about marijuana’s health effects and whether or not it is the kind of drug that might ever require addiction rehab. Long considered a (relatively) harmless alternative to alcohol or “harder” drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, the nation’s shifting perception of marijuana is troubling to some experts who say that marijuana’s health risks are distorted. And, though the marijuana laws enacted in both Colorado and Washington stipulate that recreational use is limited to individuals over the age of 21, the debate is largely focused on how marijuana use might affect our nation’s youth.

This is Not your Parents’ Marijuana

Proponents of marijuana’s legalization often argue that marijuana use is harmless, citing that they smoked and “turned out just fine.” However, such an argument discounts a number of factors, the most important of which is that this is not your parents’ marijuana. Health effects today are exacerbated by the reality that marijuana is more potent now than it was 20 years ago, let alone during the 1960s, when marijuana use played a prominent role in the decade’s cultural movement.

Marijuana, the active ingredient of which is THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), affects the brain by activating the brain’s cannabinoid receptors of which high concentrations are found in the brain’s pleasure, memory, and concentration centers. Knowing this, it is irresponsible to compare yesterday’s marijuana to today’s in that the “mean concentration of THC, the psychoactive ingredient, in confiscated cannabis more than doubled between 1993 and 2008,” pointing to a much more potent effect on the brain than ever before.

Side Effects of Using Marijuana

The increased concentrations of THC in today’s marijuana translate to a host of health risks, particularly in users under Washington’s and Colorado’s now-legal recreational age of 21. Firstly, let’s address the claim that marijuana is not addictive. Though the rate of marijuana dependency is not as high as it is in other drugs, “about nine percent of people who use marijuana become dependent on it.” Taken alone, this number may not seem high, but the “number increases to about 1 in 6 among those who start using it at a young age, and to 25% to 50% among daily users,” prompting concern for the effects of the shifting marijuana paradigm as it relates to younger individuals.

Aside from marijuana’s addictive nature, marijuana, though not smoked as often as cigarettes, contains many of the same carcinogens as tobacco, including tar. Marijuana has also been linked — in teens, particularly – to decreased brain function. Recent studies show “that people who started smoking marijuana as teenagers and used it heavily for decades lost IQ points over time.”

The debate will surely rage for some time as the movement toward the decriminalization of marijuana continues, but we hope that the myth of its harmlessness will continue to be dispelled. It simply does not fit its “harmless vice” moniker.