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The History of Cannabis and The Risks of Self-Medicating

Thanks to new research and a renewed interest in the medicinal properties of cannabis, THC, and CBD are now undergoing a major reputation rehabilitation.

For years, cannabis, hemp, and their byproducts experienced intense scrutiny and were subject to all kinds of legal and economic regulation. In the United States, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 became the nation’s first federal law to criminalize the possession, sale, and transfer of marijuana, except for industrial use. The restrictions placed on cannabis and hemp were further expanded in 1970, thanks to President Nixon’s Controlled Substance Act and the subsequent Reagan-era ‘War on Drugs.’

Global Cannabis Tolerance and Decriminalization

Despite various reports recommending milder penalties and a more tolerant attitude towards cannabis, it remained a criminalized substance in the U.S. for decades. In 1996, California legalized medical cannabis for certain conditions; these days, more than half of the states allow the limited use of cannabis for specific medical purposes, and 11 states have legalized recreational cannabis use.

Globally, there are pockets of cannabis tolerance and even legalization—most commonly in North and South America, Europe, and Oceania. Despite the cannabis plant being native to Central Asia, the Asian continent lags behind its western and southern counterparts.

A handful of Asian countries are in the process of legalizing medical cannabis, with Thailand, South Korea, and Japan leading the charge. Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia are not far behind and are currently investigating the viability of medical legalization.

Even in India, where cannabis is illegal, it is often tolerated due to its association with Hindu spirituality and traditional medicine. Still, the punishments for cannabis-related offenses in parts of Asia are comparably severe to other parts of the world.

However, using cannabis without the oversight of a medical professional comes with its own share of risks if misused. If you’re considering using medical cannabis at home, it’s essential to recognize the signs and symptoms of misuse or overconsumption.

Medical Cannabis: Cardiovascular Effects

If you have cardiovascular disease and are considering medical cannabis, be aware that it carries additional risks that may outweigh the rewards.

Heart rate may increase significantly within minutes of cannabis use but often returns to normal after a few hours. However, this side effect can disproportionately affect individuals with heart arrhythmia, who may also experience shortness of breath and/or chest pain. This can be a cause for concern, especially for people with cardiovascular conditions, and should be addressed with a medical professional before continuing use.

Some research has also shown that cannabis use may increase the risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack) among individuals with cardiovascular disease. This is likely because cannabinoids, the active chemical component in cannabis, have a particular effect on the cardiovascular system.

Symptoms include increased resting heart rate, enlarged blood vessels, and forcing the heart to pump harder than usual. This outcome is relatively rare for those without cardiovascular disease and should be of minimal concern. However, people with cardiovascular disease should consult a doctor before attempting or continuing use.

Orthostasis and/or increased blood pressure can also be a symptom of cannabis use. Orthostasis occurs during a change of position, such as when you go from lying down to sitting or standing. During an episode, you may feel dizzy, lightheaded, or even faint.

Pulmonary Effects

While cannabis does not contain nicotine, cannabis smoke can contain many of the same carcinogenic compounds as tobacco. Upon combustion, cannabis releases chemicals like ammonia, hydrocyanic acid, tar, nitrosamines, and carcinogens such as benzopyrene and benanthracene.

Also, like tobacco, cannabis smoke can increase a user’s risk of bronchitis and/or ‘smoker’s cough’ when compared to non-smoking individuals. Fortunately, the symptoms of chronic bronchitis in cannabis smokers often resolve after cessation.

Despite all this, several large studies have failed to show a close association between smoking cannabis and developing lung cancer. It’s well known that tobacco users are among the highest risk for all kinds of lung-related diseases, especially cancer. However, a 1997 study showed that cannabis use had a lower overall correlation with cancer of all kinds, including lung cancer.

The main takeaway is that in the right circumstances, medical cannabis can be a beneficial alternative treatment for a variety of ills. While it may not be suitable for everyone, it is possible to manage risk while still receiving many of the drug’s benefits. The best part is that we continue to learn more about cannabis and its medical uses every day, and with this new knowledge, we can continue to treat patients the world over.

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