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The Health Benefits and Risks of Smoking Pot, According to Science

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Pot's a hot topic these days. With both medical and recreational use of the drug legal in states like California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, and more states on the way (Massachusetts, Nevada, and Maine have all legalized recreational use but the laws have not taken effect yet), the need for information about both the short- and long-term effects of marijuana is becoming even more important. While we know some helpful information already, like that it can have a negative effect on your workout performance, bigger-picture studies are needed to find out what exactly the health risks and benefits are.

That's why the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine put together a committee of experts in the field to answer the questions: What do we already know about the health effects of cannabis, and what do we still need to find out? The researchers combed through the most recent reefer research for their report on the topic. (Curious what happens when you smoke pot? This is your brain on marijuana.)

Pot Manages Pain Effectively

One of the most promising benefits of pot is the treatment of chronic pain. In fact, the researchers found that people who were treated with substances found in the cannabis plant were more likely to have pain relief than those who weren't. TBD if marijuana will be a legit alternative to highly addictive opioids though.

Pot Doesn't Elevate Your Risk of Some Cancers

In the past, it was thought that smoking pot carried the same cancer risks as smoking tobacco—lung, head, and neck cancers. Surprisingly, the report found that this is not the case. They did discover that there appears to be a link between pot and one particular type of testicular cancer, but more research is needed to understand why. Additionally, there's limited evidence that smoking pot could trigger a heart attack if you're already at risk, since it does raise your heart rate, but more data needs to be collected to understand how high that risk actually is.

But It Might Increase Your Risk for Mental Health Problems

One of the most troubling findings was that those who use marijuana are more likely to develop mental health issues like schizophrenia, social anxiety disorder, and to a lesser degree, depression. People who use cannabis heavily were more likely to have thoughts of suicide, and frequent users with bipolar disorder were likely to have worse symptoms.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Now that marijuana is legal in some states, there's no getting around the fact that people are going to use it, so the risks and benefits really do need to be better understood. The scientists and doctors involved in this report are pushing for help from the government and its agencies to get the job done, but we'll see if that actually happens, especially since pot is still considered an illegal drug at the national level. Based on this new insight, it seems like pot still has some risks, although maybe not in the ways we originally thought. (See how marijuana and alcohol compare.) For now, the best thing to do is likely watch and wait, since this is an issue that is *definitely* not going anywhere.

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