Although some students view marijuana as relatively harmless, the lack of a scientific census on marijuana’s potential long-term health effects means it might be more dangerous than some people might assume.
According to the Student Counseling Center website, 37 percent of Texas college students reported using marijuana in their lifetime, making it the most commonly used illicit drug. In comparison, 52 percent of college students admitted to using tobacco, and 84 percent admitted to drinking alcohol.
David Trotter, a psychologist and the executive director of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center’s Student Health Services, provides services for students with risky alcohol-use and marijuana-use habits.
“We, honestly, see more problems with risky alcohol use than we do with marijuana use, not to say that marijuana is safe, but more students use alcohol, and so, we see more problems with that,” Trotter said. “We do kind of basic counseling around marijuana, but rarely do we see someone using marijuana who’s not also using alcohol.”
Part of the reason alcohol is more commonly used is accessibility, Trotter said. Another factor is the social connotations surrounding each drug.
Using marijuana leads to an increased risk for lung, mouth and throat cancer, in a similar way that using cigarettes does, Trotter said.
Students can also become addicted to marijuana and may have to face withdrawal symptoms such as agitation and nausea, Trotter said. Short-term consequences included impairment and increased risky behavior.
“From a clinical standpoint, we would consider any use of marijuana to be problematic because it’s illegal, and because we don’t know what the health consequences are, especially long-term,” Trotter said. “So clinically, we tend to lump marijuana in with the more severe, illegal substances.”
An issue with marijuana usage is the lack of scientific research on the drug, Trotter said. While some of the effects of marijuana have been established, the long-term health consequences are simply not known, meaning it cannot be compared to substances such as alcohol.
“We know a lot about the health effects of alcohol, but we don’t know nearly as much about the health effects of marijuana simply because there hasn’t been as much research on it,” Trotter said. “I can say in our clinic, we see more adverse health outcomes as a function of alcohol than we do marijuana, but, I wouldn’t say that makes marijuana safer. We just don't see as much here.”
Conducting research on marijuana has been difficult, Trotter said, because certain local, state and federal permissions are required when studying marijuana, an illegal substance in some states, that are not required when studying alcohol.
Now that marijuana has been legalized in some states, Trotter said he expects to see more research coming out in the next five to 10 years.
The current scientific research might sway some, but there will not be a clear consensus until more data is available, he said.
“There’s lots of people who would love to get up and say that there’s all these studies that suggest that, you know, marijuana doesn’t have all these negative health consequences, but if you really look at those studies, they’re not very good studies,” Trotter said. “There are just as many studies that suggest marijuana is not particularly good for you.”
Until he has seen the data, Trotter said he cannot support either side of the debate on the legalization of marijuana. Trotter said he is a data-driven person, and the debate on marijuana has become more political than scientific.
“It’s about really seeing the data,” Trotter said. “You have a lot of people arguing for and against this, and it’s become really political, and there just isn't data to support either side.”