RELIGION: How safe is smoking marijuana?

When nicotine products were either outlawed or severely minimized, many smokers simply turned to using marijuana.

A host of medical personnel (and others) apparently claimed that marijuana was not addictive, and since it did not use cancer-causing nicotine, many smokers immediately felt that it must be okay to smoke. The result has been a lot of cigarette smokers switching to smoking marijuana, some for the buzz that marijuana produces and others for the pleasure of smoking something like a cigarette. Some states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes -- e.g., to control pain -- and others went even further and okayed it for recreational purposes -- i.e., the high it produces.

Law enforcement officers, even those who are in favor of using marijuana, have always known that using marijuana impairs a person's ability to drive safely. It is relatively easy to spot the users when they are pulled over for some kind of traffic violation.

But after a few years, some of the facts about marijuana use are beginning to filter in from reliable sources. For instance, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention now lists some known facts about the use of marijuana. Following are a few of those facts.

Marijuana is the most commonly used federally (state laws differ) illegal drug in the United States, with around 48.2 million people, about 18% of Americans, using it at least once during 2019. Recent research estimated that approximately 3 in 10 people who use marijuana have marijuana use disorder (cannot just stop after three months of use) and that the risk is even higher for those under the age of 18.

Marijuana use directly affects the brain, specifically the parts of the brain responsible for memory, learning, attention, decision-making, coordination, emotion, and reaction time. Long-term use of marijuana also has been linked to an increased risk of psychosis or schizophrenia. And using marijuana during pregnancy may increase the possibility of pregnancy complications.

Now, a research team from the Department of Anesthesiology, Critical Care and Pain Medicine at McGovern Medical School (a part of the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston) has identified a variety of complications from the overuse of marijuana after major elective surgery, including blood clots, stroke, breathing difficulties, kidney issues, and even death. Apparently, smoking marijuana impacts blood flow in the brain and body, decreases respiration and body temperature, contributes to airway blockages, raises blood pressure, and increases heart rate and rhythm.

This new study has found that nearly 3 out of every 10 marijuana users develop a dependence on it called "cannabis use disorder."

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a person is considered dependent on marijuana when they feel food cravings or a lack of appetite, irritability, restlessness, and mood and sleep difficulties after quitting. Since this study involved a sample of 12,422 hospitalizations after 11 types of major elective, non-cardiac surgery such as hernia repair, gall bladder or colon surgery, breast lump biopsy, mastectomy or hysterectomy, hip or knee replacement, spinal fusion, and lumbar disk surgery, it is highly significant. The study involved more than 6,200 patients who had cannabis use disorder. These patients were more likely to suffer complications from those kinds of surgery. When both types of patients were compared, the difference was small but significant.

When compared with all of the hype these days about how safe smoking marijuana is and how effective it is in controlling pain, these results are scary. I'm sure they are not going to make people refrain from smoking marijuana, just as smoking a cigarette full of nicotine causing cancer did not slow most people down from smoking tobacco; but they are significant enough to cause people to think about the issue.

Since the availability of cannabis through a doctor's prescription has always been available for pain control, one has to wonder if smoking "pot" isn't really just a way to bypass the laws against smoking cigarettes and to raise money for the government. I'm sure that most marijuana smokers will not admit it readily. However, marijuana is a drug, and the use of drugs in our country is still considered a no-no by most people.

Robert Box has been a law enforcement chaplain for 30 years. He is a diplomate-level chaplain with the International Conference of Police Chaplains and is an endorsed chaplain with the American Baptist Churches USA. He also currently serves as a deputy sheriff chaplain for the Benton County Sheriff's Office in Arkansas. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not the agencies he serves.