Marijuana throws your dopamine out of whack. Credit: Metro file photo
With Colorado’s recreational-use marijuana dispensaries opened this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo forging forward with a medical marijuana plan and 20 states now allowing medical marijuana facilities, is American becoming a pro-pot nation? Time will tell, but as with any substance we put in or on our bodies, it’s important to know about both short- and long-term effects. We asked Dr. Muhammad Mirza, medical director at Allied Medical & Diagnostic in Clifton, N.J., for the lowdown on the drug’s physiological and psychological effects.
“Marijuana acts like any addictive product,” says Mirza. “It’s a stimulant and causes euphoria.” As a stimulant, that means that when you’re on it, your heartbeat and blood pressure rise, and your breathing quickens. “It can also stimulate the appetite,” the doc says — but you already know that as getting the munchies.
Ironically, all that quickening causes your brain to slow down. Mentally, in the short-term, pot can cause slowed reaction time, impaired judgment and psychosis: “Psychosis is when you lose connection to reality, and time and space becomes blurred.” This state, he says, can be brought about via cocaine, amphetamines and even some prescription meds.
Mirza says studies have found that long-term marijuana use can cause a variety of mood disorders, such as anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies. It can result in reduced productivity and failure to maintain focus, too. Physically, long-term use can cause erectile dysfunction, decreased sperm count and hormonal imbalance. There is evidence that smoking marijuana causes certain lung cancers, too.
So how does it do all of that?
“The biomechanics of marijuana is that it causes an imbalance with certain neurotransmitters,” Mirza says. “It changes dopamine levels, which regulate mood.
"There’s a Chinese proverb that says, if it is a medicine, there is some poison in it. That applies equally to marijuana as it does to drugs like Lipitor (which reduces cholesterol). There are always side effects.”
If you ingest marijuana through food (like pot brownies), “essentially, the effects are the same,” says Mirza, “but, predominantly, you’ll see the effects more quickly with inhalation of marijuana than eating it. Smoking marijuana releases the drug more quickly and more strongly into the system.”