Science and medicine have made immense strides in studying the therapeutic benefits of cannabis, which has helped fuel the plant's surge from the fringe of alternative medicine into the mainstream. Not everything being learned is good news, though.
Last week the American Heart Association issued a statement in its journal, Circulation, finding that cannabis consumption provides no cardiovascular benefits and could potentially be harmful to the heart and blood vessels of users.
"Many consumers and health care professionals don't realize that cannabis smoke contains components similar to tobacco smoke," says Robert L. Page II, lead author of the statement. Though Page did concede that "the oral and topical forms, for which doses can be measured, may reduce some of the potential harms."
The statement points out that smoking cannabis is known to produce cardiovascular effects like increased heart rate, atrial fibrillation and arrhythmias. It also referenced a study that compared smoked cannabis with smoked tobacco that showed a five-fold increase in blood concentration of carbon monoxide and a threefold increase in tar.
These are just short-term effects, though. What about the long-term ones?
"Unfortunately, most of the available data are short-term, observational and retrospective studies, which identify trends but do not prove cause and effect," Page says.
Page also notes that public opinion on cannabis, as well as trends in cannabis consumption, are advancing at a faster rate than our understanding of the effects of its use. "Health care professionals need a greater understanding of the health implications of cannabis, which has the potential to interfere with prescribed medications and/or trigger cardiovascular conditions or events, such as heart attacks and strokes," Page says.
For that to happen, cannabis policy would need to change. The statement offered a very specific suggestion in that regard: "In the United States, this should start with removal of cannabis from Schedule 1 of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act."
Schedule 1 drugs are defined as having a high potential for abuse as well as no currently accepted medical use. Plain and simple, that definition does not apply to cannabis. The American Heart Association statement lists five conditions for which cannabis has known, conclusive medical benefits: pain, cachexia, nausea, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.
As is the case with most therapeutics, the value provided may come with side effects. For cannabis, some of those are cardiovascular in nature. ♦