Cannabis sativa, more commonly known as marijuana, is the world’s most widely used illicit drug with between 128 and 232 million users worldwide in 2013, according to a United Nations report. The drug is mainly smoked but can be consumed in the form of oil or within food. Recreational users enjoy its relaxing, sedating, and euphoric effects, while medical users rely on its pain-relieving properties. In recent years, more and more states and countries are relaxing laws on cannabis use, with some opting to legalize the drug entirely.
Since the United States currently classifies cannabis as a Schedule I substance–putting it in the same category as heroin, and making it more dangerous than methamphetamine and cocaine–scientists are mostly unable to study the drug due to a countless number of restrictions. But there has been some research done on cannabis and how it affects the heart.
Cannabis has a number of effects on the cardiovascular system. It can raise heart rate by 20 to 50 beats per minute, dilate blood vessels, and make the heart pump harder. And according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH), research says that a person has a 5x higher risk of heart attack in their first hour after smoking marijuana. They say this can be partly explained by marijuana causing increased blood pressure and heart rate. But this is not much of a concern for those without heart issues.
People with pre-existing heart conditions, however, should be more wary about toking up. According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, cannabis can also interact with common heart medications, including statins and blood thinners. Using marijuana while on a heart medication can change how the medication works in the body. According to the authors of the study, over 2 million people with heart conditions report using marijuana–a potentially worrying statistic.
Ersilia DeFilippis, MD, who led the study, says the potency of today’s marijuana may be to blame.
“Higher potency may translate into greater effects on the conduction system, the vasculature, and the muscle of the heart,” DeFilippis said.
As restrictions surrounding cannabis gradually begin to fall, we will be seeing a lot more studies done on the drug, including on how it affects heart health. In the coming years, expect to see a great deal of research released on the health effects of cannabis. But for now, those with heart issues should proceed with caution when it comes to marijuana use.
Written by Natan Rosenfeld