September 3, 2019

The health risks of marijuana, according to the US surgeon general

Daily Briefing

    U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams on Thursday issued an advisory warning pregnant women and youth against using marijuana, saying it can pose risks to developing brains.

    New resource guide: Medical marijuana in the health system

    According to Politico, the advisory is the first issued by the U.S. surgeon general's office on marijuana since 1982, and it comes as more states have moved to decriminalize or legalize marijuana use. The substance remains illegal under federal law.

    Background: Data show growing marijuana use among youth, pregnant women

    HHS said 9.2 million U.S. residents ages 12 to 25 in 2017 reported having used marijuana within the month prior. In addition, HHS said it has found that high school students' perception of marijuana has evolved over the past 10 years, with fewer students today viewing the substance as dangerous.

    In addition, data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health show marijuana use among pregnant women increased more than twofold over 15 years, rising from 3.4% in 2002 to 7% in 2017. According to Politico, federal scientists have said marijuana use during pregnancy has been linked with low birth weight and other effects on fetal growth.

    Advisory details

    In the advisory, Adams and HHS Secretary Alex Azar said marijuana has become more accessible, and in some cases more potent, meaning the substance "carries more risk than ever."

    Adams and Azar said the potency of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the component of marijuana that produces a high, was about 4% said in 1995. However, that potency now ranges from 12% to 25%, they said.

    In addition, the officials noted that marijuana now is available in more concentrated forms, such as oils and baked goods. Those products can have THC concentrations as high as 80% to 90%, they said.

    "This isn't your mother's marijuana," Adams said.

    The officials acknowledged that there are possible medicinal uses for marijuana's components, but noted that frequent marijuana use during youth could affect attention, decision-making, memory, and motivation. Adams said youth who use marijuana regularly are "more likely to show a decline in IQ and school performance [and] are more apt to miss classes." In addition, he said, "Nearly one in 5 people who begin marijuana use during adolescence become addicted."

    The officials said frequent marijuana use during pregnancy can effect birth weight and a fetus' brain development. Adams and Azar also noted that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists discourages using marijuana after pregnancy because THC can be transmitted to babies via breast milk.

    Adams said, "Over and over again, I hear a great and rising concern about the rapid normalization of marijuana use and the impact that false perception of its safety is having on young people and on pregnant women."

    HHS to launch public awareness campaign

    Along with the advisory, HHS said it will launch a digital public awareness campaign to educate individuals about the risks of youth marijuana use, as well as the risks of using marijuana while pregnant.

    Officials said the campaign will cost $100,000 and will be funded by money President Trump donated to the department from his presidential salary. 

    Comments

    According to Politico, HHS officials said current scientific evidence suggests no amount of marijuana use among youth or during pregnancy is safe. "We need to be clear: Some states' laws on marijuana may have changed, but the science has not and federal law has not," Azar said.

    Azar added that HHS is "committed" to conducting more research on marijuana use "because one of the dangers is that we still don't know all of the risks." He said HHS is working with the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on ways to increase such research.

    DEA last week announced that it will move forward with a years-delayed expansion of the agency's marijuana research program, meaning the agency soon could permit more growers to produce marijuana for use in medical and other studies (Roubein, Politico, 8/29; NIH release, 6/18; Eunjung Cha, Washington Post, 8/29; Aubrey, "Shots," NPR, 8/29; Hellmann, The Hill, 8/29).

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