Understanding Marijuana.

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In Colorado, we have watched medical marijuana become legal, with dispensaries popping up all over the state, and a curious concentration here in Boulder.

Recently, recreational marijuana has been legalized in Washington and Colorado, and legislators are scurrying to figure out what this will look like.

No doubt the times are changing, and marijuana seems destined in the near future to be widely and legally attainable, much like a bottle of wine.

It would be impossible to dispute that fact that marijuana has a role to play in medicine (1). But, like most medicines, there are side effects. Ideally, medicines do their job to help us get one well and then, once better, we get off the medicine. Sadly, our culture has become accustomed to long-term use of medicines, and part of that culture is that we endure the side effects. With regard to marijuana, it’s important to note that prolonged and heavy use, particularly in teenagers, does have side effects and has been linked to numerous health concerns (2,3,4).

Join me as I discuss the documented benefits, the potential dangers, the serious risk for teenagers, and the Ayurvedic perspective with regards to marijuana use.

The Science:

It is very clear that you can find research on both sides of the aisle citing numerous benefits and associated health risks of marijuana.

Let’s take a look at some of the medicinal properties that marijuana can potentially deliver.

Marijuana is well documented:

  • for pain as an antipsychotic (6)
  • as an anti-anxiety agent (5)
  • for mood and sleep in cases of chronic pain (8)
  • as analgesia for chronic neuropathic pain (1)
  • as an appetite stimulant in debilitating diseases (cancer and AIDS) (1)
  • for Crohn’s Disease (10)
  • in the treatment of multiple sclerosis (1,11), fibromyalgia (9),  and glaucoma (12)

… to name a few.

Additionally, the two major cannabinoids found in marijuana—namely Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD)—have both been found to offer unique benefits for pain management in chronic disease, benefits that may support and even balance each other’s side effects.

As research in this field accumulates, it’s clear that we may see the common understanding of marijuana benefits and side effects shift immensely. For now, there are still some well-documented side effects of long-term use that are worth looking at.

The Danger of Marijuana:

A 2012 study conducted by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Drug Abuse concluded findings I believe we should all be aware of (2,3,4). I’ve pulled some quotes from the discussion of this and related studies, so you can see for yourself.

Persistent cannabis use was associated with neuropsychological decline broadly across domains of functioning, even after controlling for years of education. Informants also reported noticing more cognitive problems for persistent cannabis users. Impairment was concentrated among adolescent-onset cannabis users, with more persistent use associated with greater decline. Further, cessation of cannabis use did not fully restore neuropsychological functioning among adolescent-onset cannabis users. Findings are suggestive of a neurotoxic effect of cannabis on the adolescent brain and highlight the importance of prevention and policy efforts targeting adolescents (2).

The message inherent in these and in multiple supporting studies is clear. Regular marijuana use in adolescence is known to be part of a cluster of behaviors that can produce enduring detrimental effects and alter the trajectory of a young person’s life—thwarting his or her potential. Beyond potentially lowering IQ, teen marijuana use is linked to school dropout, other drug use, mental health problems, etc. Given the current number of regular marijuana users (about 1 in 15 high school seniors) and the possibility of this number increasing with marijuana legalization, we cannot afford to divert our focus from the central point: regular marijuana use stands to jeopardize a young person’s chances of success—in school and in life (3).

We repeatedly hear the myth that marijuana is a benign drug—that it is not addictive (which it is) or that it does not pose a threat to the user’s health or brain (which it does). A major new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (and funded partly by NIDA and other NIH institutes) provides objective evidence that, at least for adolescents, marijuana is harmful to the brain (4).

The new research is part of a large-scale study of health and development conducted in New Zealand. Researchers administered IQ tests to over 1,000 individuals at age 13 (born in 1972 and 1973) and assessed their patterns of cannabis use at several points as they aged. Participants were again tested for IQ at age 38, and their two scores were compared as a function of their marijuana use. The results were striking: Participants who used cannabis heavily in their teens and continued through adulthood showed a significant drop in IQ between the ages of 13 and 38—an average of 8 points for those who met criteria for cannabis dependence. (For context, a loss of 8 IQ points could drop a person of average intelligence into the lowest third of the intelligence range.) Those who started using marijuana regularly or heavily after age 18 showed minor declines. By comparison, those who never used marijuana showed no declines in IQ (3,4).

Unfortunately, the proportion of American teens who believe marijuana use is harmful has been declining for the past several years, which has corresponded to a steady rise in their use of the drug, as shown by NIDA’s annual Monitoring the Future survey of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders. Since it decreases IQ, regular marijuana use stands to jeopardize a young person’s chances of success in school (3).

The Ayurvedic Perspective:

The sattwic state is completely content, joyful, and giving, like a flower opening to the sun.

According to Ayurveda, marijuana, like all mind altering substances including alcohol, has a dulling effect on the mind.

Ayurveda categorizes the state of being into three qualities:

•    Sattwa: Inner peace. Completely content, joyful, loving and giving – all heart.
•    Rajas: Uses senses and emotions to be stimulated and therefore satisfied.
•    Tamas: Withdraws or secludes oneself from the world as a means of protection.

In an ideal world we would all live in sattwa. We would feel safe enough to let the delicate petals of our flower open and experience our true nature to be loving, kind, gentle, giving and even powerful – all the time.

This very sattvic or childlike mindset is quickly changed when the child realizes that people can be mean, the world can be unsafe and protection and self preservation is required. At this point in life, the mind is recruited by the heart to find a means of safety through the rajasic stimulation of the senses – looking for happiness outside of ourselves by indulging in sensory experience.

Rajas Turns to Tamas

As a result of years of unsuccessful and exhausting over-stimulation and emotional ups and downs, the mind feels exhausted and withdraws, seeking emotional safety. This is the transition into tamas. Here the mind can become depressed, and begin to seek safety in drugs and alcohol. What were recreational vices in a rajasic state of mind become serious addictions as the mind finds safety by checking out, socially withdrawing and disengaging.

The problem with tamasic behavior is that it is difficult to pull out of this protective emotional cocoon. While it feels safe here, there is still a longing for sattwa and a discontentment with rajasic behavior. The difficulty here is that one has to go through the mind and rajas before one can experience sattwa. In a tamasic state, the thought of exposing oneself to the stimulation and emotional uncertainty of rajas is overwhelming. Drugs and alcohol are often abused in this state to numb the feeling of loneliness, depression and fear.

Marijuana: Sattwa, Rajas, or Tamas?

Marijuana is a tamasic drug that can negatively affect memory (7). According to the NIH, it is addictive and mind-dulling, and can do permanent cognitive harm if used in excess. This is especially true if marijuana use begins in adolescence (3).

I have a story that comes to mind when I think of cannabis in this context of sattwa, rajas and tamas. When I lived in India, I visited quite a few ashrams, and two of them were ashrams where cannabis was regularly and openly used. Having no prior judgment about cannabis, I couldn’t help but notice that, for the most part, these ashrams were unkempt in comparison to the non-cannabis-smoking ashrams. The lawns were not taken care of, and the grounds were not swept.

This is not to say that using cannabis necessarily leads to this kind of negligence, but this is a perfect example of what can happen when the tamasic state goes unchecked.

I don’t doubt that one-time use of marijuana can still the mind from excessive thinking and give an active mind a taste of inner silence and peace. But, as with many things, more is not better. The tamasic effects of marijuana can dull the mind, leaving the aspirant dependent on marijuana use with only an illusion of real spiritual progress.

Pain Has Its Gifts:

Marijuana is a well proven medicine for eliminating chronic pain. It is said in Ayurveda that the pain is directly across from the bliss, and the reason for the pain is to get our attention so that we can go through the pain and experience a deeper, more real aspect of the self and let a more loving and powerful version of ourselves out.

According to this perspective, experiencing the pain is essential for emotional and spiritual growth. Once you take away the pain you have taken away the road map to mental and emotional maturity. Additionally, according to Alcoholics Anonymous, emotional maturation stops at the age ones starts drinking or doing drugs.

Our culture is quick to remove pain with medicines.

Long term use of marijuana can slowly slip the user into a tamasic state of mind in which it is difficult to engage mentally or emotionally with the world, and the longer it is used, the more difficult it is to re-enter.

Our culture is quick to remove pain with medicines. If you have a tooth ache, you get pain killers. If your girlfriend dumps you and you’re depressed, you get an anti-depressant. If you had a hard day, you reach for a glass of wine. If you are tired, you grab a cup of coffee. In our culture, any pain or discomfort is unacceptable and considered very treatable.

If folks realized that it is when we go through the pain that the doors to success and happiness open, we might not be so quick to suppress it. Of course, this is a very personal choice that each one of us has to make on our own.

Know the Facts and Use Your Discretion:

Long-term regular marijuana use, as we saw in the science above, is a concern for many reasons. The most trouble seems to lie in adolescents regularly using marijuana recreationally.

With teenagers now viewing marijuana as a medicine and therefore harmless, more and more adolescents are starting to use it thinking it is a safer alternative to alcohol. The research below shows that when regular marijuana use is started in adolescence, permanent and severe cognitive damage can occur (2, 3, 4).

As I mentioned earlier, as the landscape around marijuana changes and more strains are created with a medicinal purpose in mind, the cautions around marijuana use will most likely evolve also.

To adolescents using marijuana recreationally, I would caution: you only get one brain and you really can’t do much without it. If you choose to smoke pot, make sure you know the facts.
1. www.cannabis-med.org/index   Review on clinical studies with cannabis and cannabinoids 2005-2009
2. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/08/22/1206820109.abstract
3. http://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/directors-page/messages-director/2013/01/marijuanas-lasting-effects-brain
5. J Psychopharmacol. 2010 Sep 9. Epub 2010 Sep 9. PMID: 20829306
6. Br J Psychiatry. 2008 Apr;192(4):306-7. PMID: 18378995
7. Br J Psychiatry. 2010 Oct;197(4):285-90. PMID: 20884951
8. Pain Res Manag. 2002 Summer;7(2):95-9. PMID: 12185373
9. PLoS One. 2011;6(4):e18440. Epub 2011 Apr 21. PMID: 21533029
10. Isr Med Assoc J. 2011 Aug ;13(8):455-8. PMID: 21910367
11. J Ethnopharmacol. 2010 Nov 19. Epub 2010 Nov 19. PMID: 21094240.
12. J Glaucoma. 2006 Oct;15(5):349-53. PMID: 16988594


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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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Dr. John Douillard

Dr. John Douillard, DC, CAP is a globally recognized leader in the fields of natural health, Ayurveda and sports medicine. He is the creator of LifeSpa.com, the leading Ayurvedic health and wellness resource on the web with over 7 million views on YouTube. LifeSpa is evolving the way Ayurveda is understood around the world with over 1000 articles and videos proving ancient wisdom backed by modern science. Dr. John is the former Director of Player Development and nutrition advisor for the New Jersey Nets NBA team, author of 7 health books, a repeat guest on the Dr. Oz show, and featured in USA Today, LA Times, and dozens of other national publications. He has been in practice for over 30 years and has seen over 100,000 patients. —————————————————————————————————–
Subscribe to Dr. John’s video-newsletter! As a subscriber, you’ll get special discounts on products, you’ll be the first to know about free podcasts and online trainings with Dr. John, and you’ll receive his cutting-edge articles proving ancient Ayurvedic wisdom with modern science! – sign up for free!

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BILLIE JOE Nov 29, 2018 11:32am

Dr. John Douillard, Question: Is there newer that alters or influences those within this article? I ask out of curiosity.

anonymous Jun 7, 2014 12:42am

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anonymous Feb 23, 2014 7:58pm

As someone who has dealt with the nerve damage of polio for 59 years and has been dealing with the increased pain and fatigue from Post Polio for the last 15 .. I think his little tirade "pain is essential for emotional and spiritual growth. Once you take away the pain you have taken away the road map to mental and emotional maturity" was enough to turn me off to his whole badly researched article. If that is Ayurvedic medicine then everyone needs to stay away.

anonymous Feb 23, 2014 12:02am

Sorry. You had me at “curious concentration here in boulder.” What?! There is one licensed dispensary here. One to Denver’s several and other cities.

anonymous Feb 22, 2014 11:48am

I study ayurveda and am also a huge supporter of cannabis. It increases vata so you have to keep that in mind but no doubt there are amazing benifits to using cannabis and even medicinal wines in small amounts. In my experience cannabis is the only thing that helps me in my menstral cycle and I mostly only use it during that time. Keep the balance listen to your body and do everything with awareness. Ayurveda teaches that there is nothing that is not medicine. Have respect for everything and see the qualities of it.

anonymous Sep 28, 2013 5:01pm

Thanks so much for this thoughtful article. I consider it a must read for anyone using or considering using the drug, particularly for teenagers. I support legalization for many reasons, but we need to educate people about the downside of marijuana. You are spot on about the myth that marijuana is entirely benign.

anonymous Sep 28, 2013 4:39am

set and setting

anonymous Sep 27, 2013 5:46pm

Part of the path of yoga is a renunciation of the world……. Also, yoga is about finding balance. As someone who has a very high IQ and a lot of sensitivity, I find smoking helps bring me from the extreme end of the spectrum into a less intense place. It can definitely be abused and has addictive qualities…..but even food has addictive qualities. Like everything in life, moderation is the key.

anonymous Sep 27, 2013 3:07pm

For pain as an antipsychotic ?

anonymous May 24, 2013 6:57pm

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anonymous Apr 24, 2013 7:20pm

I thought this was an interesting article, given the manic polarization of this issue in CO and elsewhere. Let me preface by saying I have used a wide spectrum of drugs recreationally, and find many of them entertaining or beneficial with infrequent use. I chuckle at the vehement 'it's not addictive!' defense by heavy users. Really? If someone took your weed away, what would you do? Also, having a MMJ grower in my family, I know what is sprayed on it and how unnatural it actually is. Silver thiosulfate? Fertilizers? Would you eat that with your organic salad? And alcohol can actually be used beneficially and medicinally, but no one likes to point this out. Understand the drug war failure and your personal rights, blah, blah. I just like pointing out a poorly constructed argument.

anonymous Apr 21, 2013 4:32am

The lack of response seems familiar.

anonymous Apr 20, 2013 9:28pm

This article is hugely problematic. Røgeberg's revisiting of the data casts great doubt on the study that Douillard quotes. Read http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=

    anonymous May 4, 2013 12:57pm

    Even before Røgeberg revisited the data, Hart labeled that study as extremely preliminary. Read healthland.time.com/2012/08/28/does-weekly-marijuana-use-by-teens-really-cause-a-drop-in-iq/

anonymous Apr 20, 2013 1:24pm

As a 66 yr. old retired M.D. and a regular cannabis user since the age of 14, I can categorically say that 90% of the studies and reports quoted here are fallacious and nonsensical.

Dr. Douillard needs to study REAL medicine.

anonymous Apr 20, 2013 12:51pm

As a person who lives with chronic pain I must say that using cannabis feels SO much better than demerol and codeine. It just makes the pain so much more bearable without the wired feeling of prescription meds.
It is also wonderful for sleep.
In BC cannabis is still illegal however we have many medical cannabis places, mostly non-profits. The people running these places are the most educated and compassionate.
When I'm there and I see other customers/patients with far worse physical challenges it humbles me. My sister, who lives with unspeakable pain at times has taken very strong narcotics over many years. There is always the risk of overdose or reaction from combining meds. Not so with cannabis.

anonymous Apr 20, 2013 12:50pm

Appreciate this post as it presents both the benefits of and warnings against in a balanced, detached manner. Interesting tie in to rajasic/sattvic/tamasic states of being. Thank you.

anonymous Apr 9, 2013 9:47pm

Such a well written post.. Thnkx for sharing this post!

anonymous Mar 30, 2013 10:07am

am so fed up of people being against marijuana – how about alcohol…??? anyone getting raped cuz of grass? drunken driving? etc and so on??? i mean really fed up!!!

    anonymous Sep 28, 2013 5:08pm

    This article is not against marijuana and does not advocate alcohol use, (which would also be classified tamasic in Ayurveda or yoga). The author lays out the benefits of marijuana first. But a balanced treatment necessarily includes challenging the myth that marijuana is entirely benign. I would even suggest he does not go far enough in this regard, as he does not even mention the research that indicates (though not definitively) that marijuana contributes to bi-polar condition. And if you think that's not a serious possibility, consider that 25% of people diagnosed with bi-polar disorder in the US end up committing suicide.

anonymous Mar 29, 2013 1:47pm

I'm not a scientist so I cannot say anything about this article's citing or research articles. I do know that since cannabis was listed in the US as a schedule 1 drug the pharmaceutical lobby has strongly lobbied the government to stop any research funding whatsoever. There is good research overseas and I hope this area opens up so that we can develop better data.

As for teenage usage, I think the problem is usually a failure of parenting. The pot smoking problem is just a difficult as dealing with video games, junk food and other unhealthy lifestyle choices. There are no prescriptions just individual choices parents have to make in guiding their children until they can handle the more potent and distracting experiences life can offer.

We chose to explain this to our children directly when they entered middle school. We told them we did not approve of them getting involved with pot, and a few other things, until they went away to college. We also offered all kinds of alternatives that required their active participation. We told them that they had only one chance to go through high school and their physical and mental development as a young adult and we encouraged them to engage in other difficult academic, artistic and athletic challenges. We never told them that pot was bad or wrong, just distracting. We talked about 'the good things in life' that are worth working towards: self-expression of all sorts, forming close interpersonal relationships, healthy eating, hard-work, keen application of one's mind and body towards one's passions, etc. Once these values are internalized, it was easy for them to navigate through the drug and alcohol culture that has so polluted the college environment.

These are different words for the tamas/rajas/sattwa view of life.

anonymous Mar 29, 2013 12:15pm

I have some troubles with this post, but am appreciative for a candid dialogue on our beloved elephant. A prohibitionist culture has created a lot of biased data and it's worth stating that access and education go a long way towards responsible use. I do submit that many of the negative long-term side effects cited are likely correlated to the usage of systemic pesticides in improperly and irresponsibly grown medicines. These noxious chemicals are likely to impact the developing brain much more signifcantly than the ingestion of the cannabinoid set. Where did we get weed as teens? In end, that brownish green stuff, littered with seeds and stems and chemicals, travels up from the cartels. Because there's no safe access and no education. I was an over-prescribed troubled teen who found solace in cannabis; I do say that the dozens of millions of adolescent prescriptions for anti-depressants or stimulants suppress cognitive development much more than cannabis use in this set. I doubt that the government sources you cited share this intuition. It's not a fair fight when folks can't agree on a baseline argument.
I very much appreciate your discussion of tamas/rajas/sattwa. This is such valuable language for this discussion in particular. I must say, though, that I have seen patients in the throes of deep, tamasic depression lifted to laughter and joyful rajas with intelligently-selected medicine. I have seen my rajasic mania surrender itself to sattwic productivity.
Ahimsa must work its way into our patterns of behavior. There is no doubt that cannabis can become a toxic, tamasic, and himsic lifestyle if our friends lose focus on the truest stuff of life: adventure, connection, contribution.
Greetings from colorful Colorado.

anonymous Mar 29, 2013 6:52am

Please don't forget that the laws passed in Washington and Colorado are for those 21 and up in age. Yes teenagers will get a hold of it, just like alcohol, so many of these side-effects no longer become an issue in the main users of marijuana. This is no longer a D.A.R.E. program to scare kids, it's all about teaching modification, just like alcohol. Marijuana is legal so now you can get off work and smoke a joint instead of drinking a beer and you can't argue which has worse side-effects. And dependency on Marijuana compared to all other medications on the market is incomparable, think about veterans returning from war, marijuana treats PTSD much better and without a regiment of pills used to treat the other regiments' side-effects.
There is a lot out there negative on Marijuana, but when you compare it to each medicine/drug on the market today, Marijuana is a more natural, safer and cheaper alternative.

    anonymous Feb 23, 2014 4:42pm

    Agreed. I also take issue with the section "pain has its gifts," which I feel moves too lightly between radically different types of pain. Self-medicating to get over being dumped by your boyfriend is quite different than seeking relief for pain associated with bone cancer, fibromyalgia, MS or other health conditions. I wonder if the author would write so easily against pain medication if he had struggled with chronic pain himself.

anonymous Mar 28, 2013 5:53pm

And just a follow-up, if I may.

Regarding, teenage users: How would you compare the harms of cannabis usage to unrestricted access to the internet and sweetened fizzy drinks?

    anonymous Mar 29, 2013 10:41pm

    or the effects of binge drinking for teens.

anonymous Mar 28, 2013 5:21pm

OK Dr. John, can I ask you questions about a different referent group?

I'm past 55 years old and semi-retired. I don't really like to drink too much alcohol but I have been rediscovering pot and I use it after long days in my shop and during hikes in nature. I use very little, not like when I was younger and interested in a more intense 'high'.

How does this rate as compared to: 1, the stress of an office or retail job, 2, eating processed sweets and, 3. watching TV?