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News - September 15, 2021

Pot and Heart Health: More Research Needed

Last week, a piece published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on young adult cannabis use and myocardial infarction had a lot of people talking.

Myocardial infarction means heart attack. 

Cross-sectional studies, like this one, use data sets from population groups to figure stuff out in various fields whether it’s economics, other social sciences, or as in this case, medicine. The researchers, in this case, are using pooled data from the American Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey of U.S. adults from 2017 and 2018. 

So what did they find?

Within the data pool researchers analyzed for the study, they found a history of heart attacks was more frequent among recent cannabis users. They found 61 of 4,610 that had admitted to smoking pot had heart attacks, about 1.3%. While only 240 of 28,563, or 0.8%, of nonusers had suffered similar cardiac fate. The history of heart attacks was associated with using weed more than 4 times a month smoking it.

This all sounds fairly terrifying. Obviously, it’s a cross-sectional study and there isn’t “real” pot research in the U.S. yet to weigh these kinds of statements against. But the idea of being more prone to heart attacks, even if you’re talking in fractions of a percent of the user base, is worrisome.  

We reached out to NORML’s longtime policy guru and Deputy Director Paul Armentano. Over the years, Armentano has looked at many a bold claim on behalf of the nation’s oldest cannabis policy reform group.  

“Data evaluating the potential link between cannabis exposure and cardiovascular risks are frustratingly inconsistent,” Armentano told L.A. Weekly. “For instance, longitudinal data conducted by the University of California finds no increased risk of adverse cardiovascular events in younger and middle-aged subjects with a history of cannabis use of several decades.”

Armentano went on to note that recently, a population-based study published in 2021 reported that a history of cannabis use was associated with a decreased risk of adverse cardiovascular events, once researchers controlled for potential confounders.

“They determined, ‘After controlling for several confounding variables, we found that there was a decrease in the prevalence of cardiovascular events with marijuana use,’” Armentano said.

Armentano spoke about a 2020 study that reviewed 134,000 U.S. adults that reported frequent cannabis smoking is associated with high odds of heart attack and stroke. But another study released this year said the opposite in regards to heart attacks. 

“Yet, the results of a 2021 literature review of 67 studies published in The American Journal of Medicine concluded, ‘[M]arijuana itself does not appear to be independently associated with excessive cardiovascular risk factors,” Armentano said. “Authors did caution, however, that ‘it can be associated with other unhealthy behaviors such as alcohol use and tobacco smoking that can be detrimental to cardiovascular health.’” 

Armentano believes the latest study adds to this growing body of data but provides no definitive answers to whether or not, or to what degree, cannabis exposure may be an independent risk factor for adverse cardiovascular events. Armentano said because of the inconsistency of this data, NORML has long cautioned people with a history of cardiovascular disorders, heart disease, or stroke may be at an elevated risk of experiencing adverse side effects from marijuana, particularly smoked cannabis.

Over at the National Cannabis Industry Association, they think the study itself really says it all.

“This shows an association but not a causal relationship. The sample size is extremely small, many of the products reported being used were unregulated, and the only strong correlation was with smoking as opposed to other forms of ingestion,” NCIA Media Relations Director Morgan Fox told L.A. Weekly. “Unfortunately – but not surprisingly – most of the mainstream media coverage around this study was wildly misrepresentative and hyperbolic. 

Fox believes it is absolutely vital to do more research on the health effects of cannabis – pro and con. 

“But it is equally important that research be done on a more comprehensive scale and presented in a way that does not mislead consumers, medical practitioners, or policymakers,” Fox said. “It is also advisable for people with pre-existing medical conditions or histories of illness to consult a physician before consuming any pharmacologically active substance.”


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