Marijuana's Effects on Kidneys & Health

Could smoking weed hurt your kidneys and health?

Marijuana Hash Shop in Valencia, Spain. Courtesy shorty_nz_2000 (Flickr); Creative Commons 2.0 License

Marijuana. Cannabis. Weed. Pot. Kush. You have probably heard of it. You might have tried it (1 in 3 Americans have). It is the most commonly used illegal substance worldwide, with approximately four percent of the world’s population between the ages of 15 and 64 years estimated to have used cannabis at least once in the past year. Cannabis use is nothing new and people have been getting high on it for over 2000 years.


The feeling of being high or "stoned" comes from a substance in cannabis called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and the mind altering effects could start from anywhere between seconds to an hour later (depending on whether you smoke it, or eat it). Its health effects are increasingly being studied given the raging debates world over whether it should be legalized.


Medications containing THC are already used for treating pain or nausea. However, the FDA has not considered the marijuana plant as a legitimate medicine per se because (unlike FDA's definition of a medicine), it does not have well-defined and measurable ingredients that are consistent from one pill/injection to the next. Instead it has multiple chemicals with different effects which makes marijuana's evaluation as a medicine hard. The official position is that its harmful effects outweigh is potential therapeutic benefits.

Nevertheless, keeping those potential benefits in mind, various National Institutes of Health including the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Cancer Institute, and the National Institute of Drug Abuse actively fund research to define marijuana's role in treatment of pain, nausea, obesity, wasting disease, addiction, autoimmune disorders, and other conditions.



We do have some evidence out there that routine heavy marijuana use could harm the kidneys. We certainly know that synthetic marijuana (Spice, K2, etc) use has been linked with kidney damage. This is the official position of the CDC as well. On the other hand, there is also evidence that this might not necessarily be true, especially with limited use.

We know that certain pain killers called NSAIDS (eg. ibuprofen, Aleve, indomethacin, etc) can be very harmful to the kidneys and managing pain conditions in patients with kidney disease is always challenging. Could medical marijuana be a safer alternative for these patients than taking NSAIDS? The answer to this very pertinent question is still not known.  


Your brain, heart, and lungs are the other major organs affected by marijuana. Obviously, the effects depend on how long and in what amount has someone used the drug. It could also be influenced by how someone used it.

Lets see how marijuana affects your organs:

  • BRAIN: Euphoria (followed by drowsiness), impaired memory, heightened perception, hallucinations and paranoia- in the short term. In the long term, depression and anxiety are seen more often in habitual users. It does affect coordination and judgement, and doubles your risk of being in an accident.
  • HEART: Your heart rate could increase to almost twice your baseline, significantly increasing your risk of having a heart attack (the risk goes up to almost 5 times in the first hour after use).
  • LUNGS: If you smoke marijuana, it does act as an irritant on your lungs. Habitual use will thus cause the same symptoms that long term cigarette smokers often have- chronic cough, bronchitis, phlegm. Interestingly, unlike cigarette smoking, it is not known definitively whether marijuana use causes lung cancers.  
  • WITHDRAWAL EFFECTS: The above effects are seen as part of active use. However marijuana is addictive, and not having access to it once someone is addicted physically and psychologically does bring adverse withdrawal effects as well. Users often report craving the drug. Other effects commonly include insomnia, irritability, and even nightmares. Anti-psychotic medications and benzodiazepines are often used to treat withdrawal, which otherwise could be debilitating. 

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