Smoking Weed and Working Out: Breaking Into Reality (A Critical Analysis of Marijuana’s Effect on Health and Training Through Clinical Data)
August 27, 2013
Tossing aside curling in the squat rack, marijuana has been a taboo topic in the fitness industry since the dawn of training, and surely, the riskiest of subjects for any fitness professional to approach without creating havoc on either side of the fences.
With the recent legalization of this recreational and medical drug in Colorado, marijuana—cannabis, weed, pot, or whatever other name you may know Mary Jane as—continues to inspire debates regarding the safety and consequences of its usage. Amongst the countless subjects tackled within this category, one happens to be its usage in fitness and its effects on training—a very interesting debate that could be of extreme value for you if you’re part of the 18.1% of Americans that partake in its consumption.
Since the Internet and mainstream media are filled with oblivious generalized statements and exaggerated gossip such as “marijuana kills”, or even the more popular counterargument “marijuana has 0 death rates”, I’ve decided to hunt down and analyze the best peer-reviewed clinical data to shed the truth once and for all—no royalties required.
NOTE: All the information in this article will be presented to you in an objective matter. I, Paul Gabriel Mihalescu, am not promoting the use or disuse of marijuana. I’m merely giving you the most accurate information based on my findings in hopes of shedding the lies found in the mainstream media and giving you the proper knowledge to make an informed decision about your lifestyle choices—you’re the leader of your own life.
For those who are unaware, marijuana is a preparation from the cannabis plant that is intended for medical usage including therapy, and more often than not, for recreational purposes due to the 483 known psychoactive compounds the plant contains including tetrahydrocannabivarin, cannabidiol, cannabinol, and the vastly popular tetrahydrocannabinol (widely known in abbreviation as “THC”).
Despite what some would think, the early 60’s and the hippies are not responsible for initiating the use of cannabis to society. In fact, its psychedelic usage has been recorded as early as the 3rd millennia BC for religious and spiritual rituals of the Incas, Mayans and various other tribes, while its usage in China has also been recorded in the years 4000 BC and 6000 BC, not only as a textile, but for food as well.
Nonetheless, since the general history of weed is purely trivia to some, it’s worth mentioning that in the sports world, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was established by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to bring forth a list of prohibited substances and methods after Canadian snowboarder, Ross Rebagliati, fought a long case in front of the supreme court to revoke the IOC’s decision of stripping his gold medal for using marijuana during the 98’ Winter Olympic games.
Since then, weed usage has been the subject of a long debate that remains unsettled to this day, mostly because researching drugs is frowned upon due to an existing prejudice that runs rampant in the scientific community. So gathering enough unbiased data is a huge headache for anybody looking to dig deeper into the subject (trust me, with 2 months of digging and researching within various medical journals to put this article together, I would know).
To kick start the holy quest for truth, let’s commence by shredding away the most popular urban gossip: Marijuana is a gateway drug that will lead to dependence and could ruin your life.
With all due respect to those holding ground to the aforementioned statement, let it be known that such a statement is a myth. Why? Well, besides being a very opinion-based claim made by God knows who, there’s a lot of cognitive bias behind it that has no clinical data to support it.
In order to demonstrate the aforementioned, let’s look at what research says and apply some heuristics to connect the dots—pay close attention.
In 2006, there were approximately 1 in 25 adults, worldwide (that’s 4% of the global population), that have used marijuana, with 31% of that specific population coming from the USA[i] (that’s a grand total of 51.46 million people). If we inspect closely, on October 17th, 2006, USA hit the 300 million-population mark, which means—but not likely—that on that exact day, there were approximately 1 in 6 people (for our purposes we’ll say it’s 17% of the population) in the USA that smoke marijuana—that’s 51.46 million people ruining their lives!
Of course, if you turn your logic gears up to Sherlock Holmes mode and get into the head of most Americans, you’ll discover that most USA residents associate one’s life success with monetary income—and some studies actually show that belief to be true[ii]. Follow through deeper into the investigation and you’ll discover that the unemployment rate was declared at 4.6% for 2006 and stood still at 4.6% in 2007 [iii] as well. In other words, even if the entire unemployed population were pot smokers, the “marijuana can ruin your life” claim can be safely dismissed by economic standards.
“Wait a minute, that doesn’t say anything about marijuana leading to dependency or being a gateway drug!”
Of course it doesn’t; that was merely a demonstration of how ridiculous some claims can be, and it’s a warm-up for your thought processes before we begin looking critically at more of the data to help you make an informed opinion on the subject. Plus, you got to feel like Sherlock Holmes for a second and you didn’t have to pay one buck for it—we’re making magic, drug-free.
Anyhow, dependence is defined by continued—and/or compulsive—use that initiates or exacerbates physical or psychological problems, increased tolerance, and impaired control. The overall lifetime risk of achieving such with marijuana runs at 7% to 10% for regular users, and how early one is exposed to the substance greatly impacts the risk level as well. [iv] However, not everybody becomes a regular user.
Data shows that approximately 10% of the people who have used weed become daily users. If we take into account that only 7-10% of that population becomes dependent, the results will show us that—realistically—approximately 0.7% to 1% of weed users will become dependent… and then who’s to say that there isn’t another variable (i.e. existing predispositions for addictive behavior) at play that helps to create the perfect environment for dependency?
That’s right; looking at the numbers and the train of logic, you’ll discover that we can’t discredit the claim that weed CAN lead to dependency, nor can we credit weed alone for dependency…
…but let’s step out of the black or white area for a second to show where the gossip roots in cognitive bias.
Look, there’s approximately 25% chance of dying from chronic aspirin overdose, yet we are perfectly aware that we shouldn’t jump directly to banning the drug due to the irrational decisions of some—it was the user’s decision to embark on the chronic usage. These small percentages are there because, in the real world, shit happens when some people play stupid with their lives. What amount of percentage you need to forge your belief systems depends on you, and you alone.
Nonetheless, if you’re using 1% statistics to forge your fears instead of rationalizing what created that 1%, well… ummm… I honestly don’t know what to tell you. If you’re ok with letting your fears lead your life, that’s ok with me. It’s your life, you know what’s best for it, and we simply can’t judge you on whatever choices you make. Matter of fact, I’ll even respect your choices and you’ll remain in my cool book as long as you don’t go around shoving your beliefs down people’s throats and remain conscious that, just by being alive, your mortality rate is 100%.
Sounds fair? Of course it does, so let’s get to the finisher.
To be absolutely clear, the reductionist approach to the gateway effect is short-sighted and ineffective. In no form or dimension is cannabis the main reason for progression towards other drugs. Data shows that it plays an important part[v], but it’s not the main reason. Allow me to show you why.
For starters, marijuana is rarely the first drug that drug addicts—or any other human life form—go through; that assumption has a lot to do with people forgetting that drinking booze and smoking cigarettes are considered two different types of drug use—illicit drugs if you’re underage.
The pressure and condescending reports from the mass media is what leads people to believe that cannabis is a drug of great importance, while alcohol and tobacco are normalized. If we were to normalize cannabis and have drug addict stories begin with alcohol being the first drug used, the gateway effect would be transferred to alcohol, not cannabis. But of course, that’s only a thought.
In 2009, out of the 2.316 million people who have tried pot, only 1.1 million claimed to have tried ecstasy, 617 thousand claimed to have tried cocaine, and 45 thousand claimed to have tried PCP. What does this actually mean? Simple: Those whom desire experimentation with drug use—to push their consciousness to different states—will do it regardless of whether they start with marijuana or not; everything is almost always a case of accessibility. Now that weed is more accessible than hard drugs, it makes that passage so much easier.
Just to highlight that point and bury this case, picture being a car enthusiast: If you have the connections to drive any car you could ever wish for, chances are that you’ll drive a new one on a daily basis. After you’ve satisfied your thrill for the unreachable, you’ll most likely become bored and move on to a new discovery for something else; with regards to drug use, the Netherlands has already demonstrated such an effect by liberating the laws surrounding drugs—statistics from 2009 show that their drug use and drug-related crimes number far less than in the USA; in fact, it’s so much better that the heroin use is too low to actually track. 
It has long been declared by the Institute of Medicine that marijuana greatly contributes in treating, preventing, and/or relieving symptoms from anxiety, depression, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, cancer, AIDS/HIV, opioid dependence, and many others[viii].
Yet when it comes to health, many are quick to claim that Marijuana is damaging to one’s pulmonary health, performance, and psychological development, while others hold ground that, in reality, the complete opposite is happening—the side that they were quick to embark on depends on which mass media source they have been listening to. In reality, science shows that one should not opt to lean towards either of the extremes for this case.
To kick start this subject, it’s been concluded that marijuana-only smokers—even at heavy use—does not increase the risks of lung cancer or head-and-neck malignancy (such as oral cancer, larynx cancer, etc…). 
On the other hand, smoking cannabis has been linked to other lung conditions that are similar to tobacco smoking such as pulmonary fibrosis and byssinosis , but the state of research on cannabis smoking and respiratory conditions is too limited to solidify such statements.
Nonetheless, there are obvious reasons for people to believe that heavy cannabis smoking is detrimental to one’s pulmonary health due to its qualitatively similar poison contents as those found in tobacco. In addition, there’s an even greater reason to believe that cannabis smoke can be even more detrimental to pulmonary health than tobacco since—generally—the methods of inhaling the cannabis smoke involve unfiltered smoking, larger puffs, longer hold of breath, and the possible use of the Valsalva method to increase the absorption of THC. Of course, research demonstrates that using a vaporizer can prevent the aforementioned by suppressing the pyrolytic compounds that puts one’s pulmonary health in risk.
Since cannabinoids affect directly the hypothalamus, thyroid, and the pituitary gland, its effect on the endocrine system is a topic of particular interest in this article due to the obvious relation between one’s hormonal levels and their metabolism, cognitive function, and gym and/or sports performance. Since there are too many aspects to overview on this topic, we’ll stick to the main components that could influence a trainee’s performance—testosterone included.
First of all, there’s a common myth running around teh interwebz (that’s internet lingo) that weed decreases one’s testosterone production and could lead to gynocomastia; and that’s with good reason.
Studies conducted on rodents and in rhesus monkeys  showed significant drops in testosterone and gonadotropins, which in the rhesus monkeys showed up to 65% and lasting up to one hour. Obviously, it is safe to assume that many have based their arguments and assumptions on such studies because in humans those findings don’t match up–. In fact, even at the chronic usage, the effects on testosterone remain uncertain despite an intensive study finding that the baseline testosterone levels in casual smokers and chronic smokers remain around the same levels.
Nonetheless, men are not the only ones to have their sexual organs safe from the allegedly evil marijuana.
In the past, women with plans of being future mothers were advised to avoid cannabis use due to some outdated suggestions that female recreational users could be at risk for infertilityand decreases in their prolactin secretions. Despite that those studies were conducted with cherry-picked sample groups (one of which picked infertile women who use recreational drugs in general, and not just cannabis), findings demonstrate that female smokers—even at intensive levels—remain consistent in their estrogen levels and menstruation periods,  and that there’s no correlation between drops in prolactin and cannabis.
As for cannabis being a cause for gynocomastia, it remains plausible, but the only case control study that could be found on the subject (during the research phase of this article) demonstrated no correlation.
But what impact does cannabis have on the rest of the endocrine system—more importantly, the secretion of human growth hormone, cortisol, leptin, and thyroid hormones? Truth be told, there’s not enough human research conducted to give a conclusive answer, especially on the drug’s long-term usage, but experiments conducted on rodents show that cannabinoids inhibit GH secretion through stimulation of somatostatin release and reduces levels of thyroxine and TSH.
However, as previously shown, most animal studies fail to translate to human outcomes, and it could be theorized that it’s due to our brain’s physiology being more complex. Also, in the same animal studies, many of the endocrine responses that were been observed were lost after chronic administration; but obviously, we’re not going to tell you to become a chronic user to avoid such pitfalls if you’ve chosen to become a cannabis smoker.
As far as the world of athletics is concerned, cannabis has been included in IOC’s lists of drugs subject to restrictions since 1989—and added 10 years later in WADA’s prohibited substances list.
Despite its prohibition, doping control tests reveal the usage of cannabis in athletes worldwide of all ages and level of performance—including the elite. Such findings inspire many to believe that it could enhance performance, but with a bit a research we can safely conclude that it is far from reality.
Huestis proved through his intensive research review —results he obtained through digging into numerous performance tests, driving and flight simulators, as well as epidemiological studies—that weed significantly alters perceptual sensory mechanisms, which exposes the user to greater risks for accidents and injury. In fact, he even found that cannabinoids are the number one illicit drug detected in motor vehicle injuries, fatalities, and DUI cases, which safely discredits the argument from pro-cannabis users that marijuana has killed no one since the beginning of history (although, their argument still stands true on the subject of overdose).
In addition to its psychoactive and motor alterations, cannabis also increases cardiac frequency, which in return places it as an ergolytic drug—not an ergogenic. In fact, cannabis has been shown to decrease peak performance through a decrement in simple and complex reaction times, steadiness, and psychomotor skills. 28
Some authors would justify its moderate usage before sports activity to decrease anxiety, since a relaxed state is considered to be beneficial in some sports, but through simple heuristics we can determine that the psychomotor alterations would still make its usage counterproductive and unsafe—putting the athlete and those in his surrounding environment at risk.
Although, for the simple fact of remaining objective, anecdotal stories of athletes performing better under the influence of cannabis do exist and should be taken into account. As scholars of science, we simply can’t out rule the possibility of such phenomena existing, and further researching them could result in a better understanding of the mechanisms behind it.
However, it is safe to conclude that for the general population—including most athletes—cannabis does not enhance one’s performance, but rather decreases it and exposes the athlete to greater risk of accidents and injury.
While much cognitive bias and propaganda surrounds the subject of cannabis, research demonstrates that it is a vastly spread and perfectly safe substance that could aid to the treatment of many diseases and psychological issues. Furthermore, research demonstrates that cannabis plays some role in the gateway effect, but the nature behind the phenomenon is far too complex to attribute it solely to marijuana; in fact, statistic comparisons between the Netherlands and USA show a possibility of the gateway effect assumption being dismissed with the legalization of marijuana. Hence, the assumption that one would necessarily progress from marijuana to harder drugs should be dismissed.
In addition, despite its safe usage, studies have shown that marijuana does not enhance performance and, in reality, decreases the peak performance of an athlete while under the effect—research for post-usage performance remains unclear.
Moreover, due to the psychoactive and motor alterations, using marijuana during physical activity is unadvised due to the potential for exposing the athlete and the surroundings to risk for accidents and injury; its prohibition during competitive times remains justified.
Following through, if one should choose to smoke cannabis, it is advised to replace the traditional cigarette-style smoking with inhalation through a vaporizer to maintain optimal pulmonary health.
Needless to say, there is too much research lacking in this area of health, especially on the physical performance of such, and the academic field should allow more research to be done without imposing shame, guilt, or accusation of those interested in such topics of being addicts. This closed-minded area is a prime reason why clear-data is missing and why too many anti-drug campaigns, or pro-marijuana activists, cherry pick their data to spread too much cognitive bias in our society.
Alas, the only time when things will change will happen when the scientific realm will come back to it’s roots of searching for the empirical truth, rather than impose shame upon those seeking it. The further research into this psychoactive plant could present new drug alternatives for many diseases with less side-effects than most of the drugs pushed by the pharmaceutical companies out there–as seen in the treatment of many neurological diseases. In other words, the scientific community needs to grow some balls when it comes to the topic of marijuana and start tossing aside any socio-economic agendas imposed by the higher administrations in order to allow human progress to continue.
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