Photo via iStock/ jacoblund
Physicians have long debated whether or not cannabis use poses a risk to users' healthy hearts, but the body of scientific research on the issue is thin thanks to the federal prohibition on marijuana, which makes it extremely difficult for scientists to conduct research on the plant. But as more states legalize medical and recreational pot, an increasing number of researchers are digging deeper into the matter.
Many doctors believe that cannabis use can pose a risk to cardiovascular health, and a study from last year reported that marijuana users were at a higher risk of contracting heart disease. However new research on the topic, published this month in the scientific journal PLOS One, has found evidence to the contrary. A research team from the University of Colorado discovered that patients with a history of cannabis use were less likely to die from complications following an acute myocardial infarction (AMI) — more popularly known as a heart attack.
Researchers examined hospital records of over 3,800 heart attack patients who reported or tested positive for cannabis use, comparing them to 1.2 million patients who had suffered heart attacks but didn’t admit to using pot. The researchers discovered that “marijuana-using patients were significantly less likely to die, experience shock,” or require an intra-aortic balloon pump following their heart attack than patients who did not use cannabis.
“These results suggest that, contrary to our hypothesis, marijuana use was not associated with increased risk of adverse short-term outcomes following AMI,” the researchers wrote. “Furthermore, marijuana use was associated with decreased in-hospital mortality post-AMI.” This research on its own is not entirely conclusive, as the researchers did not have access to post-discharge data on long-term mortality or hospital readmissions. The team also noted that “it is highly likely that marijuana use was significantly underreported,” and that among the users who admitted to using pot, the frequency and dosages of marijuana were unknown.
“Given the increasing prevalence and acceptance of marijuana use, these findings suggest that additional study is warranted to further investigate these discoveries and to identify potential mechanisms by which marijuana is associated with improved short-term outcomes following AMI and for mitigating the possible negative effects of concomitant substance use,” the study concluded.
The debate over cannabis and cardiovascular health made headlines recently after comedian Kevin Smith claimed that pot saved his life during a heart attack. Smith suffered a massive heart attack earlier this year and survived despite the 80% fatality rate associated with his specific condition. In an interview with Stephen Colbert, the comedian said that his doctor told him that weed likely saved his life by helping him relax during the incident.
Smith's claims outraged some members of the medical community. Cardiologist Pravin Patil, director of the cardiovascular disease training program at Temple University’s Katz School of Medicine, cast shade on Smith's claims, arguing that it was unlikely that weed could have saved his life, and that Smith’s pot use probably even made his heart attack more likely.
Debates like these are likely to continue until the government frees the medical community from the shackles of prohibition, allowing them to conduct research that will determine exactly what risks or benefits cannabis may have for human health at large.