More Americans are seeking treatment for cannabis-related health problems, a U.N. agency said Thursday in a report that is likely to intensify the U.S. debate on marijuana legalization.
Washington and Colorado became the first U.S. states to legalize recreational marijuana after voters backed the move in 2012.
Citing statistics from before the legalization took effect, the number of people in the United States age 12 or older who used cannabis at least once in the previous year rose to 12.1 percent in 2012, from 10.3 percent in 2008, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Increased pot use by Americans is partly fueled by a misperception of the health risks, the UNODC report said. It cautioned that although the public may perceive marijuana to be the least harmful of illicit drugs, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of people seeking treatment for cannabis-use disorders over the past decade.
In the U.S. from 2006 to 2010, there was a 59 percent increase in cannabis-related hospital emergency room visits and a 14 percent increase in cannabis-related treatment admissions, the report said.
Additionally, the report found that there was more tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in seized cannabis crops in the U.S, with levels rising to 11.9 percent in 2011, from 8.7 percent in 2007. THC is the main mind-altering chemical found in marijuana.
Because of the relationship between increased potency and dependence, that trend may be contributing to the increased risk of drug-use disorders, the report said.
The primary reason for increased levels of THC is genetic selection by cannabis producers, according to Dr. Mahmoud A. ElSohly, as quoted by news website Politifact.
Producers are breeding marijuana plants with the highest concentration of THC with the aim of creating a product that enables them to sell smaller volumes for higher prices, according to ElSohly, who manages the federal government’s research marijuana farm at the University of Mississippi.
The legalization of cannabis, coupled with higher THC levels, has begun to raise alarm bells in the medical community.
“The current wave of decriminalization may lead to more widespread use, and it is important that cardiologists be made aware of the potential for marijuana-associated adverse cardiovascular effects that may begin to occur in the population at a greater frequency,” said a study published in January in the American Journal of Cardiology.
The study noted an association between marijuana use and serious health problems, including sudden cardiac death, myocardial infarction and stroke.
“The potential for increased use of marijuana in the changing legal landscape suggests the need for the community to intensify research regarding the safety of marijuana use and for cardiologists to maintain an awareness of the potential for adverse effects,” the study said.
Initiation and use among youths and young adults is of particular concern because of the established risk of harm, the U.N. report noted.
Risks posed to youth include lung problems, memory impairment, risk of heavy dependence, mental health problems and poor cognitive performance, according to the U.N. report.
Noting the increase in THC levels, the National Institutes of Health warned in 2013 that “daily use can have stronger effects on a developing teen brain than it did 10 or 20 years ago.”
Although Washington state and Colorado have legalized recreational marijuana and 20 more have legalized medical use, federal law still prohibits sales.
In December, Uruguay became the first country to legalize growing, selling and smoking marijuana — a pioneering social experiment aimed at wresting control of the crop from dangerous criminals. The experiment is being closely watched by other countries, including the U.S., that are debating the drug’s legalization.
Critics say legalization will not only increase consumption but also open the door to the use of much harder drugs, including heroin.
But with the U.S.-led war on drugs facing mounting criticism for its failure to curb the illicit business, success in Uruguay could fuel legalization efforts elsewhere.