The grey area, however, is not just about what is permitted. It’s also about who determines what happens to physicians who are found using cannabis. This task often falls to physician health programs, semi-voluntary organizations that are meant to direct physicians to rehab or report dangerous behavior. State licensing boards, like the one in Washington, often defer to these organizations to evaluate the physicians and recommend a course of action.
Yolanda Ng was on the cusp of a full time job as a pediatric nephrologist at Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in Spokane, Washington, in the summer of 2014. She was going through the motions of onboarding at the hospital—filling out paperwork and finalizing her new position. Then she took a drug test, and it came back positive for cannabis use.
In Ng’s case, the physician health program she was referred to conducted an interview, determined they couldn’t make a conclusion, and referred her to Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Center, an addiction program, for a $5000, three-day evaluation. And while the psychologist and psychiatrist determined she wasn’t at risk, Ng tells me that one of the program’s counselors decided she had “severe substance abuse” and that her marijuana use had permanently impacted her brain.
Cases like Ng’s have cropped up across the country. There’s the neurosurgery resident in California who said she smoked weed on her days off. Or one of Li’s current clients in Washington who was only reported and tested when a patient complained about him after he refused to prescribe unnecessary opioids. Physician Paul Bregman in Colorado lost his medical license after he used marijuana as a treatment for bipolar disorder.
Doctors have spoken out against the state programs and their treatment of doctors in the past, saying the programs are not looking out for physicians like Ng. “Mandating people go for evaluations at physician health programs solely on the basis of a marijuana test is ridiculous,” says J. Wesley Boyd, a physician and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “The fact that the state board of medicine in Washington state went along with that is appalling.”
There are no specific laws that govern what a physician can and cannot do when it comes to cannabis. It’s widely accepted that a doctor cannot legally practice if his or her work is compromised by any drug—be it opioids, alcohol, or weed. But marijuana poses a specific challenge since the substance can stay in your system, and show up on drug tests, for up to a month after use. There is no way to distinguish between someone who smoked a joint in the morning before work and one who did so three weeks ago on a weekend.
Physician health programs are controversial in the medical community, and have been criticized for forcing doctors into unnecessary treatment. There’s also the chance that these programs have a financial interest in sending physicians to costly treatment centers. “They’re pursuing our clients when there are dangerous doctors out there,” Li says, referring to physicians who put their patients’ safety at risk.
There is a dearth of research on the long-term use of cannabis, and we still don’t know if using the drug has permanent impact on cognitive functioning in adults. But Bundy says the program would never make a decision about referral for evaluation, treatment or monitoring based only on the frequency of cannabis use. Instead, he says it has to be evaluated in the context of the other clinical information available. (Bundy didn’t comment on any specific cases.)
Now Ng’s story is another cautionary tale, adding to a growing number from medical professionals facing repercussions for using medical and recreational cannabis in the 23 states where it has been decriminalized. As the country continues to push for legalization, the lack of clarity and regulation within the medical establishment is leaving physicians in the crosshairs with little guidance and often fewer rights than other working citizens.
Even in states where cannabis is legal.
While we wish the answer was as clear cut as “yes, smoking weed is bad for you” or “no, smoking weed isn’t bad for you,” the truth is a bit more complicated.
People use cannabis in different ways, for different reasons, and have different experiences. Many people smoke weed and encounter no negative side effects whatsoever. Some find tremendous relief from conditions like PTSD or chronic pain. These people would probably say smoking weed is not bad for them.
But what about smoking weed? Are there any risks? Does smoking carry more side effects than other consumption methods?
That all began to change once legalization, both medical and recreational, started spreading across the country. Today, cannabis has become much more normalized and many people not only disagree with the idea that cannabis is bad for you, they actually incorporate weed into their wellness routines.
Research shows that smoking cannabis doesn’t have the same risks as smoking cigarettes. (Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps)
But others smoke weed and have a different experience. Weed can make some people feel anxious, tired, or unmotivated. In extreme cases, they may develop cannabis use disorder. For those people, smoking weed probably isn’t the best choice.
While the majority of people in the above-mentioned groups should avoid smoking cannabis, there are exceptions, particularly when cannabis is prescribed for medical reasons. Again, the only way to determine whether smoking weed is good or bad in any particular situation is to evaluate the risks and benefits, apply them to yourself and your situation, and come to a personal conclusion for yourself and your health.
There are certain groups of people who should avoid cannabis, including:
But research shows that smoking cannabis just doesn’t have the same risks as smoking cigarettes. While smoking weed to excess may lead to respiratory issues (like bronchitis or, in severe cases, COPD), there has been no causal link found between smoking weed and cancer , one of the biggest risks associated with smoking cigarettes. In fact, research shows that some of the compounds in cannabis show potential for slowing the growth of cancerous tumors .
Is Smoking Weed Bad For You? Thanks to a decades-long smear campaign (“Reefer Madness,” anyone?), a large portion of the US population operated under the assumption that weed was always bad.