UMKC student researchers find health hazards associated with marijuana use

Kavelin Rumalla and Adithi Reddy

For generations, marijuana has been the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States. It is considered to have so few adverse effects that Colorado, Oregon and Washington have legalized marijuana, and more states are considering decriminalization.

However, results of a study by two second-year University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine students, Kavelin Rumalla and Adithi Y. Reddy, and Manoj K. Mittal M.D., an assistant professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center, turn the notion upside down. Their study, published in the Journal of Neurological Sciences, found that recreational use of marijuana increases the likelihood of hospitalization for acute ischemic stroke by 17 percent.

The report concludes that a lack of high-level evidence regarding the adverse effects of marijuana usage on cerebrovascular health has permitted the false notion that recreational marijuana is safe.

“While we are politically neutral on the topic of marijuana, we believe society deserves to know about its potential health consequences,” said Rumalla, lead author on the manuscript.

Ischemic stroke is typically caused by plaque build up in arteries inside the skull or from blood clots that move from the body to the brain. It is the leading cause of long-term disability and the third-leading cause of death in the United States, affecting nearly 800,000 Americans a year.

Rumalla and Reddy investigated the relationship between marijuana use and hospitalization for ischemic stroke using data collected between 2004 and 2011 from the largest hospital inpatient database in the United States. Their report, “Recreational marijuana use and acute ischemic stroke: A population-based analysis of hospitalized patients in the United States,” says the incidence of ischemic stroke was significantly greater among marijuana users than non-users, particularly in the 25- to 34-year-old age group.

“There’s a gap in public knowledge about the health effects of marijuana,” said Reddy. “The challenge is that it’s difficult to research marijuana in a widespread prospective clinical study because it is illegal in most parts of the country. This makes epidemiological studies like ours even more important at this point in time.”

The study compared the incidence of stroke among 2,496,165 marijuana users and 116,163,453 non-users. It concluded that marijuana use was independently associated with an increased likelihood of hospitalization for stroke among adults ages 15 to 54.

The research also supported the notion that marijuana is a gateway drug, as users are more likely to also use other substances including tobacco and cocaine.

“That’s even more hazardous to health when combined with marijuana use,” Rumalla said.

The aftermath of a stroke can include weakness, numbness and stiffness physically; emotional experiences, changes and problems; and the process of thinking, remembering and recognizing things can become challenging, according to the National Stroke Association.

“This is important research,” said Steven L. Kanter, dean of the UMKC School of Medicine and a neurosurgeon. “The prevailing thought about marijuana use is that there aren’t that many side effects. But this study shows us that recreational marijuana usage independently associates with hospitalizations for stroke. And life after a stroke can be most difficult.”