Risks and Side Effects

As the use of medical marijuana continues to gain acceptance in New York and beyond, it’s crucial for patients, caregivers, and healthcare providers to understand not only its therapeutic benefits but also its potential risks and side effects.

While medical marijuana can offer significant relief for a variety of health conditions, like any medication, it can also have side effects. These can range from mild, short-term effects like dry mouth and dizziness to more significant, long-term effects, depending on various factors such as the method of consumption, dosage, and the individual’s health status.

This article aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the potential risks and side effects associated with medical marijuana use. We will delve into the specifics of common side effects, discuss the risks of certain health conditions, and provide guidance on managing and mitigating these side effects. Our goal is to equip you with the knowledge you need to use medical marijuana safely and effectively.

Table of Contents


Brief Overview of Medical Marijuana in New York

In New York, the Compassionate Care Act of 2014 marked the legalization of medical marijuana, providing a new treatment avenue for patients with specific severe, debilitating, or life-threatening conditions. 

Governed by the New York State Department of Health, the medical marijuana program has seen progressive expansion over the years, both in terms of qualifying conditions and the variety of medical marijuana products available. 

Today, thousands of New Yorkers utilize medical marijuana as a part of their healthcare regimen, finding relief from symptoms that traditional medications could not adequately address.

Importance of Understanding Risks and Side Effects

While the therapeutic benefits of medical marijuana are widely recognized, it’s equally important to understand the potential risks and side effects. Like any medication, medical marijuana can have side effects, which can range from mild to severe and can vary based on factors such as dosage, method of consumption, and individual health status. 

Understanding these risks and side effects is crucial for patients to make informed decisions about their treatment, for healthcare providers to guide their patients effectively, and for caregivers to provide the necessary support. It also informs discussions about safety regulations, patient education, and the ongoing development of medical marijuana laws and policies.

Understanding Cannabinoids and Potential Risks

Overview of Cannabinoids (THC, CBD)

Cannabinoids are the active compounds found in the cannabis plant that give it its therapeutic and psychoactive properties. The two most well-known cannabinoids are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). 

THC is the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis, responsible for the “high” associated with marijuana use. CBD, on the other hand, is not psychoactive but has a wide range of therapeutic effects.

Potential Risks Associated with THC and CBD

While THC and CBD have therapeutic benefits, they also come with potential risks. High doses of THC can lead to short-term side effects such as impaired memory and coordination, increased heart rate, anxiety, and paranoia. Long-term use can lead to cognitive impairment, particularly in those who start using marijuana at a young age, and potential dependency.


CBD is generally well-tolerated and has fewer side effects. However, it can cause dry mouth, reduced appetite, drowsiness, and interact with other medications, altering their effectiveness. It’s also worth noting that many products on the market are not regulated, leading to inconsistencies in the quality and dosage of CBD.

The Role of Individual Factors in Risk

The risks associated with THC and CBD can be influenced by individual factors. For instance, genetics can play a role in how an individual metabolizes and responds to these cannabinoids. Pre-existing health conditions, particularly mental health disorders, liver disease, and cardiovascular conditions, can also increase the risk of adverse effects. 

Additionally, the method of consumption (smoking, vaping, edibles, etc.) and dosage can significantly impact the risk of side effects. It’s crucial for individuals to discuss these factors with their healthcare provider when considering medical marijuana as a treatment option.

Common Side Effects of Medical Marijuana

Short-term Side Effects

The short-term side effects of medical marijuana are usually related to THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis. These can include dry mouth, red eyes, increased heart rate, dizziness or lightheadedness, and short-term memory impairment. Some people may also experience anxiety or paranoia, particularly with high doses of THC. These effects typically wear off as the effects of the THC subside.

Long-term Side Effects

Long-term side effects of medical marijuana are less well understood, as they can be harder to study and can vary widely among individuals. However, some potential long-term side effects have been identified. These include cognitive effects, particularly in those who start using marijuana at a young age, such as difficulties with memory, attention, and problem-solving. 

There is also a risk of dependency, particularly with heavy use of high-THC cannabis. Some people may experience mental health issues, such as worsening anxiety or depression, particularly those with a pre-existing mental health condition.

Risks Associated with Different Forms of Consumption

The method of consumption can significantly impact the risks associated with medical marijuana. Smoking cannabis can lead to respiratory issues, similar to those caused by smoking tobacco, including chronic bronchitis and lung inflammation. Edibles, on the other hand, carry a risk of overconsumption, as they take longer to take effect than smoked or vaped cannabis. 

This delay can lead people to consume more than intended, resulting in uncomfortably strong effects. Vaping, while often perceived as safer than smoking, has been associated with severe lung injury, although this is believed to be relatively rare and linked to specific additives in some vape products. Each method of consumption has its own set of risks, and it’s important for individuals to consider these when choosing how to use medical marijuana.

Risks and Side Effects for Specific Conditions

Risks for Patients with Mental Health Conditions

While medical marijuana can have therapeutic benefits for certain mental health conditions, it can also pose risks. For instance, high-THC cannabis can exacerbate symptoms in individuals with pre-existing anxiety or mood disorders. There’s also evidence suggesting a link between heavy cannabis use and an increased risk of developing psychotic disorders, particularly in individuals with a genetic predisposition. Therefore, patients with mental health conditions should use medical marijuana under the close supervision of a healthcare provider.

Risks for Patients with Heart Conditions

Cannabis use can cause a temporary increase in heart rate and blood pressure, which can be risky for individuals with heart conditions. There’s also some evidence that cannabis use can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, particularly in older individuals. Therefore, patients with heart conditions should discuss these risks with their healthcare provider before using medical marijuana.

Risks for Patients with Liver Disease

Cannabis is metabolized in the liver, and heavy use can potentially lead to liver disease. Additionally, patients with pre-existing liver disease may have altered cannabis metabolism, which could increase the risk of side effects. There’s also some evidence that cannabis use can exacerbate the course of hepatitis C. Therefore, patients with liver disease should use medical marijuana with caution and under the supervision of a healthcare provider.

Managing and Mitigating Side Effects

Role of Dosage and Administration Method

The dosage and method of administration play a significant role in managing and mitigating the side effects of medical marijuana. Lower doses of THC are less likely to cause side effects, so starting with a low dose and gradually increasing it can help minimize side effects. The method of administration can also impact side effects. For instance, edibles tend to produce longer-lasting and more intense effects than inhalation, but they also take longer to kick in, which can lead to overconsumption. Understanding these factors can help patients choose the most appropriate dosage and administration method for their needs.

Importance of Regular Monitoring and Communication with Healthcare Providers

Regular monitoring by a healthcare provider is crucial for managing and mitigating side effects. This allows for adjustments to the treatment plan as needed, such as changing the dosage or trying a different strain or form of medical marijuana. Regular communication with the healthcare provider also allows patients to report any side effects they’re experiencing so that these can be addressed promptly.

Lifestyle Modifications to Manage Side Effects

Certain lifestyle modifications can also help manage side effects. For instance, staying hydrated can help alleviate dry mouth, one of the most common side effects of medical marijuana. Consuming cannabis with food can help prevent dizziness and lightheadedness. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can also help the body metabolize cannabis more effectively, potentially reducing side effects. It’s also important for patients to avoid driving or operating heavy machinery when using medical marijuana, as it can impair motor skills and reaction time.

Role of Doctors in Managing Risks and Side Effects

How Doctors Assess Risk and Monitor Side Effects

Doctors play a crucial role in managing the risks and side effects of medical marijuana. They start by assessing the potential risk for each patient before recommending medical marijuana. This involves a comprehensive evaluation of the patient’s health status, medical history, current medications, and potential for drug interactions. Doctors also consider the patient’s mental health status, as individuals with certain mental health conditions may be at higher risk for adverse effects.


Once a patient starts using medical marijuana, doctors monitor for side effects through regular check-ups. This involves asking about any new or worsening symptoms, changes in mood or behavior, and any difficulties the patient may be experiencing with the medication.

Adjusting Treatment Plans to Manage Side Effects

If a patient experiences side effects, the doctor can adjust the treatment plan to help manage these. This could involve reducing the dosage, changing the strain or form of medical marijuana, or suggesting different methods of administration. For example, if a patient is experiencing anxiety or paranoia with a high-THC strain, the doctor might recommend a strain with a higher CBD-to-THC ratio.


In some cases, the doctor might recommend additional treatments to manage side effects. For instance, if a patient is experiencing significant dry mouth, the doctor might recommend specific hydrating products or treatments.


The goal is to maximize the therapeutic benefits of medical marijuana while minimizing side effects, ensuring that the patient can use the medication safely and effectively.

Legal and Ethical Considerations

Legal Risks Associated with Medical Marijuana Use

While medical marijuana is legal in New York, it remains classified as a Schedule I substance at the federal level, creating a complex legal landscape. Patients must adhere strictly to state regulations regarding possession limits, qualifying conditions, and use in public spaces to avoid legal repercussions. Additionally, because of the federal status of marijuana, activities like transporting medical marijuana across state lines can potentially lead to legal issues, even if it’s legal in the destination state.


Furthermore, despite protections in New York law, medical marijuana patients may face challenges related to employment, housing, and child custody. For instance, while employers in New York cannot discriminate against medical marijuana users, they can enforce drug-free workplace policies, which can create complications for patients.

Ethical Considerations for Doctors and Patients

For doctors, recommending medical marijuana involves navigating a range of ethical considerations. They must balance the potential benefits of medical marijuana against the risks and side effects, and they must consider the limitations of current research on medical marijuana. They also face the challenge of navigating the discrepancy between state and federal law.

For patients, using medical marijuana responsibly involves using the medication as recommended, not sharing it with others, and not using it in situations where it could pose a risk, such as driving. Patients also have a responsibility to communicate openly with their healthcare providers about their use of medical marijuana, including any side effects they’re experiencing, so that their treatment plan can be adjusted as needed.


In conclusion, while medical marijuana offers significant therapeutic benefits for many patients, it’s crucial to understand and manage the potential risks and side effects. These can vary widely among individuals and can be influenced by factors such as dosage, method of consumption, and individual health status. Regular monitoring by a healthcare provider and open communication about any side effects are key to managing these risks and ensuring that medical marijuana is used safely and effectively.


Furthermore, understanding the legal and ethical considerations associated with medical marijuana use is essential for both patients and healthcare providers. Despite the complexities and challenges, the goal remains the same: to ensure that patients who can benefit from medical marijuana have access to it and can use it responsibly, with the guidance and support of their healthcare provider.

As the landscape of medical marijuana continues to evolve, staying informed about the latest research, regulations, and best practices can help patients, healthcare providers, and caregivers navigate this field and make informed decisions about medical marijuana use.