Do recreational pot smokers have an empathy problem?

New research suggests that marijuana may weaken the heart. I think it does, in more ways than one.

Micky Wiswedel | Stocksy United

Renowned historian, journalist, film critic and author Roger Ebert believed that “empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.” Ironically, an increasing number of states are now legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, a hallucinogen that, among other things, compromises a user’s ability to authentically experience emotions and therefore genuinely empathize with others.

Having been a regular pot smoker for a brief period, one of the qualities I was most struck by when I ceased use altogether was the rawness of my emotions. Without the numbness that marijuana provided as a mask over stress, sadness and anger, I was forced to connect with myself in an entirely new way. It was painful, but because it enabled me to wholly relate to others who experienced those emotions, it was ultimately empowering—as if the fog over my heart had vanished, allowing it to once again beat with strength and passion.

The potential harms of recreational use

Therefore, I found it particularly ironic that a new research study, reported by CNN’s Hailey Middlebrook, is investigating the weakening effects that recreational marijuana use may have on heart muscles. Dr. Amitoj Singh, the cardiologist who led the study, acknowledged that when used for medicinal purposes, marijuana is extremely beneficial. In such cases, when used legally, the drug is effectively regulated and the amount of THC controlled. Singh’s intention, as Middlebrook stated, is “to draw attention to the potential harms of recreational use.”

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Singh’s team studied the data of over 33,300 patients who had been diagnosed with stress cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the muscle of the heart suddenly weakens, hindering its ability to effectively pump blood. Of the total number of patients, 210 were marijuana users and of these, most were young men. This was striking to Singh, who explained that, “stress cardiomyopathy most often occurs in older women.”

Additionally, the marijuana users did not possess certain risk factors, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, that normally cause the condition. According to a news release by the American Heart Association on the study, “[D]espite being younger and with fewer cardiovascular risk factors than non-users, during stress cardiomyopathy the marijuana users were significantly more likely to go into cardiac arrest and to require an implanted defibrillator to detect and correct dangerously abnormal heart rhythms.”

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In an effort to find out if marijuana use alone could cause stress cardiomyopathy, Singh’s team produced a model excluding all of the definitive causes of the condition. As a result, a significant correlation was found between the two. “Someone who uses marijuana is almost two times more likely to develop stress cardiomyopathy,” Singh noted.

Recreational marijuana use on a person’s ability to properly feel and process emotions is difficult to deny.

He also noted, however, that marijuana users were more likely than non-users to smoke cigarettes and use additional illicit drugs that could compromise their health.

Ultimately, as Middlebrook’s article notes, more research is necessary before a definitive connection can be made between cardiac health complications and marijuana use. Singh’s study does, however, raise red flags that the drug may not be as harmless as society tends to believe.

In any case, the effect of regular, long-term, recreational marijuana use on a person’s ability to properly feel and process emotions is difficult to deny. As Colorado addiction counselor John Gilburt wrote, “Pot is a wet blanket over your emotions. Over time, we lose the ability to respond and react to our feelings, surroundings and life in general.”

Gilburt refers to the use of marijuana recreationally in order to boost one’s mood as “self-medicating.” As opposed to receiving medication from a trained professional, an unqualified individual medicates himself or herself, likely unaware of the actual amount of THC they are taking in. As a result, “appropriate feelings that are associated with real things and events become distorted, twisted and lost.”

To be fully human, we must establish full relationships. This is only accomplished by relating to one another in meaningful, alert, sensitive ways. It is tempting to dull unpleasant or difficult emotions, but it’s only by working through them that we can be our authentic selves, true to both ourselves and others.

Elizabeth Pardi
Elizabeth Pardi

Elizabeth Pardi is a New York-born, Virginia-raised, Ohio-dwelling freelancer. She spends her days laughing, learning and running her way through life with her superstar spouse and their charmingly passionate one-year-old.

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