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Marijuana Use and Oral Health
Sarita Arteaga, DMD, MAGD
Continuing Education Units: 1 hour
Online Course:
Disclaimer: Participants must always be aware of the hazards of using limited knowledge in integrating new techniques or
procedures into their practice. Only sound evidence-based dentistry should be used in patient therapy.
The legalization of marijuana for medical use and additionally for recreational use in several states has
stimulated the need for oral health professionals to be aware of the incidence of use among their patients
and the impact on oral health. Upon completion of this course, oral health care professionals will have
a better understanding of the demographics, mechanisms, general health and oral health implications of
Conflict of Interest Disclosure Statement
• Dr. Arteaga is a member of the Advisory Board.
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The legalization of marijuana for medical use and additionally for recreational use in several states has
stimulated the need for oral health professionals to be aware of the incidence of use among their patients
and the impact on oral health.
Learning Objectives
Upon completion of this course, the dental professional should be able to:
• Be familiar with the demographics of marijuana use among all age groups.
• Understand the mechanism of action of THC, consequences on the general health and the oral health
implications with the use of marijuana.
• Understand the risks of oral cancer development, caries and periodontal disease in the marijuana user.
Course Contents
Medical Association (AMA) has released a
November 2013 statement that “cannabis is a
dangerous drug and as such is a public health
concern... but acknowledged the changing
attitudes toward marijuana among the American
public.”3 The AMA encourages continued
research of marijuana and potential medical
uses. Currently the medical conditions for which
patients can use cannabis as determined by
legislation are: cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS,
muscle spasms, seizures, severe pain, severe
nausea and cachexia (weight loss, muscle
atrophy, fatigue and loss of appetite). Specifically,
therapeutic benefits for spasticity symptoms of
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) are being studied, and the
use of cannabis for cancer pain is suggested. In
certain states, other debilitating medical conditions
can warrant the use of cannabis: amyotrophic
lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease),
Alzheimer’s disease and post-traumatic stress
disorder (PTSD). Synthetic cannaboids that are
prescribed such as Marinol (Dronabinol) and
Cesamet (Nabilone) are classified as Schedule
II and III and used for the nausea and loss of
appetite with chemotherapy patients. Clinical trials
using Sativex® for use in MS spasticity and cancer
pain are currently in Phase II and III studies in the
U.S, but already in use in Europe.
• Mechanism of Action and General Health
• Oral Health Implications Consistent with
Marijuana Use
• Risk of Oral Cancer Development
• Course Test Preview
• References
• About the Author
The legalization of marijuana use in some form
in 21 states of the United States (U.S.) and the
District of Columbia to date (April 2014) has called
attention for providers to the potential impact on
general and oral health of patients.
The states of Colorado and Washington have
legalized marijuana for recreational use, in
addition to medical uses. Interestingly, the
revenues expected from this legalization
have fallen short of $30 million of tax revenue
predictions in Colorado, where the tax rate is set
at approximately 31% (15% excise tax, 10% state
retail tax, 2.9% state sales tax and a local sales
tax of 3.5%) with actual collections of tax to be
$21 million this past year. Taxes in the state of
Washington are imposed at 44% for the sale of
marijuana. Marijuana is considered a Schedule
I substance by the federal government under the
Controlled Substance Act, which is described to
have no recognized medicinal use and a potential
risk for abuse.2,15
Recent statistics of marijuana use in the U.S. from
a national survey in 2009 by the National Institute
on Drug Abuse indicate that more than 104 million
Americans over the age of 12 had tried marijuana
at least once. Peak usage for marijuana occurs in
the late teens and early twenties, yet slightly less
than half of adults polled by the Pew Research
Center reveal using marijuana with 12% using it in
the past year.1,4
The controversy over the medical uses for
marijuana (cannabis) continues as the American
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Figure 1. Marijuana Laws in 50 States.
Figure 2. Marijuana Use Increased Over the Last Decade.
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The chemical in marijuana, delta-9tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that targets the
cannabinoid receptors has been determined to be
more potent today than it was just a few decades
ago in the 1980s. The THC concentrations
averaged 15% in 2012, compared to 4% in the
1980s. This higher concentration may increase
the risk of effects from the drug and/or the potential
tests between the ages of 13 and 38 with those
individuals who smoked heavily, beginning in their
teen years. These cognitive abilities are unable to
be restored in adulthood.2
Other health effects of marijuana include an
increase in respiratory rate, heart rate, and blood
pressure, with this effect lasting more than three
hours. The risk of a heart attack increases by
up to 4.8 fold in the first hour after smoking
marijuana. This risk is greater in those with risk
factors such as high blood pressure, arrhythmias
or other cardiac diseases. Changes within the
lungs from smoking marijuana involve enlargement
of the bronchial passages after relaxation of the
blood vessels. In addition, engorgement of the
blood vessels in the eyes causes a reddened
appearance. The hydrocarbons found in
marijuana smoke are 50-70% more carcinogenic
than tobacco smoke and an irritant to the lungs.
Respiratory conditions common in tobacco
smokers such as daily cough, phlegm production
and risk of lung infections are also found in
marijuana smokers. There are currently no studies
that confirm the risk for lung cancer with marijuana
The number of emergency room visits in 2008
documented in the U.S. connected to marijuana
use has steadily increased to over 370,000,
particularly in the 12-17 year old age group. Due
to the impact on judgment and perception, driving
can be dangerous when smoking marijuana
and after alcohol, it is the second most frequent
substance found in drivers implicated in fatal
automobile accidents.
Mechanism of Action and General Health
The dried leaves, stems or flowers of the
Cannabis Sativa hemp plant are used to produce
marijuana. The sticky resin from the plant can be
concentrated to produce hashish or hash oil. The
concentrations of THC differ in each component:
7-12% in the leaves, 2-8% in hashish and 15-20%
in the hash oil. The most common way of using
cannabis is through smoking, similarly to smoking
a cigarette (hand rolled), in a pipe or water
pipe (bong) or through ingestion in food. Other
chemicals are found in marijuana: cannabidiol,
cannabinol and β-caryophyllene, which adversely
affect health.15
Links to mental illnesses with marijuana use
have been observed with suicidal thoughts
among adolescents, depression, anxiety and an
increase risk of developing schizophrenia or other
psychoses. The impairment to judgment with
marijuana use allows for the contribution to the risk
of injury, particularly in motor vehicle accidents. A
study from Columbia's Mailman School of Public
Health collected data from toxicology reports on
drivers of over 20,000 fatal automobile accidents
and found that marijuana was involved in 12% of
those crashes.6 Addiction to marijuana is possible,
contrary to common beliefs, with 9% of users
becoming addicted to marijuana, particularly with
those who start in their teens with 25-50% who use
marijuana daily.15
THC effects are immediate, with absorption
directly to the bloodstream via the lungs if
smoked, and carried to other organs and the
brain. The psychoactive effects occur within
the endocannabinoid system, affecting parts
of the brain and cognitive impairment. Certain
areas in the brain, such as the hippocampus, the
cerebellum, the basal ganglia and the cerebral
cortex, have a higher concentration of cannabinoid
receptors. These receptors influence sensory
and time perception, coordinated movement,
thinking, concentration and memory. Several
studies document the loss of short-term memory
and other reports detail a compromise of longerterm memory based on the amount and duration
of use. One study related a loss of 8 points in IQ
Oral Health Implications Consistent with
Marijuana Use
Research confirms an association with poor oral
health and alcohol dependence and marijuana use
due to a number of reasons: hygiene habits, poor
diet choices, attitudes about care or limited access
to care.9 Marijuana use induces salivary reduction
causing xerostomia along with an increased
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Risk of Oral Cancer Development
appetite after marijuana use, in particular for
cariogenic foods, which in turn can increase the
risk for caries.14 A higher level of DMFT (decayed,
missing and filled teeth) scores has been
documented as described by Cho.8 In addition,
a trend analysis by Ditmyer has supported
these findings over an eight year span looking
at the effect of tobacco and marijuana use in
adolescents residing in Nevada with “an increased
prevalence and severity of caries.”10
Several studies endeavor to relate oral cancer with
marijuana use and smoke, with mixed results.5 In
one study described by Hall, Zhang found a 2.6
times more likely association of primary squamous
cell carcinoma of the head and neck in marijuana
users after adjusting for cigarette smoking, alcohol
use and other risk factors.12 The mechanism
by which marijuana may act as a carcinogen is
unclear, and the reported cases of marijuana use
with squamous cell carcinoma cannot adjust other
risk factors in other studies.11 In a case control
study included in an epidemiologic review of
marijuana use and cancer risk, increased risk to
oral cancer is suggested, but the difficulty exists
when measuring the use of marijuana, tobacco,
alcohol and other drugs in this population of
Additional effects of marijuana on oral health
involve the periodontium. Oral mucosa and gingival
tissues exhibit changes such as leukoedema, which
may be in part due to the irritants in the marijuana
smoke. Gingivitis and alveolar bone loss are
documented with chronic inflammation and gingival
hyperplasia.16,18,19 The risk of periodontal diseases
may be related to this inflammation and the
“increased prevalence of opportunistic infections.”17
The suppression of the immune regulatory system
with the “inhibition of lymphocytic proliferation,
antibody production, natural killer cell activity and
macrophage activity” are the major mechanism
of action to reduce resistance to bacterial or viral
infection.7 Furthermore, an increased prevalence
of Candida albicans can be demonstrated with this
diminished immune response and the ability of C.
albicans to use the hydrocarbons from cannabis as
an energy source.19
With the recent escalation of marijuana use due
to legalization for both medicinal and recreational
use in the U.S., the importance of understanding
the demographics, mechanisms, general health
and oral health implications is crucial for health
care providers. The side effects created by
marijuana use and the risk for oral cancer that
can impact treatment for patients are significant
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Course Test Preview
To receive Continuing Education credit for this course, you must complete the online test. Please go to:
More than twenty states have legalized marijuana for medical use; which states have
legalized recreational use?
New York and New Jersey
California and Texas
Colorado and Washington
Washington DC and Oregon
The American Medical Association has endorsed and encourages the use of medical marijuana
for specific conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.
THC, the chemical in marijuana, attaches to which receptors?
Marijuana has been found in drivers responsible for fatal automobile accidents:
cannabinoid receptors
endonoid receptors
addiction centers of the brain
delta receptors
when used in conjunction with alcohol
in over 370,000 cases
involving 12% of fatal accidents reviewed in one study
in young adults aged 17-21
5.The Cannabis Sativa plant produces marijuana in what form?
as dried stems and leaves
in a sticky resin form
hashish and hash oil
all of the above
Health effects from using marijuana include:
What specific mental illness can be linked to marijuana use?
increased heart rate
increased respiratory rate
increased blood pressure
decreased peripheral blood flow
a, b, c only
d. all of the above
e. none of the above
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The risk of a heart attack after marijuana use increases:
Oral health changes noted with marijuana use include:
by half
4.8 fold
3 hours after use
10 times
c. gingival hyperplasia
d. a and b
e. a and c
f. a, b and c
10. The risk of oral cancer has been documented in every case study presented with marijuana use.
11. Candidica albicans can thrive in an environment with marijuana use because:
the warm environment form the smoke
the hydrocarbons act as an energy source
poor oral hygiene
ingestion of cariogenic foods
12. One of the proposed mechanism of action for implicating marijuana in periodontal changes
suppression of the immune regulatory system
poor attitude towards hygiene
lack of adequate care of the patient
incorrect brushing techniques
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1. Motel S. 6 facts about marijuana. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. November 5,
2014. Accessed December 10, 2014.
2. Marijuana. Accessed December 10, 2014.
3. Sabet K. American Medical Association Opposes Marijuana Legalization; Support Health-First
Approach to Marijuana Use. American Medical Association. In Featured, Legalization, Marijuana in
media, Project SAM, Smart Policy. Posted Nov 19, 2013. Accessed December 13, 2014.
4. Marijuana: Changing Attitudes. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. pg. 8. Posted Apr
4, 2013. Accessed December 10, 2014.
5. Ahrens A, Bressi T. Marijuana as promoter for oral cancer? More than a Suspect. Addict Disorders
Treat. 2007;6(3):117-119.
6. Brady J, Li G. Trends in alcohol and other drugs detected in fatally injured drivers in the United
States, 1999-2010. Am J Epidemiol. 2014 Mar 15;179(6):692-9.
7. Chang Y, Lee S, Lin W. Effects of cannabinoids on LPS-stimulated inflammatory mediator release
from macrophages: involvement of eicosanoids. J Cell Biochem. 2001;81(4):715-23.
8. Cho CM, Hirsch R, Johnstone S. General and oral health implications of cannabis use. Aust Dent J.
2005 Jun;50(2):70-4.
9. D’Amore MM, Cheng DM, Kressin NR, et al. Oral health of substance-dependent individuals: impact
of specific substances. J Subs Abuse Treat. 2011 Sep;41(2):179-85.
10. Ditmyer M, Demopoulos C, McClain M, et al. The effect of tobacco and marijuana use on dental
health status in Nevada adolescents: a trend analysis. J Adolesc Health. 2013 May;52(5):641-48.
11. Firth N. Marijuana use and oral cancer: a review. Oral Oncol. 1997 Nov;33(6):398-401.
12. Hall W, Christie M, Currow D. Cannabinoids and cancer: causation, remediation, and palliation.
Lancet Oncol. 2005 Jan;6(1):35-42.
13. Hashibe M, Straif K, Tashkin D, et al. Epidemiologic review of marijuana use and cancer risk.
Alcohol. 2005 Apr;35(3):265-75.
14. Iversen L. Cannabis and the brain. Brain. 2003 Jun;126(Pt 6):1252-70.
15. Marijuana. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Revised January 2014. Accessed December 10, 2014.
16. Nogueria-Filho GR, Todescan S, Shah A, et al. Impact of cannabis sativa (marijuana) smoke on
alveolar bone loss:a histometric study in rats. J Periodontol. 2011 Nov;82(11):1602-7.
17. Roy S. Drugs of abuse effects on immunity and microbial pathogenesis. J Neuroimmune
Pharmacol. 2011 Dec;6(4):435-8.
18. Thomson WM, Poulton R, Broadbent JM, et al. Cannabis smoking and periodontal disease among
young adults. JAMA. 2008 Feb 6;299(5):525-31.
19. Versteeg PA, Slot DE, van der Velden U, et al. Effect of cannabis usage on oral environment: a
review. Int J Dent Hyg. 2008 Nov;6(4):315-20.
About the Author
Sarita Arteaga, DMD, MAGD
Dr. Arteaga is an Associate Clinical Professor at the University of Connecticut School of Dental
Medicine, teaching Operative Dentistry and Prosthodontics in the Department of Reconstructive
Sciences. She attained a Mastership from the Academy of General Dentistry and is a member of
numerous dental associations, including the Hispanic Dental Association, Academy of General Dentistry,
National Dental Association, and American Dental Education Association. Sarita is the Past-President
for the Hispanic Dental Association and currently serves as the President of the HDA Foundation.
Email: [email protected]
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