ATLANTA - Annette has been smoking marijuana every day for almost 40 years. She has no prescription for it, it's not legal in Georgia, but at 65, she can't imagine getting through the day without it.
"When I have a headache, I can puff marijuana and take it away," she says. "If I have nausea, marijuana takes nausea away."
With polls showing most Americans now favor making marijuana legal, cardiologist Dr. Michael Balk, Director of the Heart and Vascular Institute at Northside Hospital cautions smoking the drug is *not* risk-free.
Balk heads up the board of the American Heart Association Metro Atlanta/Southeast chapter, and he says smoking marijuana can trigger a physiological change that may raise a person's risk of cardiac event.
He says it can raise your heart rate, blood pressure, and trigger hormonal changes that can send you into "fight-or-flight" mode, especially in the minutes after you light up.
"They have found that in the first hour of smoking, the risk of a cardiac event was probably four to five times higher than in the general population," Dr. Balk says. "After about an hour, that risk goes down."
Balk says a 2016 study found smoking marijuana may your risk of "broken heart syndrome," a temporary weakening of the heart muscle, usually brought by sudden stress, that can look and feel like a heart attack.
It typically occurs in older women. But researchers noticed younger men, with fewer risk factors for cardiovascular disease, seemed to be at an increased-risk.
"You'd expect them to be healthier," Balk says. "But, in fact, they found the opposite. They (the younger men) actually had a 3-times higher risk of cardiac arrest, 3 times. That is impressive."
But the research is complicated. One study showed more than 70 percent of marijuana smokers also smoke cigarettes. So, Balk says, it's impossible to say whether the marijuana, the cigarettes or something else is triggering the heart problems researchers are seeing. And marijuana is consumed in many forms, further clouding the research.
"The overall incidence of having a cardiac event is still low," he says. "It's over 1% probably but less than 3 percent."
So, what advice does the cardiologist have for people for smokers?
"I think the important take-home message for people is if they are going to smoke, and they develop chest pain, shortness of breath, chest pressure, don't ignore it. Seek medical care."