Epidemiologic review of marijuana use and cancer risk

Alcohol. 2005 Apr;35(3):265-75. doi: 10.1016/j.alcohol.2005.04.008.


Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States and is considered by young adults to be the illicit drug with the least risk. On the other hand, marijuana smoke contains several of the same carcinogens and co-carcinogens as the tar from tobacco, raising concerns that smoking of marijuana may be a risk factor for tobacco-related cancers. We reviewed two cohort studies and 14 case-control studies with assessment of the association of marijuana use and cancer risk. In the cohort studies, increased risks of lung or colorectal cancer due to marijuana smoking were not observed, but increased risks of prostate and cervical cancers among non-tobacco smokers, as well as adult-onset glioma among tobacco and non-tobacco smokers, were observed. The 14 case-control studies included four studies on head and neck cancers, two studies on lung cancer, two studies on non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, one study on anal cancer, one study on penile cancer, and four studies on childhood cancers with assessment of parental exposures. Zhang and colleagues reported that marijuana use may increase risk of head and neck cancers in a hospital-based case-control study in the United States, with dose-response relations for both frequency and duration of use. However, Rosenblatt and co-workers reported no association between oral cancer and marijuana use in a population-based case-control study. An eightfold increase in risk among marijuana users was observed in a lung cancer study in Tunisia. However, there was no assessment of the dose response, and marijuana may have been mixed with tobacco. Parental marijuana use during gestation was associated with increased risks of childhood leukemia, astrocytoma, and rhabdomyosarcoma, but dose-response relations were not assessed. In summary, sufficient studies are not available to adequately evaluate marijuana impact on cancer risk. Several limitations of previous studies include possible underreporting where marijuana use is illegal, small sample sizes, and too few heavy marijuana users in the study sample. Recommendations for future studies are to (1) focus on tobacco-related cancer sites; (2) obtain detailed marijuana exposure assessment, including frequency, duration, and amount of personal use as well as mode of use (smoked in a cigarette, pipe, or bong; taken orally); (3) adjust for tobacco smoking and conduct analyses on nonusers of tobacco; and (4) conduct larger studies, meta-analyses, or pooled analyses to maximize statistical precision and investigate sources of differences in results. Despite the challenges, elucidation of the association between marijuana use and cancer risk is important in weighing the benefits and risks of medical marijuana use and to clarify the impact of marijuana use on public health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cannabis / adverse effects*
  • Chronic Disease
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Marijuana Smoking / adverse effects*
  • Marijuana Smoking / epidemiology*
  • Neoplasms / chemically induced*
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Risk Assessment