Is Cannabis Heart Healthy? NIH Funds Novel Study

UM News,

SONHS is proud to announce a new four-year, $2.9 million NIH grant for PI Denise C. Vidot, assistant professor, to study the impact of various types of cannabis use on heart disease, the #1 cause of mortality in the U.S.


Marijuana, or cannabis, use has changed dramatically in the past ten years. According to epidemiologist and noted cannabis researcher Denise C. Vidot, PhD, in the past decade evidence suggests that the potency of the psychoactive component found in cannabis, known as THC, has increased from 3.7% to 30%. And with one in five adults living in U.S. states where cannabis is legal, more people than ever are using cannabis, with the highest prevalence of use among 18-25 year olds (35%). Given the new laws and new ways of using the plant for recreational and medicinal purposes in the United States, such as electronic vaporizing devices, cannabis has quickly become part of the national landscape.

But evidence-based research has not kept pace with rapid changes on the ground, argues Vidot, an assistant professor at the University of Miami School of Nursing and Health Studies. To help close the wide gap of uncertainty surrounding the impact of cannabinoid levels on health, Vidot proposed a study examining the relationship between THC (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol), CBD (cannabidiol), and cardiovascular diseases, the umbrella term for a range of heart conditions that kill one person every 37 seconds in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The impact of THC on cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk is unclear,” says Vidot. “Studies suggest that THC may play a role in adverse cardiovascular health; however, the combined levels of THC and nonpsychoactive compounds within cannabis, such as cannabidiol, on CVD risk are understudied as well. Accumulating evidence suggests that the CBD has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that are beneficial to the cardiovascular system.”

In July, Vidot received a four-year research project grant (R01) totaling $2,866,576 from the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute for her collaborative study, “The Effects of Cannabinoids and Route of Cannabis Administration on Subclinical Cardiovascular Disease Risk.” This is Vidot’s first major NIH award as principal investigator (PI).

Vidot and a multidisciplinary team from the University of Miami and Florida International University will examine the cardiovascular impact of cannabis use among 18-30 year olds by cannabinoid levels and routes of use. Vidot will compare subclinical CVD risk in cannabis users versus nonusers of cannabis and tobacco, and subclinical CVD risk based on the users’ most common route of administration, including blunts (cannabis rolled into a tobacco leaf), joints (cannabis rolled in paper with no added tobacco), or electronic device (vape).

CVD risk factors to be studied include waist circumference, blood pressure, fasting lipid profile, glucose, C-reactive protein, and vascular function. Measures will be collected at baseline and again a year later. THC/CBD levels will be quantified through blood and urine samples.

“We hypothesize that there will be a differential effect of subclinical CVD risk by route of administration,” says Vidot.

The study is unique in several ways, she adds. First, no other study has examined the impact of urine- and blood-quantified THC/CBD levels by route of administration at multiple time points on objective measures of subclinical CVD risk in this age group. It is also among the first to implement recommendations from the recent National Academies of Science Report on the Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids, which cited Vidot’s research on cannabis and metabolic syndrome as one of the two published studies in the literature.

The study will contribute to public health by informing responsible cannabis use and potentially identifying levels of THC/CBD that could be associated with dangerous cardiovascular outcomes for cannabis users at increased risk for heart disease.  

A previous pilot study Vidot conducted with similar cannabis use and subclinical CVD risk assessment confirmed feasibility and informed the aims and hypotheses of this larger study. Vidot’s co-investigators on the NIH-supported study include UM cardiologist Claudia Martinez, UM psychologist Barry Hurwitz, UM forensic toxicologist Lisa Reidy, UM biostatistician Kristopher Arheart, and FIU substance use psychologist Raul Gonzalez.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Heart, Lung, And Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01HL153467. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.