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Will Marijuana Affect My Erections?

Marijuana’s effects on erectile function remain a subject of considerable scientific debate. Lack of clinical testing leaves unanswered many questions about the supposedly inhibitory effect of cannabis on men’s ability to get and keep an erection suitable for intercourse.

The ongoing debate about the effects of marijuana use on erectile function and overall sexual performance probably won’t be conclusively resolved any time soon. However, findings from research studies in recent years appear to have bolstered the case against pot, at least when it comes to weed’s effect on erectile function.

Absent, thus far, are findings from human studies, but evidence gathered in animal studies, including primate studies, as well as laboratory studies shows that marijuana may interfere with optimal erectile function.

Marijuana Eases Inhibitions

The pro-marijuana forces have always rested their case for pot on the benefits that flow from its ability to lower inhibitions and banish performance anxiety. Their arguments and those of the researchers suggesting that weed may adversely affect erectile function are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In this case, it may well be that weed mellows some men out enough that they no longer notice that their erections are less than optimal.

Interest in the controversy has been stirred up once again by an article posted at Playboy.com in September 2015 by Justin Lehmiller, a sex educator and researcher at Indiana’s Ball State University. In the article, Lehmiller acknowledges that the findings from animal studies do “suggest that marijuana is more of a sexual inhibitor than it is a sexual enhancer,” but he cites a few caveats worth considering.

How Much Is Too Much?

Lehmiller’s first caveat is the question of how much is too much. Could it be that weed’s effects, like those of alcohol, are dose-dependent? After all, most men have found that a drink or two relaxes and lower inhibitions, setting the stage for a night of romance. However, alcohol consumption beyond this point almost always proves to be counterproductive, leading to a classic case of the spirit being willing but the flesh seemingly incapable of following through.

To his point, Lehmiller notes that one of the classic studies supporting the negative effects of marijuana on erectile function is based on findings among men who are regular daily users of weed. The study Lehmiller references found that men who smoke marijuana daily are three times more likely to develop erectile dysfunction than those who don’t smoke pot at all.

The absence of definitive findings about marijuana's long-term effects on erectile function should give some young male users pause.

The absence of definitive findings about marijuana’s long-term effects on erectile function may give some young male users pause.

Anecdotal evidence, says Lehmiller, suggests that both alcohol and marijuana — in small quantities — have very minimal inhibitory effect on sexual performance. “In fact, you may actually experience an overall performance boost with low doses due to these drugs lowering inhibitions and stimulating desire,” Lehmiller writes.

Strains of Weed Differ

For his second caveat, Lehmiller points out that not all marijuana is created equal. The two main strains of weed — sativa and indica — have significantly different effects on those who use them. For example, Cannabis sativa tends to have a more stimulatory effect on its users and is recommended by some for daytime use because of its stimulatory properties. Sativa’s cardinal attributes, according to LeafScience.com, include “uplifting and energetic” and “cerebral, spacey, and hallucinogenic.” In contrast, the indica strain of marijuana tends to have a more “relaxing and calming” effect overall and may induce “body buzz or ‘couch lock’.”

Lehmiller notes that research into the effects of marijuana on sexual performance and erectile function has not yet explored variations between different strains of the plant, but he suggests that it may be worthwhile to do so at some point.

Tolerances Vary

Caveat three, says Lehmiller, is the extreme variability between individuals in their sensitivity to marijuana, which parallels the sharp variation in sensitivity to alcohol that is observed among individuals. “We all know some people who get wasted after just one drink, and others who seem to keep it together no matter how much they imbibe. The same goes for smoking up or enjoying some edible treats: some get giddy, others get sleepy, and more than a few get paranoid.”

More Extensive Study Needed

Noting the overall paucity of accumulated research on how pot affects male sexual performance, Lehmiller suggests that some of the questions won’t be answered definitively without extensive further study. While acknowledging that existing research indicates that “marijuana is likely to be an erection inhibitor,” Lehmiller says the issue is probably somewhat more complicated than that. He suggests that “we need a lot more hard data (pun fully intended) to understand why different guys report experiencing different sexual effects.”

The jury is still out on marijuana's effect on male sexual function.

The jury is still out on marijuana’s effect on male sexual function.

Another strong advocate of more extensive research into marijuana’s effects on male sexual function is Rany Shamloul, M.D., a senior clinical research professional at Ottawa Hospital Research Center. With colleague A.J. Bella, M.D., Shamloul conducted a review of existing research into these issues. That review was published in the April 2011 issue of  The Journal of Sexual Medicine.

Research Shortcomings

In an interview with LiveScience.com conducted shortly after the review was published, Shamloul bemoaned both the quantity and the quality of the existing studies into the subject. However, despite these research shortcomings, he suggested that young men considering lighting up a joint might first want to take a lesson from a 2010 finding that the penis contains receptors for marijuana’s active ingredient.

The study in question was published in a 2010 issue of European Urology. The researchers behind the study discovered receptors for tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in penile tissue from five male human patients and six rhesus monkeys. The receptors were located in the smooth muscle fibers of the penis, and additional laboratory studies showed that the effects of THC on these smooth muscles were inhibitory.

Long-Term Implications

Of these findings, Shamloul told LiveScience.com he was most concerned by what they might imply for the long-term sexual health and function of young men who are heavy marijuana users. “It’s a strong message to our younger generations and younger men,” he said.

Elaborating on those concerns, Shamloul pointed out that marijuana use is particularly widespread among young men who are at or near their sexual peak. He said that more extensive research is vital to more accurately identify actual long-term risks from marijuana use.

“What we are really missing are clinical studies,” Shamloul told LiveScience.com. “We are stuck with only animal studies and molecular studies, and some clinical studies done in the ‘60s and ‘70s, most on a very small number of men . . . . We need well-designed, placebo-control studies examining marijuana’s effect in both the short-term and long-term.”

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Photo credit: cosh elson>

Don Amerman is a freelance author who writes extensively about a wide array of nutrition and health-related topics.

Don Amerman has spent more than three decades in the business of writing and editing. During the last 15 years, his focus has been on freelance writing. For almost all of his writing, He has done all of his own research, both online and off, including telephone and face-to-face interviews where possible. Don Amerman on Google+