Marijuana is the most commonly used and abused illicit drug in the U.S., particularly among adolescents and young adults. In fact, teens’ perceptions of the risks of marijuana use have steadily declined over the past decade, possibly related to increasing public debate about legalizing or loosening restrictions on marijuana. Changes in marijuana policies across states legalizing marijuana for medical and/or recreational use suggest that marijuana is gaining greater acceptance in our society. Thus, it is particularly important for people to understand what is known about both the adverse health effects and the potential therapeutic benefits linked to marijuana.
Derived from the hemp plant, cannabis sativa, marijuana, is a dry, shredded green and brown mix of flowers, stems, seeds, and leaves. While marijuana contains more than 400 different chemicals, the main mind-altering chemical in marijuana is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. The level of THC content in marijuana after cultivation can range from less than 1% to more than 30% and has been increasing dramatically, making marijuana increasingly potent and more addictive.
Most people use marijuana because the high makes them feel happy, relaxed, or detached from reality. Yet, smoking pot can also have less-pleasant effects on your mind and mood, too. You might have:
- A distorted sense of time
- Random thinking
- Short-term forgetfulness
How is Marijuana Used?
Commonly known as pot, weed, herb, dope, reefer, grass etc., marijuana is usually smoked as a cigarette (joint) or in a pipe, waterpipe, bong or in a blunt (a cigar emptied of tobacco and refilled with a mixture of marijuana and tobacco). Marijuana is also mixed in baked goods (e.g., cookies or brownies) and brewed as a tea. A more concentrated, higher THC content, resinous form of marijuana, is called hashish and, as a sticky black liquid, hash oil. Marijuana smoke has a pungent and distinctive, usually sweet-and-sour odor. Marijuana is sometimes laced with crack cocaine and/or hallucinogen phencyclidine (PCP), making marijuana more dangerous.
No matter how it gets into your system, it affects almost every organ in your body, and your nervous system and immune system, too. When you smoke pot, your body absorbs THC right away. (If you eat a baked good or another item, it may take much longer for your body to absorb THC, because it has to break down in your stomach before it enters your bloodstream). You may notice changes in your body right after you smoke. The effects usually stop after 3 or 4 hours.
Smoking pot can increase your heart rate by as much as two times for up to 3 hours. That’s why some people have a heart attack right after they use marijuana. It can increase bleeding, lower blood pressure, and affect your blood sugar, too.
It is not yet known if marijuana is linked to higher odds of getting lung cancer. But the process does irritate the lungs -- which is why regular pot smokers are more likely to have an ongoing cough and to have lung-related health problems like chest colds and lung infections.
Other physical effects of marijuana include:
- Shallow breathing
- Red eyes and dilated pupils
- Dry mouth
- Increased appetite
- Slowed reaction time (If you drive after using marijuana, your risk of being in a car accident more than doubles.)
How Does Marijuana Affect the Brain?
When someone smokes marijuana, THC is absorbed by the lungs and into the bloodstream, which carries the THC to the brain and all other organs throughout the body, producing the "high" that users experience. The parts of the brain most affected include those that influence pleasure, memory, thinking, concentrating, sensory and time perception and coordinated movement.
According to NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse), research has shown that, in chronic users, marijuana's adverse impact on learning and memory can last for days or weeks after the acute effects of the drug wear off. As a result, a daily marijuana smoker may be functioning at a suboptimal intellectual level all of the time. Research has also shown poorer cognitive abilities than non-users, including memory capability, math and verbal skills. And, long-term marijuana abusers trying to quit report withdrawal symptoms including irritability, sleeplessness, decreased appetite, anxiety, and drug craving. The symptoms begin within about 1 day after last use, peak at 2-3 days, and subside within 1 or 2 weeks.
Marijuana and Mental Health:
A number of studies have shown an association between chronic marijuana use and increased rates of anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia with age at first use to be an important risk factor. High doses of marijuana can produce an acute psychotic reaction.
FACT: Each year more teens enter treatment with a primary diagnosis of marijuana dependence than all other illicit drugs combined.
According to NIDA, long-term marijuana use can lead to addiction for about 9% of users and increases among those who start young (to about 17%) and daily users (25-50%).
If you are concerned about your own use of marijuana or that of a friend, here are 12 Questions used by Marijuana Anonymous that may be helpful in determining if there is a problem:
- Has smoking pot stopped being fun?
- Do you ever get high alone?
- Is it hard for you to imagine a life without marijuana?
- Do you find that your friends are determined by your marijuana use?
- Do you smoke marijuana to avoid dealing with your problems?
- Do you smoke pot to cope with your feelings?
- Does your marijuana use let you live in a privately defined world?
- Have you ever failed to keep promises you made about cutting down or controlling your dope smoking?
- Has your use of marijuana caused problems with memory, concentration, or motivation?
- When your stash is nearly empty, do you feel anxious or worried about how to get more?
- Do you plan your life around your marijuana use?
- Have friends or relatives ever complained that your pot smoking is damaging your relationship with them?
(If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you may have a problem with marijuana.)
What About “Medical” Marijuana?
The potential medicinal properties of marijuana have been the subject of substantive research and heated debate. There are two FDA approved cannabinoid-based medications that include synthetic compounds; dronabinol (Marinol®) and nabilone (Cesamet®). Both of these medicines can be prescribed by physicians.
NCADD Position Statement on Medical Marijuana:
After careful consideration and review, the NCADD Medical-Scientific Committee, Delegate Assembly and Board of Directors adopted an NCADD Position Statement in opposition to Medical Marijuana:
"The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD) is opposed to the broad availability of smoked marijuana.
"Marijuana grown and provided for legal medical use should be scheduled and monitored under FDA oversight, and should be held to the same FDA standards imposed on other dangerous prescription drugs including those regarding warnings, labeling, and the ordering and filling of prescriptions."