Marijuana is one of the most popular illegal drugs in the United States. In 2016, 51% of people in the United States admitted to using cannabis in their life. About 12% had used it in the past year, and 7.3% had used it in the past month. Marijuana is legal recreationally in certain states, medically legal in other states, but federally illegal overall. This poses an interesting and somewhat confusing view on whether or not the drug is legal. Marijuana, when used recreationally, is consumed for the purpose of feeling a euphoric high. When used Medically it can help ease nausea in cancer patients, control epileptic seizures, and even provide pain and anxiety management. While marijuana is relatively safe when used properly, it can pose significant risks for certain individuals – adolescent and individuals with a genetic history of mental illness.
WHAT IS IT?
Marijuana is often referred to the bud of the cannabis plant that is smoked for the purpose of feeling high. Cannabis is made up of over 100 different cannabinoids – chemicals that react with the endocannabinoid system in the body. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is responsible for appetite, pain sensation, mood, memory, homeostasis, and neuroprotection. Two of the most prominent endocannabinoids in cannabis are CBD and THC. CBD has the potential for a variety of medical uses ranging from seizures to anxiety and depression. CBD is not psychoactive meaning it does not produce a high that THC is known for. THC – another cannabinoid – is the main contributor to marijuana’s euphoric highs. The amount of THC in marijuana can depend on the strain but is generally around 18.7 percent today. One study found that, on average, THC rose from 4% in ‘95 to over 12% in 2015.
Edibles There are many ways to consume THC, from smoking, vaping, topical products like lotion, tinctures and even food called edibles. Edibles are food consumables infused with THC. They can take the form of almost anything edible, but popular forms are chocolate and gummies. By consuming THC through edible forms, while healthier than smoking, can cause complications for beginners. When smoking marijuana, THC travels directly into the lungs, into the bloodstream and straight to the brain. The effects are felt almost immediately. Edibles, on the other hand, are absorbed through the digestive tract. This process can take hours to begin. The digestive tract is more efficient at absorbing THC, therefore the effects of edibles are more prominent than smoking. First-time users often take to much as a result of not immediately feeling the effects or not knowing how much to take. Adverse effects on edibles are common and contribute to the majority of marijuana-related ER visits. The effects of edibles wear off eventually, usually within 4-6 hours.
The use of Marijuana in adolescents can cause significant damage to brain health, but when used correctly and in moderation, marijuana poses less risk than many other substances – legal and illegal. The effects of Marijuana are temporary and relatively minor when used accordingly. There are some rare cases in which marijuana can induce psychosis, but in general, much of the harm from marijuana comes from the act of smoking itself. Smoking of any kind does not fare well for lung health. Furthermore, individuals who use marijuana regularly can develop a psychological dependence to the drug which can eventually lead to addiction. Addiction to marijuana is much less common than with substances like alcohol, heroin, and tobacco but nonetheless, marijuana addiction is possible and could lead to a lower quality of life.
Short Term Effects The effects of marijuana vary dramatically among individuals. How a person reacts to this drug will depend on a variety of factors including genetics, age, environment, and health. These feelings can last up to a couple of days but usually cease within a few hours. These feelings can include:
- Heightened sensory perception (e.g., brighter colors)
- Altered perception of time
- Increased appetite
Fatal overdoses are nearly impossible when using marijuana, but consuming too much THC can contribute to various side effects including:
- Dry mouth
- Red/dry eyes
- Impaired memory
- Diminished learning and decision making
- Impaired attention
Due to the rising potency of marijuana today, individuals have become more susceptible to the adverse reactions of marijuana – typically these effects wear off within 2-3 hours.
Do not drive while high! Much like alcohol, marijuana significantly impairs judgment, motor coordination, and reaction time. Several meta-analyses of multiple studies found that the risk of being involved in a crash increased significantly after marijuana use — the risk often doubled or more than doubled.
Marijuana’s health effects depend on the frequency of use, the potency and amount of marijuana consumed, and the age of the consumer. Maybe the most significant and alarming long-term effect of marijuana is marijuana-induced psychosis. This psychosis can lead to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Developing a psychotic illness is multifactorial meaning there isn’t one thing that causes psychosis but evidence does suggest that marijuana smoking can lead to earlier onset — meaning it could develop sooner than it would have otherwise. How common marijuana-induced psychosis has still yet to be shown, but a person’s susceptibility largely depends on their genetics – if there is a family history of mental illness; especially schizophrenia.
Marijuana Use in Adolescence The human brain continues to develop until the age of 21. The use of marijuana during these developmental years has been shown to induce significant damage to the brain – impairing functions such as attention, memory, learning, and decision-making.
A long-term study based in New Zealand, published in 2012, found that people permanently lost on average of eight I.Q. points when they began smoking heavily in their teens and continued into adulthood.
Heavy marijuana use in early adulthood has been associated with a dismal set of life outcomes including higher dropout rates, poor school performance, greater unemployment, increased welfare dependence, and lower life satisfaction. Correlation does not imply causation. It is hard to know whether or not marijuana is the causal agent in these outcomes, or if it is part of a variety of vulnerability factors.
Marijuana vs. Other Drugs
Adverse health effects marijuana is much less toxic than most other substances. Marijuana does not cause cancer like tobacco or induce liver failure like alcohol. Marijuana is not physically addictive and/or deadly like painkillers. While marijuana is relatively safer than other substances there are still dangers – especially for adolescents and individuals prone to mental illness. Marijuana is still a drug. Marijuana can be addictive and it can cause health complications both physically and psychologically. If marijuana is legal in your area (both medically and recreationally) consult your clinician before you start experimenting.
The legality of marijuana is tricky, to say the least. In some states like Colorado, Washington, and Oregon marijuana is legal – both medically and recreationally. In states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, marijuana is legal for medical purposes only. The strange part about all this is that marijuana is still federally illegal. Marijuana is labeled as a schedule-1 drug meaning it is highly addictive and does not have any current medical uses. Dozens of states have pushed towards legalization for medical or recreational purposes because physicians have argued that marijuana’s health risks have been overstated and its medical uses overlooked. Activists stress prohibition’s tremendous fiscal cost and far worse human cost. Many argue that if alcohol, being far more dangerous, is legal then why not cannabis? Nowadays a solid majority of Americans support legalization. It is important to not careen the argument too much though. Marijuana in the last few decades has gone from about as dangerous as heroin to as benign as kombucha. This type of thinking can be dangerous as cannabis is still a drug and poses significant health challenges. The dangers of marijuana are too often overshadowed by its popularity and health benefits. This lack of awareness can lead to serious consequences for recreational users.
IS MARIJUANA ADDICTIVE?
The use of Marijuana can lead to problematic usage called marijuana use disorder. In fact, 30 percent of the people who use marijuana have some degree of marijuana use disorder and individuals who use marijuana before the age of 18 are seven times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder.
Marijuana use disorder begins with a dependence towards the drug. During continuous use of marijuana, the brain adapts to the influx of endocannabinoids. The brain eventually produces less of its own leading to withdrawals when not using. Within the first week of quitting, individuals dependent on marijuana will report minor but manageable withdrawal symptoms. These include mood and sleep difficulties, cravings, irritability, restlessness, decreased appetite and/or various forms of physical discomfort.
Marijuana use disorder becomes an addiction when the drug interferes with a person’s life. These types of things can include:
- A decline in job/school performance
- Loss of personal relationships
- Lower quality of life/ general unhappiness
- Financial problems
The research on how addictive marijuana differs from study to study and largely relies on dependency but they report that 9 percent of people who use marijuana will become addicted. This number increases to 17 percent if marijuana users start before age 18.
Addictiveness vs. Other Substances
The Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, said in a 1999 study that 32 percent of tobacco users become dependent, as do 23 percent of heroin users, 17 percent of cocaine users, and 15 percent of alcohol drinkers whereas 9 percent of marijuana users develop a dependence. While cannabis may not be as addictive as other substances it should not be overlooked. Marijuana is much like alcohol, while most people can drink socially and moderately, there are certain individuals who cannot. By no means is marijuana use healthy. Chronic use – especially smoking – causes havoc on the user’s lungs, immune system, and brain function – primarily resulting in a decline in memory and attention. Those addicted to cannabis may squander personal relationships, jobs and/or schooling. While marijuana use disorder does not cause terminal health concerns, adverse consequences are still prevalent and help should be sought.