Marijuana comes from the cannabis sativa plant that grows in tropical or humid climates. It has been experimented with for a variety of purposes and uses throughout the decades. Marijuana contains a mind-altering component: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The flowers, seeds, and stems can be dried and then smoked or infused into food and drinks, called edibles, and consumed for a mellowing high.
Marijuana goes by many names, including: Weed, Reefer, Mary, Jane, Skunk, Ganja, Grass, Herb, Chronic, Dope, Gangster, Pot, Smoke.
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How Marijuana is Abused
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that marijuana is the most regularly abused illicit drug in America. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), there were 24 million people in the United States classified as current users of marijuana in 2016. NIDA publishes that close to half of the adult population in America (44 percent) has used it in their lifetime, as of the 2016 national survey.
Marijuana acts both as a central nervous system depressant and as a hallucinogen in the brain. It generally lowers stress and anxiety levels, heightens pleasure, and distorts the senses and things like time and body movement.
There have been many debates over the years about medical uses for marijuana. Cannabinoids can act to relieve pain, stimulate the appetite, reduce inflammation, and dispel nausea. The drug also has sedative and stress-relieving properties.
Marijuana remains categorized as a Schedule I drug, per the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). At the federal level, it is still considered an illegal drug with no acknowledged medical use and a drug that has a high risk for abuse and addiction.
Marijuana can be cultivated and rolled into cigarette-like joints, small, fat cigar-like blunts, or vaporized and smoked through a water pipe or bong. Resin extracted from the cannabis plant that is high in THC can also be smoked, a practice often called “dabbing.” Extracts can be found in several forms, such as hash oil, an amber-colored hard substance called “shatter,” or as a wax form known as “budder.” Extracts are also vaped through e-cigarettes and vape pens.
Marijuana is also mixed into teas, brownies, cookies, candies, and other edibles to be eaten. It may also be combined with other drugs when abused.
History of Use in America
Cannabis has been used for many purposes across the world for centuries. The DEA Museum publishes that the plants were initially grown on plantations in North America as hemp, which was harvested to be used for paper, rope, and clothing. Marijuana has long been harvested for its psychoactive properties.
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 essentially criminalized the drug in the United States, heavily taxing its importation, use, possession, and sale, CNN explains. Marijuana was publically persecuted as a “violent” and dangerous drug that was said to cause wild hallucinations and dangerous actions in individuals under its influence.
Marijuana use started to become more widespread among the general public in the 1960s, as it became more mainstream and the perception of it being a drug only for criminals started to wane. In 1972, President Nixon placed marijuana into the most strictly regulated drug category, Schedule I, under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. This made it illegal to possess, use, or sell marijuana in any form in the United States, Scientific American reports.
Many people argued that this was too strict of a classification for marijuana, as it is believed to also have medicinal properties. With this classification, the drug is deemed to have no medical uses, and it makes research of the drug more difficult. More people argue that marijuana is not as dangerous as a drug as heroin, which is also a Schedule I drug; therefore, use of it should not be punished as severely.
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Oregon was the first state to decriminalize marijuana in 1973. In 2000, Colorado legalized medicinal marijuana, and in 2012, both Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana use for adults aged 21 and older on a statewide basis, CNN reports. Today 30 states have legalized the drug, at least for medicinal purposes, The Washington Post publishes.
Short-Term Impact of Marijuana Use
Marijuana acts on cannabinoid receptors in the brain. The cannabidiol, CBD, is the component that is believed to have the most medicinal properties and not what makes a person high.
The psychoactive component of marijuana is THC. When THC binds to receptors in the brain, it over-activates some of them, which can cause mind-altering effects:
- Changes in mood
- Increases in appetite
- Distorted perception of time
- Altered senses
- Trouble thinking clearly and making sound decisions
- Impaired movement and coordination
- Memory issues
- Loss of motivation
- Impulse control problems
- Lowered inhibitions
Marijuana use can cause an irregular heart rate, lowered blood pressure, bloodshot eyes, drowsiness, sedation, and coughing. In high doses, it can also cause psychosis, hallucinations, and delusions.
Marijuana interacts with each person differently, and no two people will experience the exact same effects of the drug. There are literally thousands of different strains that can have varying degrees of THC and potency levels.
Cannabis plants are being bred to create higher potency, and certain strains are said to have specific effects. The Washington Post publishes that the average potency of marijuana sold in dispensaries in the state of Washington is around 20 percent, which is much higher than the marijuana found 20 years ago. Generally, the higher the THC level, the greater the mind-altering effects will be.
Marijuana is also being manufactured in synthetic form, commonly called K2 or Spice. Synthetic marijuana is made in a lab to be even more potent than traditional weed; therefore, it has a greater impact on the brain and body.
Risks of Long-Term Use
Marijuana abuse can lead to accidents, injuries, out-of-character behaviors, and legal and criminal problems. When a person is under the influence of the drug, they may take bigger risks than normal, get into situations that could be hazardous, engage in potentially dangerous sexual actions, and generally make bad decisions.
Marijuana makes it hard for a person to think straight, focus, pay attention, and remember things. It will be more difficult for a person under the influence of marijuana to rationalize things or be able to think through potential consequences of their actions. Problem-solving skills are impaired.
The DEA warns that marijuana contains over 400 chemicals, including many toxins and carcinogens that can increase the risk for developing cancers of the head, neck, respiratory tract, and lungs. Smoking it regularly can raise the odds that a person will suffer from bronchial asthma, bronchitis, or emphysema.
Long-term use of the drug can suppress a person’s immune system, making them more prone to suffer from other illnesses or diseases. Marijuana use may increase the risk of depression and also earlier-onset schizophrenia in teenagers who were already genetically predisposed to the disease.
Chronic marijuana use over a long period of time is also linked to the onset of amotivational syndrome. Sides effects of this condition include:
- Impaired judgment
- Loss of motivation
- Memory & concentration difficulties
- Disinterest in pursuing personal goals
- Lack of ambition
Research notes that a person’s brain is not fully developed until their mid-20s or so. Marijuana is believed to potentially impact brain development when used in adolescence or childhood before the brain is formed completely. Marijuana acts on parts of the brain that control thinking, memory, learning, impulse control, motivation, mood regulation, movement abilities, and the reward system. Using it at a young age may, therefore, impact normal brain growth and functioning.
The journal Current Pharmaceutical Design publishes that heavy marijuana use, particularly during the teenage years, can damage the brain’s structure and function, which can lead to behavioral, cognitive, and emotional problems later in life.
Marijuana is considered to be an addictive drug. Per the NSDUH, in 2016, 4 million Americans battled a marijuana use disorder.
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Marijuana’s Addictive Potential
NIDA publishes that as many as 30 percent of individuals who use marijuana will struggle with addiction to it. Using it before age 18 dramatically increases the odds that a teen will battle addiction later in life.
Marijuana makes changes to brain chemistry. When a person uses the drug regularly, the brain can get used to the drug’s influence on the brain. Tolerance can form, and it can then take more to feel the effects each time. This can also lead to drug dependence, which is when the brain expects marijuana to interact with its chemical makeup and will have a hard time regulating itself without the drug.
When marijuana wears off after a physical dependence is formed, withdrawal symptoms can kick in. Withdrawal can cause the following side effects:
- Cravings for the drug
- Lowered appetite
- Difficulties sleeping
- Mood swings
- Stomach pain
- Irregular heart rate
- Mental confusion
- Problems concentrating
- Trouble feeling happy
When a person battles marijuana addiction, it can be difficult for them to control how often they take the drug. Dosage can escalate, and even if the person wants to, they are often unable to stop using the drug on their own.
Drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms can make it even harder to stop use. After the brain becomes dependent on marijuana, the person may feel that they need it to feel normal, using it just to keep things balanced.
Loss of interest in other activities and a lack of motivation to complete regular obligations can be side effects of marijuana addiction. Grades often drop, work production declines, and family and home responsibilities are neglected. Social circles often change, and a person will have trouble at home.
Physical appearance can change, as personal hygiene is neglected and weight can fluctuate. In more severe cases, a person may experience a complete personality shift as a result of addiction.
Like all addictions, marijuana addiction is a treatable disease. It can be effectively managed with a comprehensive treatment program that includes behavioral therapies, support groups, educational programs, relapse prevention programs, and life skills training.
Is Marijuana Less Addictive Than Other Drugs?
The addictive potential surrounding drug abuse is often linked to the distressful symptoms of withdrawal that occur when people try to stop using a substance they have been regularly consuming. The withdrawal symptoms associated with quitting marijuana are not nearly as intense and painful as the symptoms of withdrawal from other drugs such as heroin. Thus, marijuana poses less of a risk than other more potent drugs, such as opioids and cocaine, in terms of the potential for developing an addiction.
However, more people use marijuana than other drugs of abuse, which means that in absolute numbers, there may be more people with marijuana dependency than other substance dependencies.
The National Institutes of Health reports that 2.5 percent of adults, or nearly 6 million people in the U.S., experienced marijuana use disorder in the past year, and 6.3 percent of adults met the criteria at some point in their lives.
In comparison, according to NIDA, about 913,000 people in the U.S. met criteria for cocaine dependency or abuse in the past year, with about 1.5 million current users.
People with addictions to prescription pain relievers and heroin numbered approximately 2.5 million in 2015.
Estimations about the rates of substance use disorders are also complicated by the presence of polysubstance abuse. Many people may use more than one substance, such as marijuana and alcohol, which can impact the severity of symptoms of withdrawal as well as other compulsive behaviors associated with addiction. A study from Human Psychopharmacology found that the majority of people with non-alcohol substance use disorders had at least one other co-occurring substance use disorder.
Marijuana use is particularly concerning among those who begin to use as adolescents. There could be implications for brain development when exposed to marijuana as well as the potential for the development of tolerance and dependency.
Adolescents who start using marijuana when they are younger are at risk for further problems with marijuana as they get older. People who start using marijuana before they are 18 years old have a four and seven times higher likelihood of developing an addiction to marijuana than those who start using the drug as adults.
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(April 2016). Scientific American. from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-science-behind-the-dea-s-long-war-on-marijuana/
(January 2014). CNN. from https://www.cnn.com/2013/12/31/us/colorado-recreational-marijuana/index.html
(July 2018). The Washington Post. from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/07/23/has-the-u-s-reached-a-tipping-point-in-marijuana-legalization/?utm_term=.ba3713505bc1
Drug Enforcement Administration. from https://www.dea.gov/druginfo/drug_data_sheets/Marijuana.pdf
Current Pharmaceutical Design. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3930618/
(June 2018). National Institute on Drug Abuse. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/marijuana-addictive