Marijuana has enjoyed an unprecedented renaissance, going from being an illicit underground drug to legitimate mainstream medicine in certain areas. As this New York Times article suggests, marijuana “rather than being a gateway into drugs, could be a gateway out,” especially for those who are grappling with opioid addiction.
In 2018, Michigan became the 10th state in the Union to legalize recreational marijuana use. So far, 33 states have made medical marijuana legal. A growing number of addiction specialists see cannabinoids, the class of psychoactive drugs that includes marijuana, as a worthy treatment option for people addicted to opioids and those suffering from chronic pain.
While the deadly opioid scourge continues to make headlines and claim lives (at an estimated 130 per day), marijuana appears to have escaped scrutiny as a controlled substance. It does not produce the harrowing and potentially fatal effects of powerful substances such as heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, or methamphetamine.
Nevertheless, marijuana still produces harmful effects on the brain and body. The primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, THC (or tetrahydrocannabinol), can alter the brain in such a way that a person can lose their ability to feel.
Also, when someone smokes marijuana, they can still subject their lungs to the smoke, tar, and other toxins. This exposure can impact the heart, immune system, and motor function. Users can even experience a greater risk of cancer.
What’s more, marijuana and its associated products have become more powerful than ever. The THC that is added to cannabis products known as “edibles,” that is, cookies, brownies, and cakes, could cause someone to be hospitalized if too much is consumed.
When it comes to marijuana, no exact amount is considered too much. The drug affects people differently. Instead, users should consider factors such as a family history of substance abuse, mental health, environment, and lifestyle. Any of these can make someone more prone to experiencing the adverse effects associated with marijuana.
History of Marijuana
In the early 20th century, various tools of propaganda were used to exaggerate the adverse effects of marijuana. The 1936 film Reefer Madness portrayed weed as the catalyst for deviant behavior. In it, characters commit grievous acts like murder and attempted rape while under the influence. The movie, which is considered a cult classic, showed one of the characters being committed to an asylum “for the rest of his natural life,” deemed “criminally insane” from his marijuana use.
Another anti-marijuana film called “Assassin of Youth” featured a movie poster with a headline that read, “Marihuana: a puff-a party-a tragedy.” A 1942 ad depicts a large burning cigarette with marijuana emblazoned across it, followed by these declarations: “The Smoke of Hell!” and “Devil’s Harvest.”
Before it was painted as a tool of deviancy, the cannabis plant yielded a variety of products since early civilization. Evidence points to marijuana use occurring around 2727 B.C., primarily in Central Asia. It’s use spread to the Western hemisphere in the mid-16th century because Spaniards imported it to Chile to be used as fiber.
Mexican immigrants fleeing the violence of the Mexican Revolution brought cannabis to the U.S. in the early 20th century. It was also brought into America by sailors from Brazil and the Caribbean, and when they docked in New Orleans, jazz musicians got access to it and started smoking it.
The word “marijuana” comes from Mexico, but its historical use is fraught with negative connotations. Early activists who railed against marijuana used the exotic term to emphasize the substance’s foreign origins. This appealed to the xenophobia of that historic moment, which was largely directed at Hispanic immigrant refugees at the time.
Nevertheless, states started to ban marijuana use starting with Utah in 1915. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 placed cannabis under the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and made it illegal to own any strain of the plant.
Though legislation legalizing marijuana is sweeping the country today, the DEA still classifies it as a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning that it has no accepted medical use in the U.S.
The Dangers of Marijuana Use
More Potent Than Ever Before
This isn’t your grandfather’s weed from the past century. These days, one hit or one bite of a marijuana-infused product can be too much, producing health complications and addiction.
The marijuana products of today possess a potency that dwarfs your pop’s old “grass.” In the 1970s, the concentration of THC was no more than 2 percent. These days, common marijuana has levels of around 13 percent.
However, there is a newer wave of extremely potent cannabis products called marijuana concentrates that have THC levels that tower above what was available then and now. For one, these concentrates are up to four times stronger than the “high-grade marijuana” of today.
These concentrates resemble honey or butter and contain THC levels between 40 percent to 80 percent, sometimes higher. They also go by a variety of street names, depending on the region, including shatter, ear wax, budder, butane hash oil, dabs, black glass, and 710 or “OIL” flipped backward.
These concentrates can be included in food and beverages, or they can be smoked through an oil pipe or water pipe. Plus, they yield extremely intense psychological and physical effects that include hallucinations, paranoia, anxiety, and panic attacks. It can also increase heart rate and blood pressure while producing discernible withdrawal and addiction.
This new breed of marijuana products has led to increased hospitalizations. While traditional marijuana is not nearly as dangerous, it, too, can still cause a litany of issues, especially in the brain and body.
What It Does To The Brain
When ingested, the THC from marijuana goes from the lungs to the bloodstream, carrying the chemical to the brain and “other” parts of the body. The THC activates receptors in the brain that cause people to feel high. Their senses become altered. Their mood changes and their movements become impaired. When taken in high doses, too much marijuana can cause delusions and hallucinations, and psychosis.
What’s more, long-term marijuana use can dull the reward centers of the brain, making it more difficult for users to feel pleased or excited about stuff. It also affects the hippocampus, the area of the brain that governs short-term memory. This means users may not remember events or have difficulty learning new things. The frontal lobes are also impacted by marijuana, effecting a user’s decision-making ability.
The impaired motor skills and decision-making ability that comes from marijuana use are what cause people to drive under the influence, making them more likely to be involved in vehicular accidents.
Speaking of which, too much marijuana can put you in the crosshairs of the law, especially when you are operating a vehicle under the influence. According to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, 18 states have zero tolerance laws for driving under the influence of any drug. So, one hit of marijuana is too much, especially if you are pulled over by the police.
The effects that marijuana use can have on young users is especially troubling. According to one study, people who started smoking marijuana in their teens and regularly abused the drug lost an average of eight IQ points between ages 13 to 38. People who started using marijuana as adults did not experience noticeable declines.
What It Does To The Body
Marijuana has been lauded for its ability to relieve insomnia, anxiety, and treat pain. People addicted to opioids have turned to marijuana as a safer alternative. Despite these benefits, smoking marijuana can still be harmful to the body. For one, smoking it can cause more damage to a person’s airways than a cigarette. That comes with the way smokers ingest marijuana. When users smoke, they tend to inhale more deeply than traditional cigarette smokers, exposing their lungs to tar and other toxins.
Marijuana can also suppress the body’s immune functions, which can increase the risk of infections. One study indicated that the use of marijuana can also cause increased susceptibility to cancer.
What It Does To Your Fertility
Ongoing marijuana use can hinder a man’s sexual function and performance, making it difficult to get and keep an erection due to diminished levels of testosterone. Because marijuana inhibits the nervous system, men can experience premature or delayed ejaculation.
What’s more, regular smokers were twice as likely as nonsmokers to have sperm that is abnormal in shape and size. Users who smoked marijuana at least once a week experienced a reduced sperm count, according to one study.
Women who smoke marijuana are at risk as well. A journal article revealed a connection between marijuana use and abnormalities in the ovaries.
Marijuana Abuse Statistics
- In 2015, there were 22.2 million marijuana users, states the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
- More than half of new illicit drug users start with marijuana, NIDA reports.
- In Colorado, where recreational marijuana use is legal, there has been a fourfold increase in emergency department visits of patients with psychiatric complaints from cannabis.
- There were nearly 456,000 emergency department visits for marijuana in 2011, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network.