Last Updated Dec 2, 2021
Marijuana is a mix of flowers, leaves, and stems from the cannabis sativa plant. Because the drug is plant-like in appearance, some people call it weed, pot, grass, or herb.
No matter what you call it, marijuana is a hallucinogenic drug. THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is generally considered marijuana’s active ingredient, but each plant contains more than 500 other chemicals, including 100 cannabinoids, which are chemically related to THC.
Marijuana is second only to alcohol in terms of popularity. Almost 18 percent of people 12 and older admitted to past-year marijuana use in 2020.
Some believe marijuana is harmless, and they point to legislative changes in states like Oregon as evidence. If the drug is legal, it can’t be dangerous, right?
Unfortunately, marijuana can be dangerous, and far too many people move from casual use to abuse and addiction in time. As manufacturers and dealers look for more ways to pump up THC content in their drugs, more people could become addicted.
Treatment options for marijuana addiction include counseling and support groups. Those steps may seem simple, but they can have a profound impact on someone with a marijuana issue.
What Is Marijuana?
Marijuana is a hallucinogenic drug created from plant materials. People who use it claim the drug makes them feel relaxed and in touch with the world. For many young people, this is the top choice among intoxicants.
Experts say marijuana use is “widespread” among young people. In 2018, for example, more than 11.8 million young people used marijuana at least once.
To most people, marijuana is a drug used to help them get high. But some people use marijuana to address medical conditions.
Medical marijuana is legal in about 50 percent of all states, and it’s used to address these health issues:
- Chronic pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Anorexia due to HIV/AIDS and cancer
- Multiple sclerosis
- Crohn’s disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease
The research supporting these therapies is varied, and some say it’s a little thin. But the practice is legal in many states.
Key Facts About Marijuana
Among people ages 12 and older in 2020, about 5.1 percent had a cannabis use disorder. Statistics like this prove that marijuana can be addictive, no matter what the drug’s fans might claim.
People who start using marijuana early in life can cause brain damage that may not heal. Researchers say persistent marijuana use beginning in adolescence can cause a loss of 6 to 8 IQ points. People who quit using don’t gain that loss back.
Marijuana use has been linked to mental health issues like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and suicide. Researchers aren’t sure if marijuana causes these issues or worsens symptoms in those who already have them.
Marijuana is the illegal drug experts most often find in the blood of drivers involved in motor vehicle accidents. Drivers with THC in their bloodstream are about twice as likely to be culpable for a fatal crash than sober people.
A Quick History of Marijuana
Marijuana isn’t a new drug. People have grown plants in the cannabis family for millennia. But use of marijuana has changed with time.
Ancient cultures used marijuana as an herbal medicine, and these early formulations had very little THC. Instead, these hemp-based formulations were not necessarily capable of making people high.
Later on, people discovered that marijuana could make people high. In some cultures, the drug became a way for shamans and religious leaders to get in touch with ancestors or the divine.
Marijuana didn’t become a recreational drug in the United States until the early 1900s, when some immigrants brought the practice with them to their new homes. Since then, officials have tried to get people to stop using marijuana, but those efforts haven’t always worked.
How Does Marijuana Affect the Mind and Body?
The human body is filled with THC and cannabinoid receptors. Hallucinogenic properties originate in the brain cells, but the drug has a much larger impact.
Endogenous cannabinoids can work directly on brain cells, altering portions of the brain that control the following:
- Time perception
These substances are responsible for the hallucinogenic experience of marijuana.
THC in marijuana can also work directly on the hippocampus in the brain and orbital cortex. These brain areas control the ability to make new memories and shift attention to new topics. Changes in this area could impair a person’s ability to learn and perform complicated tasks.
Marijuana can also change the following:
- Heart: Your heartbeat may speed up or become erratic.
- Blood vessels: Sensitive channels relax, allowing your eyes and skin to flush.
- Mouth: Salivary glands stop working, leading to dry mouth.
- Digestion: Some people feel nauseated or vomit while using marijuana.
How Is Marijuana Abused?
Marijuana is a versatile plant, and it’s an old one. People have experimented with the leaves, stems, and flowers for decades. As a result, plenty of formulations exist with varying levels of potency.
Dried marijuana can be combined with tobacco, smoked in paper, or placed into a water-based pipe. Smoking marijuana puts active ingredients into immediate contact with lung tissue, allowing for quick bloodstream distribution.
Marijuana smoke is an irritant, and many people with a chronic habit develop a heavy cough. Some marijuana products also contain volatile chemicals and tar.
Marijuana leaves or concentrates can be distilled into butter, baked into foods, or ladled into candies or ice cream. Edible marijuana doesn’t impact the user immediately, raising the risk that someone will take another dose too quickly and feel sick later.
Edible forms of marijuana can also be attractive to kids and pets, leading to severe toxicity. A child or dog that eats marijuana brownies or gummies may need hospital monitoring.
Commercial producers can distill marijuana into waxes, soft solids, or firm solids. These products can be consumed via vape pens or through a so-called dabbing tool. The lungs distribute the drug immediately.
Marijuana concentrates like this can have a THC level higher than 80 percent, raising the risk of intense toxicity and negative side effects. Traditional preparations don’t have nearly this concentration.
The Health Impact of Marijuana
Researchers know a great deal about marijuana’s impact on the brain and body. While using the drug just once can be dangerous in some instances, people who keep using it over the long term can develop chronic, serious illnesses.
Marijuana works directly on portions of the brain responsible for attention and coordination. Users can hurt themselves while under the influence. If they drive while high, they could hurt others too.
The heart can also get hit hard during a marijuana use episode. Often, heart rates increase, leading to an increased risk of stroke or heart attack.
Marijuana’s impact on the brain can persist, particularly in people with underlying mental health issues such as schizophrenia. Some people may also struggle with learning, attention, and memory due to their continued marijuana use.
Smoking marijuana can harm lung tissues. While those cells can heal, it takes time, and people must stop smoking for tissue repair.
THC vs. CBD: What Are the Differences?
Cannabis products contain two main active ingredients: THC and CBD.
CBD (or cannabidiol) does not make users high, and products with CBD can be derived from hemp and not the sativa plant. While CBD may not make you high, the substance has been linked to serious health risks, including these:
- Liver damage
THC is directly related to intoxication, and it’s potentially responsible for addiction-related symptoms. Changes in marijuana production could make THC levels rise, along with the number of addicted people.
In the 1960s, THC levels in marijuana hovered at about 2 percent. In 2017, popular strains in Colorado had THC ranges between 17 percent and 28 percent. It’s unclear how dangerous these new formulations can be over the long term.
Is Marijuana Addictive?
Researchers say about 30 percent of people who use marijuana have some degree of marijuana use disorder. The issue is more common in people who started using the drug prior to age 18.
Drugs cause changes by altering brain chemical levels. After repeated use, some brain cells don’t work properly in the absence of the drug.
People may keep using marijuana due to these brain changes. And they may become emotionally attached to the drug and keep using it despite the consequences.
In general, researchers say about 9 percent of those who start using marijuana will become dependent on it in time. Common addiction symptoms include the following:
- Changing schedules, including skipping obligations, to get high
- Spending more time with people who also use drugs
- Spending all available money on drugs
- Using marijuana in risky situations, such as while driving
- Seeming high or altered almost all of the time
Marijuana Withdrawal Keeps People Using
Dependence describes a physical state caused by long-term drug use. Cells become accustomed to marijuana’s presence, and they don’t function properly without it. People who are dependent can struggle to quit using drugs due to the sickness they feel while sober.
Marijuana withdrawal can cause the following:
- Mood alterations
- Appetite changes
People often feel the worst within the first week of quitting marijuana use, but many people feel unwell for longer. Some people relapse to pot use to make the discomfort stop.
Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?
A so-called gateway drug works as an introduction to other substances. For example, Vicodin can work as heroin’s gateway drug. For years, people have claimed that marijuana is a gateway drug, but the truth is a little more complicated.
Researchers say the majority of people who use marijuana don’t go on to use other, harder drugs. Some do, of course. But most stick with marijuana or move back and forth between legal intoxication with marijuana or alcohol.
Is Legalization Popularizing Marijuana?
More than 19 states have legalized marijuana for adult recreational purposes. Colorado and Washington came first in 2012, and other states followed. Some believe this push to make marijuana legal is responsible for higher drug use rates.
In years past, people who wanted to use marijuana needed to know a trusted dealer, and they needed a willingness to break the law. If they got caught, they could face fines or jail time for their drug use. These laws potentially kept some people from experimenting with marijuana.
But now that the drug is legal in so many states, it’s relatively easy to walk into a store and walk out with drugs. Many people even feel comfortable using drugs openly.
Two-thirds of Americans say marijuana should be legal, further proving that laws make marijuana seem permissible.
Treatment Options for Marijuana Addiction
Some people struggle to quit using marijuana without help. On average, people who enter marijuana treatment programs have tried to quit more than six times. Treatment programs can help people to turn their lives around and succeed in their efforts to stay sober.
For many people, this involves treating underlying health issues like depression or anxiety. With these issues under control, people may no longer need to self-medicate with marijuana.
Counseling programs can help people to understand why they started using marijuana, and they can practice relapse prevention skills to avoid returning to marijuana in time. In treatment, they’ll develop a support system that helps them to build a healthier life in recovery and avoid substance misuse.
Marijuana’s legality means that it can be difficult to avoid marijuana-related triggers. You may continue to encounter marijuana triggers on a daily basis. But with counseling and support group work, people with addictions can lead a new life that does not include drugs.
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