About Marijuana

Marijuana comes from leaves, buds, and stems of the cannabis plant. It is often called weed, pot, Mary Jane, grass, and a host of other names. The drug is usually smoked, but is sometimes eaten in food products known as edibles. Concentrated marijuana, known as resins, extracts, or marijuana oil, are newer forms of marijuana that is inhaled using a vaporizer.

Marijuana & Feeling High

Marijuana contains delta-9-tetrahydro-cannabinol (THC), which causes the psychoactive effects associated with marijuana use. Levels of THC in marijuana vary greatly according to the particular strain or type of marijuana, making it difficult to predict the effects of use.

Smoking & Vaping

Since marijuana is primarily smoked, various paraphernalia exists to facilitate that process. Marijuana can be rolled into joints by simply placing the drug into rolling papers. Sometimes, it is smoked in pipes that have a bowl where the marijuana is placed, and sometimes, users utilize water pipes, known as bongs, to inhale the substance. Vaporizers, or vape pens, are more commonly being used to inhale marijuana, largely due to their more discreet nature.

Marijuana Edibles

We’ve all heard about “pot brownies.” You get the idea. Edibles are food products prepared using marijuana as an ingredient. Marijuana edibles present a serious risk to young people or others who unknowingly ingest the drug. In some instances, emergency medical care is needed if a person ingests more marijuana than intended, or any marijuana, as is the case with children.

Prevalence of Abuse

Marijuana is the most commonly used drug in the United States. A 2014 survey by the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that 22.2 million people in the U.S. used marijuana in the month prior to survey.

Use by Age Groups

Marijuana is used across all age groups, but adolescents and young adults are the most frequent users of the drug. Marijuana use with high school students has held steady in recent years, while use of other drugs has declined. In 2014, a SAMHSA survey found that 7.4 percent of the 12-17 age group used marijuana. For 18-25 age young adults, nearly 20 percent used marijuana in the prior month, and for the 26+ age group, 6.6 percent used marijuana in prior month.

Effects of Marijuana

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, delta-9-tetrahydro-cannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of marijuana, affects the brain by mimicking certain neurotransmitters. THC influences the following brain functions:

  • Pleasure
  • Memory
  • Thinking
  • Concentration
  • Movement
  • Coordination
  • Sensory/time perception

Marijuana & the Brain

Marijuana affects brain functioning primarily by interfering with the hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with memory, emotion, and learning. Marijuana also affects the cerebellum and basal ganglia, which regulate coordination and movement. THC activates the brain’s reward center, causing feelings of euphoria and the desire to repeat taking the drug.

Short-term Effects

In addition to feelings of euphoria and relaxation, marijuana can have various other short-term effects, including:

  • Heightened sensory perceptions
  • Uncontrollable laughter
  • Altered perception of time
  • Increased appetite
  • Anxiety, fear, distrust
  • Panic, hallucinations, delusions
  • Loss of sense of identity

Length of High

Smoking marijuana produces almost immediate effects that generally last 1-3 hours. Eating or drinking marijuana products may delay the drug’s effects for 30-60 minutes. This delay in onset of action often leads users to consume more edibles, not realizing that effects just haven’t hit yet. As a result, the person may take higher doses that produce undesirable effects. Emergency department visits are common when eating unintentional larger amounts of marijuana edibles.

Physical effects of marijuana use include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Increased risk of heart attack
  • Fainting, dizziness

Some studies suggest that marijuana can lead to long-term effects, including a loss of white matter in the brain and decreased IQ.

Dangerous Substances in Marijuana

Marijuana bought illicitly is often cut with other more dangerous substances. Many people do not know what the marijuana they use actually contains. The substances added to marijuana can have serious, life-threatening side effects. The National Library of Medicine lists the following possible side effects of marijuana cut with other drugs:

  • Sudden blood pressure spike
  • Chest pain, irregular heartbeat
  • Extreme hyperactivity, violent behavior
  • Heart attack, cardiac arrest
  • Seizures
  • Stroke

Emergency Treatment

Seek immediate medical attention if any of these effects occur. Emergency treatment may sometimes include benzodiazepines or other drug used to ease anxiety.

Marijuana & Mental Illness

Marijuana use may increase the risk of psychiatric disorders. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and substance use disorders have all been associated with marijuana use. Some research has suggested that frequent marijuana use can trigger underlying tendencies toward mental health disorders.

Is Marijuana Addictive?

Contrary to the popular belief that marijuana is safe and non-addictive, it is possible to become addicted to the drug. According to NIDA, about 30 percent of people who frequently use marijuana have some form of marijuana use disorder. Chances of becoming addicted to marijuana are higher among people who begin using the drug before the age of 18.

A study published by Addiction Science & Clinical Practice reported that individuals who are addicted to marijuana commonly experience the following consequences of marijuana use:

  • Relationship and family problems
  • Guilt associated with marijuana use
  • Financial difficulties
  • Low energy and self-esteem
  • Dissatisfaction with productivity levels
  • Sleep and memory problems
  • Low life satisfaction

Addiction to marijuana is sometimes accompanied by physical dependence. This occurs when the body adapts to the presence of the drug and depends on the substance in order to function. About 9 percent of marijuana users become dependent on the drug. Once dependence occurs, the individual will likely experience withdrawal whenever lessening or stopping use. While marijuana doesn’t carry the high risk for physical withdrawal symptoms, psychological withdrawal symptoms are common.

Symptoms of marijuana withdrawal include:

  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Sleep problems
  • Decreased appetite
  • Cravings
  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia

Withdrawal typically begins within a week of last use and can last as long as two weeks. For some people, the symptoms of withdrawal may continue for weeks or even months, though they decline in severity and frequency over time.

Treating Marijuana Addiction

Many people who are addicted to marijuana have comorbid disorders – addiction or mental health disorders that occur at the same time as the marijuana addiction. Depression and anxiety are common, as are addictions to other drugs, as well as alcoholism. The average adult who seeks treatment for marijuana addiction has used the drug every day for at least 10 years, and has typically tried to quit several times. Because multiple disorders are often present, it is important that treatment addresses all of the problems an individual is facing. Without treating all present disorders, relapse is likely.

Currently, there are no FDA-approved medications for the treatment of marijuana addiction. Behavioral treatments, like individual and group therapy, are the preferred treatment methods. NIDA lists the following methods of behavioral therapy as being effective in the treatment of marijuana addiction:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: This method of therapy helps individuals recognize how their thoughts and actions contribute to addiction, and develop coping strategies to avoid future relapse.
  • Contingency Management: Therapy following this model offers rewards for specific behaviors, like staying sober or participating in treatment.
  • Motivational Enhancement Therapy: This type of therapy is typically used to encourage someone to engage in recovery and consciously make healthy life choices. It is typically used early in treatment to enhance the motivation of the individual.

Marijuana addiction treatment may involve various complementary therapies, depending on the individual’s preferences and circumstances. Some individuals may benefit from outdoor therapies, such as wilderness therapy or adventure therapy. Animal-assisted therapies, such as equine-assisted therapy, may help some clients learn skills that are difficult to acquire in simple talk therapy. Meditation and mindfulness may be important components of some clients’ treatment plans.

The key is that treatment is individualized to each client in recovery. There is no single plan that will work for everyone; treatment centers must be experienced in tailoring care to each individual.

Ongoing Recovery

Addiction to marijuana can affect every area of an individual’s life and be detrimental to life satisfaction, relationships, and work performance. Seeking help for problematic marijuana use is the first step in recovery. A doctor can make a referral to a mental health professional or addiction specialist who will be able to make a diagnosis of a marijuana use disorder, or a client entering treatment at an addiction treatment facility will undergo an initial assessment to diagnose the disorder.

Marijuana addiction can typically be treated on an outpatient basis; however, severe cases of addiction or cases of co-occurring disorders may be better treated on an inpatient basis. The appropriate care option will be determined by an addiction treatment professional upon admittance.