Marijuana comes from the 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 resins, also known as resins, extracts, or marijuana oil, are newer former of concentrated marijuana that users often inhale via a vaporizer.
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.
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 present a serious risk to young people and others who may 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 and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that 22.2 million people in the US had used marijuana in the month prior to the survey.
While marijuana is used across all age groups, adolescents and young adults are the most frequent users of the drug. Use of marijuana among high school students has held steady in recent years, while most other drug use has declined. In 2014, SAMHSA’s survey found that 7.4 percent of those aged 12-17 used marijuana. In the 18-25 age group, nearly 20 percent had used marijuana in the prior month, and in the 26+ age group, 6.6 percent used marijuana in the prior month.
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Effects of Marijuana
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, affects the brain by mimicking certain neurotransmitters. THC influences the following brain functions:
- Sensory and time perception
Marijuana affects these brain functions primarily by interfering with the hippocampus, a 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 reward center of the brain, which causes feelings of euphoria and the desire to repeat the experience of taking the drug.
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
- Loss of sense of identity
Smoking marijuana produces almost immediate effects that will generally last 1-3 hours. Eating or drinking marijuana products causes the effects to be delayed for 30-60 minutes. This delay in onset of action often leads individuals to consume more edibles, not realizing that the effects simply haven’t hit yet. As a result, the individual may end up taking high doses that produce a bevy of undesirable effects. Emergency department visits are common as a result of marijuana edibles.
Physical effects of marijuana use include:
- Increased heart rate
- Bloodshot eyes
- Increased risk of heart attack
- Fainting or dizziness
Some studies have suggested that marijuana can lead to long-term effects, including a loss of white matter in the brain and decreased IQ.
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:
- A sudden spike in blood pressure
- Chest pain and irregular heartbeat
- Extreme hyperactivity and violent behavior
- Heart attack
- Cardiac arrest
Seek immediate medical attention if any of these effects occur. Emergency treatment may sometimes include benzodiazepines, a class of drugs used to ease anxiety.
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.
Contrary to the popular belief that marijuana is safe and nonaddictive, 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 much 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:
- Mood swings
- Sleep problems
- Decreased appetite
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.
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.
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.