Marijuana refers to the dried leaves, flowers, and stems of the cannabis plant. The drug has been used for many years for recreational and medicinal purposes. A chemical in marijuana called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, has psychoactive properties. This leads many people to abuse marijuana in order to experience a “high.”
Rates of marijuana use have risen in recent years. In 2014, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that 22.2 million people, or 8.4 percent of the United States population, had used marijuana in the past month. The age group most likely to use marijuana included those between 18 and 25 years old. Overall, marijuana use is more common among men than women.
Smoking the dried plant is the most common way to use this drug, and it can be smoked through several means. Hand-rolled cigarettes, known as joints; pipes; and water pipes, known as bongs, are common means for smoking marijuana.
In addition to smoking, there are several other ways to consume marijuana. These alternate methods have increased in popularity in recent years, as medical marijuana use has increased and some states have legalized recreational marijuana.
Marijuana edibles are among the most common ways to consume the drug other than smoking it. These edibles are foods or drinks that contain marijuana. Another method of consuming marijuana involves extracts, which are concentrated products that contain high levels of THC. Extracts are a newer method of ingesting marijuana, and they may carry increased health risks and abuse potential.
Marijuana edibles typically come in the form of baked goods, candies, or teas. When consumed in this way, the drug takes effect more slowly than when it is smoked. Drugs that are eaten must first pass through the digestive tract and be metabolized by the liver before being carried to the rest of the body. This lowers the potency of the drug. It normally takes 30-60 minutes for marijuana edibles to take effect.
The increased use of marijuana edibles has led to new health concerns, as research on the effects of marijuana use expands. Concerns about children being exposed to marijuana have also increased as the use of edibles has risen, according to an article published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Children can find marijuana edibles and consume them, not realizing they contain a drug. This can be extremely dangerous, since a single marijuana product often contains more than one dose of the drug and is meant to be eaten in small portions.
Children are not the only population at risk for over-consuming marijuana edibles. People who are new to using these edible products are often unfamiliar with the appropriate dosage or consume too much of the drug too quickly because they are unaware that edible products take effect more slowly than other methods. The Washington Times reported one such case in which a 19-year-old man consumed an entire marijuana cookie and subsequently committed suicide.
Marijuana extracts are resins that are dense in THC. Smoking these extracts is called dabbing. Several forms of resin are available, including the following:
- A sticky, yellow liquid called hash oil or honey oil
- A soft, waxy substance called wax or budder
- A hard, yellowish-brown solid called shatter
These products are created through the extraction and concentration of the chemical components in marijuana, including psychoactive THC. While it is extremely difficult to overdose on marijuana consumed through traditional means, the high concentration of THC in marijuana extracts makes it possible to become very ill when using these products.
Many people who use marijuana extracts are unfamiliar with these products and don’t realize how much THC they are consuming. There is also a lack of government regulation controlling the potency of extracts and edibles, so one product may differ greatly from another. While a life-threatening overdose is unlikely when using marijuana, high amounts of THC can cause unpleasant symptoms. The negative effects of marijuana intoxication can include:
- Difficulties with short-term memory
- Dry mouth
- Poor motor skills and perception
- Red eyes
- Symptoms of psychosis, including hallucinations
- Triggering mental health disorders, including psychotic disorders, anxiety disorders, and mood disorders
Marijuana products are poorly regulated. As a result, they sometimes contain other, more dangerous drugs like hallucinogens and sedatives. Combining marijuana products rich in THC with other substances can greatly increase the risk of suffering a negative reaction.
The effects of marijuana products like edibles and extracts can vary widely due to differing potency levels. While many people think of marijuana as a relatively safe, nonaddictive substance, the reality is that as many as 30 percent of regular marijuana users are addicted to the drug, according to NIDA.
Addiction is typically accompanied by physical dependence, or a physical need for the drug in order for the body to function correctly. The withdrawal syndrome associated with marijuana dependence tends to be fairly mild, but can still be problematic enough to discourage those addicted from stopping use of the drug. Withdrawal symptoms often include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Decreased appetite
- Drug cravings
Symptoms often appear within the first week after the last drug use and can last up to two weeks. Physical dependence on marijuana may be more likely to develop with frequent exposure to the drug, especially in large quantities, such as what is seen with marijuana extracts.
Marijuana use can also negatively impact cognitive functioning. One article exploring these effects reported that regular marijuana use led to slowed response times, deficits in motor functioning, lowered executive functioning, and poor verbal memory skills. Most of these effects appear to be short-term, but there is some evidence suggesting that prolonged marijuana use can lead to permanent cognitive decline.
Government Oversight of the Marijuana Industry
As individual states begin to allow both recreational and medicinal marijuana use, the available research is struggling to keep up with the increase in use of the drug. As a result, there is currently little government regulation for products like edibles and extracts, and what regulations do exist are rarely based on sound scientific evidence. Marijuana products can currently vary widely in their contents and potency. Individuals who use these products should be aware of the associated risks and monitor themselves for signs of abuse, addiction, and dependence.