Marijuana is most commonly smoked, but it can also be consumed through various other means, including edible products, and extracts of the marijuana plant, such as wax.
Marijuana comes from the hemp plant. The stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds of the plant contain a chemical called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly known as THC. This is the mind-altering compound that causes the effects felt by eating or smoking marijuana. The amount of THC varies between strains of marijuana plants and between types of marijuana products. Marijuana extracts have the highest concentration of THC.
Marijuana is the most commonly used drug in the United States. In a report published in 2013 by NIDA, 81 percent of drug users reported using marijuana in the last month. Sixty-one percent of those who used illicit drugs used only marijuana. Marijuana use has increased in recent years, especially among adolescents and young adults, as perceived risks of the drug have decreased.
Methods of Consumption
Marijuana can be smoked in a variety of ways. Some of the common methods include:
- Hand-rolled cigarettes called joints
- Pipes or water pipes, called bongs
- Emptied cigarettes refilled with marijuana, known as blunts
Some devices, called vaporizers, allow the user to extract THC from the marijuana and inhale vapor rather than smoke.
Marijuana edibles – foods that contain marijuana – are common alternate methods of intake. Common edibles include brownies, cookies, candy, and tea.
A method of marijuana intake that has risen in popularity in recent years is the smoking of THC-dense resin, which is extracted from marijuana plants. This is called dabbing. Marijuana extracts come in several different forms, including the following:
- Hash oil or honey oil, which is a sticky liquid
- Wax or butter, which is a soft solid with the consistency of wax or lip balm
- Shatter, which is a hard, transparent solid
Smoking marijuana extracts requires a special piece of equipment that heats and evaporates the resin so it can be inhaled.
Effects of THC
The THC in marijuana has various effects on the chemistry and structure of the brain. Smoking marijuana is the fastest delivery system for THC into the bloodstream. Eating or drinking marijuana slows the process, and it can take 30 minutes to an hour for effects to set in. The bloodstream carries THC to the brain almost immediately. The chemical causes overstimulation within certain parts of the brain, which causes the high users experience. Other short-term effects include:
- Altered senses or experience of time
- Impaired movement
- Impaired judgment and thinking
- Impaired memory
- Sleepiness or relaxation
- Increased appetite
High doses of THC can have many negative effects on the user. Risk of these symptoms increases significantly with the use of marijuana extracts. These unpleasant effects can be more likely or more serious if the user is inexperienced, or if the user has a mental or physical disorder. These negative effects can include:
- Anxiety or panic
- Psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations
- Nausea and vomiting
- Shortness of breath
These unpleasant effects are usually minimal enough that they don’t require medical attention, and they subside on their own. However, hospitalizations due to marijuana use are more common after the use of marijuana extracts. Benzodiazepines may be administered to treat panic or paranoia. Adolescents and people with a lower tolerance for THC are more likely to need medical care.
Dangers of THC
Marijuana use during adolescence can have long-lasting or permanent effects on brain development and function. A recent study showed that heavy marijuana use during adolescence followed by continued use in adulthood led to the loss of up to 8 IQ points for those between the ages of 13 and 38. People who began using marijuana in adulthood did not show an equal decline in mental capacities. Adolescents who use marijuana also show altered reward systems within the brain, which can increase the chances of other drug use.
Marijuana use during pregnancy can be extremely detrimental to the developing fetus. Exposure to THC before birth can cause serious problems with learning and memory later in life.
The extent of the effects felt from marijuana will depend upon the amount of TCH taken in by the user. The potency of marijuana has increased in recent decades. THC content rose from 3.7 percent to 9.6 percent in marijuana plants from the early 1990s to 2013. The percentage of THC in marijuana extracts can be as high as 50-80 percent. The higher concentrations found in marijuana extracts can lead to more intense reactions.
This higher concentration of THC within marijuana extracts, compared to the concentration within the original leaves and flowers of the plant, has led to an increase in hospitalizations and medical emergencies related to marijuana use.
Users often don’t realize how much THC can be present in these products and are unprepared for the effects, which can include hallucinations and other symptoms of psychosis. The process of creating marijuana extracts can also be dangerous due to the flammable chemicals involved. In 2014, there were more injuries in the state of California related to the production of marijuana extracts than there were as a result of methamphetamine production.
Marijuana edibles are not as thoroughly regulated as other marijuana products,
which has led to a great deal of variation in the quality of the products. Dosage can vary greatly between individual products, and because the effects of edibles set in more slowly, it is easier to consume too much and become ill. A handful of deaths in recent years have been attributed to dangerous behaviors that followed the consumption of marijuana edibles; the users underestimated the amount of marijuana present in the edibles they consumed and subsequently engaged in dangerous activities that led to their deaths. There have also been cases of children being accidentally dosed when they ate marijuana edibles.
Contrary to popular belief, addiction to marijuana is fairly common among frequent users. Repeated overstimulation of the endocannabinoid system changes brain structure and chemistry, causing addiction to THC. Nine percent of marijuana users become addicted. Users who begin their use during adolescence are more likely to become addicted. In fact, 17 percent of these people will become addicted to marijuana. Daily users are the most likely to become addicted, with 25-50 percent of daily users developing addiction to the drug.
Withdrawal from marijuana is relatively mild compared to withdrawal from other drugs, so some people do not realize that they are addicted to marijuana. Irritability, mood changes, trouble sleeping, decreased appetite, restlessness, and cravings are commonly reported by people in withdrawal from marijuana. These symptoms typically begin during the first week after stopping use and subside after a couple weeks.
Adults who enter treatment for marijuana addiction have typically used the drug every day for over 10 years, and most have attempted to quit multiple times. Comorbidity, or the occurrence of multiple psychiatric disorders, is common among those addicted to marijuana, and these individuals are often addicted to other substances as well. Treatment for other disorders can be helpful in lessening the amount and frequency of marijuana use.
Behavioral therapy is currently the most recommended treatment for marijuana addiction. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Contingency Management, and Motivational Enhancement Therapy are methods of treatment that are commonly used. Some research has been done into the use of medications to aid in the withdrawal process, including sleep aids, anti-anxiety medications, and certain nutritional supplements.