Marijuana is made from the plant Cannabis sativa, also known as the hemp plant or cannabis plant. The leaves, flowers, stems, and seeds of the plant can be smoked or eaten.
Marijuana contains a chemical known as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. This is the mind-altering drug that causes the “high” felt after consuming marijuana. The amount of THC present varies between different strains of marijuana and between the types of marijuana products available.
Marijuana is the most commonly used drug in the US. In 2013, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported that 81 percent of illicit drug users had used marijuana in the last month. Marijuana was the only drug used by 65 percent of these drug users.
Rates of marijuana use among adolescents and young adults have been rising until recent years when use rates stabilized and have held steady ever since. Perceived risk of marijuana use has declined as rates of use, as well as medical emergencies related to the use of the drug, have increased.
Contrary to public perceptions of marijuana as being relatively low-risk, addiction among frequent users is fairly common. The likelihood of becoming addicted increases if use begins at a younger age, as do risks of long-term negative consequences.
Methods of Consumption
This drug is most often smoked. Users may smoke the shredded leaves and flowers or smoke extracts made from the plant, such as oil or wax. It can also be baked into edible food products or used to make a tea.
There are several methods of smoking the shredded leaves and flowers of the marijuana plant. Users can inhale marijuana in the following forms:
- Joints: hand-rolled cigarettes
- Bongs: pipes or water pipes
- Blunts: emptied cigarettes refilled with marijuana
To smoke marijuana extracts, the user must use a special piece of equipment, known as a vaporizer, to heat and evaporate the product. The vapor can then be inhaled.
Food products that contain marijuana are referred to as marijuana edibles and are a common method of consumption. Marijuana edibles come in many forms, including cookies, brownies, candy, and tea.
Effects of Marijuana
Marijuana can cause many different effects on the brain and body of the user, in addition to the “high” that many users seek. It is extremely difficult to overdose on marijuana, but it is possible to ingest enough to make the user very sick. The effects of marijuana use are not usually dangerous and typically subside on their own.
The strength of the effects felt after consuming marijuana depends on the amount of THC present in the product used. NIDA reports that between the early 1990s and 2013, the potency of marijuana increased noticeably. THC content rose from 3.7 percent in marijuana plants to 9.6 percent. Marijuana extracts have a much higher THC content than any other product, which can range from 50 to 80 percent. This can lead to very intense reactions, especially if the user is unfamiliar with the use of extracts and unaware of the extremely high THC content.
The increasing potency of marijuana has led to an increase in marijuana-related hospitalizations in recent years. An article published by The Gazette reported that many people using marijuana products, particularly those using extracts, don’t realize how much THC is present in the products and are unprepared for the results, which can include symptoms of psychosis-like hallucinations.
Effects of marijuana are felt immediately if smoking the product. Marijuana edibles delay the effects of the drug by about 30 minutes to an hour. Less THC is delivered into the bloodstream by consuming marijuana edibles, as compared to smoking. Effects also last longer; smoking produces effects for 1-3 hours, while the effects of marijuana edibles may be felt for several hours.
Because marijuana edibles are not as well regulated as other products, the amount of the drug present can vary greatly. This can lead to dangerous results, as the person consuming the edible product may consume more than recommended and become ill. The Washington Times reports that the increase of marijuana use seen in recent years has led to those unfamiliar with the products engaging in dangerous activities that ultimately led to their deaths. Children can also be accidentally dosed if they unknowingly consume a marijuana product.
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Marijuana affects the mind by causing overstimulation within certain areas of the brain, leading to the “high” felt by the user. THC enters the bloodstream and is carried to the brain almost instantly. NIDA reports that common short-term effects of marijuana on the mind and brain include:
- Impaired judgment and thinking
- Impaired memory
- Feelings of euphoria
- Altered senses or experience of time
- Feeling tired or relaxed
If large doses of the drug are used, or if the individual is inexperienced or more sensitive to THC, more serious negative effects may be felt. People with a mental or physical disorder are also at an increased risk for adverse effects. In addition, with higher concentrations of THC within the products used, more serious negative effects are seen. The U.S. National Library of Medicine reports the following negative effects of marijuana on the mind:
- Anxiety or panic
- Feelings of paranoia
- Symptoms of psychosis, including hallucinations
Adverse effects experienced after the use of marijuana are not usually severe enough to require medical attention. Symptoms usually subside on their own, a few minutes or hours after use. In severe cases, benzodiazepines may be administered by a healthcare professional to alleviate panic or paranoia. Young people and people with other health problems are more likely to need medical assistance.
Long-term effects of marijuana are most common among frequent users, especially those who begin use during adolescence. A recent study reported that people who used marijuana heavily during adolescence and continued use into adulthood lost an average of 8 IQ points between the ages of 13 and 38, a significant drop in measurable intelligence. These findings were unique to those people who used the drug when young, while the brain was undergoing a great deal of development. Adolescents who used the drug also showed changes in structures of the brain responsible for reward, which can increase the chances of engaging in other drug use.
Babies exposed to THC within the womb also suffer adverse effects. NIDA has reported that children whose mothers used marijuana while pregnant show serious problems with learning and memory later in life.
In addition to effects of marijuana on the mind and brain, symptoms can also manifest within the body. The U.S. National Library of Medicine lists the following common physical effects of marijuana use:
- Red eyes
- Dry mouth
- Impaired movement
- Increased appetite
Physical effects of marijuana become much more dangerous if the marijuana is cut with other drugs. Some marijuana obtained through illicit means contains drugs like hallucinogens, which can have life-threatening physical symptoms. These may include:
- High blood pressure
- Hyperactivity or violent behavior
- Chest pain
- Heart attack
The effects of marijuana cut with other drugs can be serious and life-threatening, and medical attention should be sought in these cases.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), chronic marijuana use can have many long-term negative effects on physical health. These can include respiratory infection, permanently impaired memory, and exposure to cancer-causing carcinogens. Individuals who use marijuana may also be at a greater risk of developing mental illness and show lower cognitive functioning.
Contrary to popular belief, addiction to marijuana is not uncommon and requires treatment similar to any other drug abuse disorder. Reports published by NIDA have estimated that about 9 percent of people who regularly use marijuana become addicted to the drug. Marijuana triggers overstimulation of the endocannabinoid system within the brain; repeated overstimulation causes changes to brain chemistry and structure, leading to addiction. Chances of addiction are higher among those who begin using the drug during adolescence, as 17 percent of people who begin use during their teenage years become addicted to marijuana. Daily users are the highest risk for addiction, at 25-50 percent.
Some people who use marijuana do not realize they have become addicted to the drug, because withdrawal is relatively mild compared to the withdrawal experienced from other drugs. The following symptoms are commonly experienced by those in withdrawal from marijuana:
- Mood swings
- Trouble sleeping
- Decreased appetite
Symptoms of marijuana withdrawal usually begin within a week of stopping use of the drug. The withdrawal syndrome may last as long as two weeks.
People who are addicted to a drug will seek out and use the substance despite many negative consequences to their lives and their health. Addiction to marijuana can have many different impacts on the behaviors and emotional health of the individual. Psychology Today lists the following impacts:
- Lack of motivation
- Poor performance at work or school
- Lowered self-esteem
- Increased risk of mental illness
- Social isolation
Withdrawal can also cause changes to behavior and emotions, including episodes of depression and hopelessness.
Chronic marijuana use can increase risks for certain physical illnesses and diseases. Those addicted to marijuana use more sick days at work and are more likely to have respiratory infections than non-users, according to NIDA. Effects on the lungs can include:
- Chronic bronchitis
- Lung hyperinflation
- Increased airway resistance
- Airway inflammation
- Reduced immune response
Some studies have also shown a link between marijuana use and certain cancers. Whether marijuana contributes to lung cancer has not yet been well established, but several studies have shown a correlation between marijuana use during adolescence and occurrences of aggressive testicular cancer later in life.
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Treatment for Marijuana Addiction
Most people who enter treatment for marijuana addiction have been using the drug every day for over a decade and have made multiple attempts to quit, according to NIDA. Many people suffering from marijuana addiction have comorbid disorders, or other mental health disorders that occur at the same time as their addiction. Addiction to more than one substance is also common. It is important to treat all of the disorders a person is suffering from in order to be successful in treating the addiction to marijuana.
The recommended treatment for marijuana addiction is behavioral therapy. Currently, there are no medications approved for the use of treating marijuana addiction, but research is being done into several different medications for this purpose. Medications that are being explored include sleep aids, anti-anxiety medications, and certain nutritional supplements.
Treatment may happen in an inpatient or outpatient setting, and it typically incorporates both individual therapy and group therapy. Twelve-Step program participation can also be helpful. SAMHSA lists the following models of therapy as being commonly used in the treatment of substance use disorders:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: This model focuses on stopping patterns of unhelpful thoughts and behaviors, and establishing new, healthy patterns. The person in treatment learns to recognize the stressors and triggers that contribute to their substance use.
- Contingency Management: This model offers rewards for positive behaviors, thereby encouraging abstinence and healthy choices.
- Motivational Enhancement Therapy: This model encourages motivation and participation in treatment. The goal of this model is to increase commitment to the treatment plan and encourage abstinence.
Substance use is typically treated through an initial period of intense treatment, which is then tapered off as sobriety is established. The level of treatment required depends on the individual’s needs and unique situation.
Inpatient programs offer the most intensive treatment for marijuana addiction. These programs may last several weeks to several months, and offer 24-hour supervision and care. This is a more appropriate treatment options for those suffering from multiple disorders or those who lack a sufficient support system and resources. The U.S. National Library of Medicine has reported that people being treated through inpatient programs are four times less likely to relapse than those in outpatient programs; however, these programs are also more expensive and time-consuming, so they might not be the appropriate choice for everyone.
Intensive outpatient programs, also called partial hospitalization, offer a comparable level of treatment as inpatient programs, but the individual still lives at home while spending multiple hours a day in treatment. This can be a more affordable alternative to inpatient programs for individuals requiring an intensive treatment plan. Standard outpatient programs require less of a time commitment than intensive outpatient programs. Hours spent in treatment should be lessened gradually over time.