Marijuana is far and away the most popular illicit drug. It’s so popular, in fact, that Colorado, Washington, Utah, Alaska, and the District of Columbia have all legalized its use. An additional 23 states, plus the District of Columbia, have also legalized the drug for medical purposes. In a world where 40% of adults have used marijuana at least once, it’s easy to write this substance off as little more than a harmless plant. But marijuana, just like other legal drugs such as alcohol, and like thousands of potentially addictive medications, can be just as addictive as any other mind-altering drug. Research suggests that about 5% of marijuana users eventually become hooked.
Marijuana: The Basics
Marijuana has been used for thousands of years, with evidence of its use dating back to a 12,000 year old Taiwanese village. It became illegal in the United States in the early twentieth century, and was classified as a Schedule I drug in the 1970s. This classification suggests a drug with a high potential for abuse and no valid medial purpose – a categorization that remains controversial to this day.
Chemical analyses suggest that marijuana is getting increasingly potent. Because recreational marijuana is still illegal throughout most of the country, users can never be sure how strong the drug they’re using is or what its effects will be; the effects of marijuana vary slightly depending upon the strain used.
Marijuana has gone by a number of names throughout the years, and local culture can heavily affect what users call the drug. Common street names, though, include weed, pot, MJ, Mary Jane, hash, and grass. It can be smoked or eaten, with most users opting to smoke the drug using vaporizers, water pipes, or cigarettes. Consumable marijuana typically yields a slightly stronger high that lasts for a longer period of time. Although a limited few users may inject the drug, and some rumors suggest that intravenous marijuana has become more popular in states where the drug has been legalized, there’s no empirical support suggesting that IV injection of marijuana is a common or even rare phenomenon.
In recent years, synthetic marijuana has become popular, particularly among teens and young adults. Sate laws vary on its use, but manufacturers are constantly repackaging and labeling synthetic marijuana to escape state regulations. There is little data available about this drug’s use at this point, though several reports suggest that this form of the drug is dangerous – perhaps even deadly.
How Marijuana Affects the Body
Marijuana is generally classified as a depressant, which means it slows down activity in your central nervous system. This classification is controversial, though, and there’s some evidence that marijuana can also function as a stimulant, and even a narcotic.
The addictive effects of marijuana are largely due to THC, a cannabinoid chemical in marijuana plants that causes users to become intoxicated. There are at least 85 other cannabinoids in marijuana, though, and researchers don’t yet fully know the effects of each of these chemicals. What they do know, however, is that the brain contains cannabinoid receptors, and that some cannabinoids may alter electrical activity in the brain, change immune response, and affect the brain’s ability to communicate with the body. These effects may help explain some of marijuana’s purported medicinal effects.
The immediate effects of a marijuana high include:
- Food cravings, especially for sweet and savory items; many users refer to this sensation as the “munchies.”
- Feelings of euphoria, well-being, and decreased depression.
- Red eyes or droopy eyelids.
- Increased blood pressure and heart rate.
- Changes in concentration; some users experience hyper-concentration during which they obsessively focus on menial tasks, such as straightening pictures. Others have difficulty paying attention at all.
- Excessive talking or giggling.
- Panic and anxiety.
- Among people with a history of psychosis, marijuana may trigger a psychotic episode.
- Decrease in coordination.
- Difficulties processing and prioritizing information; people under the influence of marijuana have a tendency to focus on unimportant details rather than the big picture.
A high from smoked marijuana typically lasts two to four hours, while people who eat marijuana can expect a high that lasts up to 12 hours. For most users, the side effects of short-term use are minimal; this can spur further use that leads to addiction.
Long-Term Side Effects of Marijuana Use
Like any other drug, marijuana can become psychologically and physically addictive. Users who develop an addiction aren’t the only ones vulnerable to marijuana’s long-term side effects, though. Any chronic use of marijuana can yield the following effects:
- Health problems related to smoked marijuana, including cardiovascular and respiratory issues, shortness of breath, and chronic coughing.
- Changes in heart rate and blood pressure.
- Decreased motivation; marijuana can alter brain chemistry, increasing its user’s vulnerability to a host of issues, including depression, anxiety, and motivation problems.
- Changes in sleep patterns.
- Stunted growth among children who use the drug.
- Decreased immunity.
- Changes in personality and mood.
- Decreased sperm count.
- Sexual dysfunction.
- Changes in brain function.
- Hormone imbalances, particularly among men.
With marijuana, the severity of long-term symptoms is typically dependent on the frequency of use. A person who uses the drug a few times a month, for example, will typically have markedly fewer symptoms than someone who uses marijuana several times a week or day.
The Withdrawal Process
Withdrawal from marijuana is largely psychological, and is not typically as severe as withdrawal from other substances. The severity of withdrawal, though, depends on a number of factors, including your health and whether you use other drugs alongside marijuana. Since withdrawal is always unpleasant and potentially dangerous, then, it’s wise to talk to your doctor before quitting the drug. Some common symptoms of marijuana withdrawal include:
- Tremors and shakiness
- Anger, anxiety, or aggression.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Gastrointestinal problems such as vomiting and diarrhea.
- Sleep disturbances, particularly insomnia.
- Night sweats.
- Cold chills.
Though withdrawal can be challenging, marijuana detox typically only takes a few days. And as long as you don’t relapse, you’ll never have to experience the pain of withdrawal again.