Marijuana, the most commonly abused illicit drug, is a controversial drug. It has a reputation as a harmless drug, despite its status as a Schedule I drug, which is the class that includes the most strictly regulated drugs. Schedule I drugs have a high risk of abuse and no medical uses. The laws surrounding marijuana are becoming more relaxed, with over 20 states legalizing the medical use of marijuana and Colorado and Washington legalizing the recreational use of the drug. More states are expected to legalize the drug, either fro medical or recreational use. However, under federal law the drug remains illegal, and retains its Schedule I classification.
There are people, including medical experts, on both sides of the argument about whether marijuana is safe to use. Although several studies have shown positive medical benefits of the drug, there are also many studies demonstrating serious complications of abuse, especially in young people. Marijuana may not have the serious side effects as some illicit drugs, but it still can have a significant effect on the body and brain, which could contribute to long-lasting problems. The potency of the drug is also increasing, leading to even more side effects and increasing the potential for dependency. It is important that people understand the risks of abusing marijuana, so that it can inform their decision about the drug.
Statistics of Marijuana Abuse
Marijuana abuse was in decline in the early 200s, but it has seen an increase of use in young people since 2007. According to the latest data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 5.4 million Americans over the age of 12 used marijuana daily or almost daily in 2012. That was an increase of 2.4 million people from 2006. About 17 percent of those who used marijuana in the past year did so on a daily basis. About 7.6 million Americans over the age of 12 used marijuana on 20 or more days within the past month, which is an increase of 2.5 million since 2007.
Most experts attribute this increase to the diminished perception of the risk of using the drug. In fact, only 43.6 percent of youths believe that smoking marijuana once or twice a week can cause a problem, and even less (26.5 percent) believe that smoking it once a month can cause problems.
In 2012, 2.4 million people over the age of 12 tried marijuana for the first time, which is a similar number for the past few years, but higher compared to the early 2000s. The majority (57.3 percent) of first-time marijuana users were under the age of 18, which totaled 1.4 million people.
About 1 percent of the population, or 2.6 million people, meets the criteria for substance abuse or dependency to marijuana. This is the highest number of dependency for any illicit drug. However, this is mostly due to the higher number of users, rather than an increased risk of addiction.
Marijuana made up 23.9 percent of people over the age of 12 who sought treatment for abuse or addiction. This made marijuana the third substance for which people received treatment, following alcohol (59.8 percent) and pain relievers (24.3). However, among young people, marijuana treatment had a much higher percentage of those in treatment: 65.5 percent of youths aged 12 to 17 in treatment for substance abuse were there for marijuana, compared to 42.9 percent for alcohol.
How is Marijuana Consumed?
Most of the time, marijuana is smoked, either in a joint (a hand rolled cigarette), pipes, or bongs (water pipes). Some people also smoke it in emptied cigars that have been refilled using a mixture of tobacco and marijuana, which is known as a blunt. It is also consumed baked or mixed in food, or brewed as a tea. Smoking marijuana allows it to be absorbed into the bloodstream quickly, which then takes it to the brain and other organs. Ingesting marijuana in food or drinks slows down the process.
How Does Marijuana Work?
Marijuana comes from the hemp plant Cannabis sativa, and the active ingredient is THC, which stands for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. THC is a psychoactive drug, which means it alters the mind. However, marijuana also affects the body, and can lead to serious long-term effects. The body rapidly absorbs THC upon smoking marijuana, causing the effects of THC and other substances to occur within minutes.
Marijuana's molecular structure is similar to anandamide, which is a chemical in the brain. The similarity in structure allows the body to recognize the drug and use it in a similar manner to the body's natural chemicals. The use of the THC instead of anandamide alters and disrupts the normal brain communication.
THC targets the cannabinoid receptors in the brain, which are normally activated by chemicals like anandamide. These receptors are part of the endocannabinoid system, which is important in brain development and function. Many of these receptors are found in the areas of the brain influencing memory, thinking, pleasure, sensory and time perception, concentration, and coordinated movement. The THC overactivates this system, leading to the "high" users feel. However, it can also lead to other effects, including altered perceptions, impaired coordination, disrupted learning and memory, and problems with problem solving. The majority of the effects in the brain will be targeted in the endocannabinoid system. The drug also causes some effects in other parts of the body as well.
Most people who recreationally use marijuana do so for the psychological effects. These include altering a person's mood, which can vary depending on the person or situation. Although most people associate the high from marijuana as calming, it can cause many other effects, including euphoria, anxiety, depression, or paranoia. It also can cause random thinking, a distorted sense of time, and short-term memory loss. Many of these effects go away after a few hours, but a person can have residual effects for much longer, up to a few days. In some people, these effects can be frightening.
Some studies on marijuana have also shown physical changes occur in the brain, especially in those who chronically use the substance. Studies have shown that these changes in the brain are similar to the effects of other drugs. The longer a person uses marijuana, the higher risk of the development of brain abnormalities, which can lead to problems. Other studies have shown a connection between psychosis and extended marijuana use.
Marijuana affects the area of the brain that controls memory and cognitive function. Studies have found that prolonged use of the drug can negatively affect cognitive function and decrease a person's ability to learn, retain information, or be productive at work. It can also cause a person to not understand things very well. This can harm a person's ability to succeed academically or professionally.
Studies have shown that marijuana has a more significant effect on the developing adolescent brain than the adult brain. When young people use marijuana a lot, it can cause long-lasting or even permanent problems with cognitive function, thinking and memory. A recent study found that marijuana users who had been using since adolescence had significant connectivity loss among the areas in the brain responsible for learning and memory. Another study showed that young people who smoked marijuana had an average loss of eight IQ points between the age of 13 and 38. Even after quitting marijuana use, their full cognitive abilities were not restored. However, those who started smoking as adults did not have as significant of a decline in their IQ. Therefore, marijuana affects the developing brain more than the adult brain, causing more significant and permanent damage, making it even more dangerous for adolescents to use. With young people the largest users of marijuana, this could lead to major problems.
Marijuana does not just affect the brain. Like any chemical injected in the body, marijuana affects the whole body. Within a short period of time, marijuana ingestion causes a rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure, and increased rate of breathing. It also causes a slowed reaction time, and an increased appetite. It can also cause red eyes and dry mouth. Most of these physical effects go away after a few hours; however, marijuana remains in the system for a long time, as much as a month after smoking.
The effects on the cardiovascular system increase a person's risk of a heart attack. Marijuana increases the heart rate 20-100 percent soon after initially consuming the drug. This leads to a 4.8 percent increase in a person's risk of having a heart attack during the first hour of smoking. This risk factor increases in those who have a high-risk for a heart attack, including older users.
Because the drug remains in the system for so long, it could continue to cause these negative effects even after the high has worn off. In people with certain health problems, this could contribute to medical complications. Long-term use of marijuana can also lead to a reduced immune system, making a person more susceptible to disease, including the common cold and flu.
Risks of Smoking Marijuana
Marijuana use does have some significant risks and long-term effects. The more a person smokes marijuana, the more risk a person has of experiencing major problems due to smoking the drug. Many experts believe that smoking marijuana increases a person's chance for developing lung cancer, although there has yet to be a proven link. There have been some studies that have shown marijuana smoke contains 50 to 70 percent more carcinogenic substances than tobacco. According to one major study, smoking one marijuana joint could cause similar damage as smoking five regular cigarettes. However, these studies have yet to be verified by other studies to act as conclusive proof. Marijuana users also have a higher risk of other respiratory problems than non-smokers.
Marijuana use can also effect fertility and sexual reproduction. Heavy use of marijuana can lower men's testosterone level, as well as reduce the sperm quality and count. This could lead to a reduction in fertility and a decreased libido. It can also disrupt a woman's menstrual cycle. Some studies have also shown that using marijuana could increase the risk of birth defects, due to abnormal cell division. Therefore, pregnant women should not smoke marijuana.
Mental Illness and Marijuana
Some studies have found a link between chronic marijuana use and the development of mental illness. There has been some links between using marijuana and developing psychosis later, which could be due to the brain changes caused by the drugs. Using marijuana can worsen the course of schizophrenia in those who already have the condition. There is also a significant relationship between depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and personality disturbances among those who use marijuana. The exact relationship between mental illness and marijuana is not known, including whether the marijuana causes the condition or only exacerbates it. Some people may also already have a mental condition and use marijuana to self-medicate. More research is needed to understand the exact relationship.
Is Marijuana Dangerous?
Marijuana may not be as dangerous as other mood-altering substances. One independent study in Britain compared 20 drugs to see the harm to individual users and society, and found that it ranked eighth for potential for harm. It had one-fourth the harm potential for alcohol. Although some experts argued that was due to legality and availability, a study by the World Health Organization in 1995 concluded even if marijuana usage equaled that of tobacco and alcohol, it would most likely not have the same public health effects as those substances. Although this may seem to show that marijuana is not dangerous, it still has the potential to cause major problems in a person's life.
Marijuana use increases a person's risk of being involved in an accident or being injured. Driving while under the influence of marijuana can cause accidents, similar to driving while drunk or under the influence of other drugs. About 3.9 percent of the population over the age of 12 reported driving under the influence of illicit drugs in 2012, which was lower than in 2002, but higher than in 2011. Using marijuana more than doubles the chance of a person being in an accident. The impaired coordination and thinking can also cause other injury or accidents.
Marijuana intoxication can also impair a person's judgment, which can lead to risky behavior, including unsafe sex. This could cause further problems, injury, or disease. Some risky behavior could lead to legal problems, including incarceration. In most places, using marijuana remains illegal and also could potentially lead to legal problems.
Marijuana can also cause problems in a person's personal life. It can contribute to problems with relationships, at work, in school, and other areas of life. Marijuana users report having a lower overall life satisfaction, including having poor mental and physical health, less academic and career success, and more problems with relationships than non-marijuana users. Studies have also shown a relationship between marijuana use and increased absence, accidents, tardiness and job turnover. The exact relationship between the negative life satisfaction and marijuana use is not known. It could be that those with a negative satisfaction with life are more likely to use marijuana. However, the physical and mental effects of marijuana use and addiction will contribute to some of these problems, and worsen them in those who turn to marijuana to escape their problems.
Many people believe that occasionally smoking or consuming marijuana is safe, because it is not addictive. However, this is not entirely true. There is limited research on whether a person can develop a physical dependence on the drug, but more and more studies are showing that marijuana is addictive. Some studies estimate that about 9 percent of users become addicted. It is possible for a person to develop a psychological addiction, in addition to a physical dependency. Some users even feel withdrawal symptoms if they are unable to get high, even if they are only occasional users. The more a person uses marijuana, the higher risk they have of developing a dependence.
Many people call marijuana a gateway drug, meaning that if someone uses it, they will be more willing to use other drugs. There is limited proof as to whether this is actually the case. Although many marijuana users do go on to use other drugs, it could be that they are just more willing to abuse drugs and alcohol in general. With the high number of marijuana users compared to other illicit drugs, it would seem that most users do not go on to use other illicit drugs after trying marijuana. It may work as a gateway drug for those who already want to experiment, but it will not lead to most people using other illicit drugs.
What about Medical Use?
Recently, marijuana has become legal for medical purposes, but there is still debate in the medical community about whether it is a legitimate treatment option. Studies are limited, but there are several that have shown some benefits of marijuana for certain ailments, including glaucoma, nausea associated with HIV/AIDS and cancer, and even mental health conditions, such as post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. However, there is not enough research to show that the benefits outweigh the potential risks. The medical community is continuing to research the potential medical benefits of marijuana, and more and more states will most likely allow medical use of the drug.
Even if marijuana has uses as a medicine, it does not reduce the risks involved in recreational use. Many legal medications have potential for abuse and significant complications if abused, such as opioid pain medications. Long term use of marijuana, even for medical purposes, may also lead to certain long-term effects. Not enough research has been done to know the exact ramifications of using marijuana medically.
Treatment for Marijuana Abuse and Addiction
Treatment for marijuana abuse and addiction largely centers on psychotherapy and behavioral adjustment. Some research is being done to find medication to try to treat the physical dependency on the drug, although medically assisted treatments have their critics in the behavioral health community. The most common form of treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches people to recognize the unhealthy thoughts and behavior, including the reasons behind it, and replace it with healthier ones. Motivational incentives, which involve giving rewards to those who remain abstinent, have also proved to be effective.
Marijuana is not known for having a physical dependency and withdrawal symptoms, especially compared to heroin and other opioid medications and alcohol, which have very unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. However, some studies have shown that some people, even occasional users, do have some symptoms of withdrawal if they are unable to consume marijuana. Possible withdrawal symptoms from marijuana include aggression, depressed mood, anxiety, and decreased appetite. A person in treatment for marijuana abuse and addiction would not need the detox treatment that other addicts might need, but they still should be monitored for these symptoms in case they lead to larger problems, especially depression.
Psychotherapy plays an important role in treating marijuana abuse and addiction. Many users may turn to the drug in order to numb emotions or feelings and escape reality. Some people may have a mental health condition, such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, and use marijuana to self-medicate. However, marijuana cannot solve any of these problems, and often just worsens them. In order to fully overcome an abuse or addiction problem, a person needs to learn to deal with their issues and manage strong emotions in a healthy manner. They also need to learn coping mechanisms, healthy stress relief techniques, and how to manage cravings. Psychotherapy and additional programs in a treatment facility can teach this to users so they can overcome their addiction and regain control over their life.
Marijuana treatment can take place at most drug rehab facilities, including for both residential and outpatient care. For minor cases, weekly therapy sessions with a private psychologist can help. There are also self-help support groups that can provide additional help during treatment, whether in a facility or on one's own.