Marijuana is the most frequently used illegal drug in the United States, with over 22.2 million individuals stating they had used it in the past month, per the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. This also means that cannabis use disorder is more common than any other substance use disorder.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana, which also goes by the name cannabis, is mainly smoked in joints (which resemble cigarettes), blunts (which are made with hollowed-out cigars), and pipes (often called bongs). However, there are other ways for individuals to ingest the drug: Individuals may use a vaporizer or even mix it with food and brew it as a tea. The main chemical in marijuana, called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, is the ingredient that causes marijuana’s psychoactive effects.
Long-Term Effects of Marijuana
Marijuana is legal in a handful of states for both recreational and medical use, and in several states for medical use, but this does not mean it is entirely safe. First, individuals who buy it on the street cannot guarantee that it is not mixed with another drug, such as cocaine. This can increase the risk for accidental overdose. It can also cause problems with memory in both short-term, casual users and long-term, heavy users.
One study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America followed 1,037 individuals from birth to age 38. These individuals underwent neurological testing at age 13, before beginning marijuana use, and at age 38. Results showed that use of marijuana was associated with a decline in a number of neurological functions. A number of other problems can be caused by marijuana use as well, including the following:
- Problems with breathing: Marijuana can irritate the lungs and cause problems similar to those caused by smoking cigarettes. Researchers have not determined if smoking marijuana can increase the risk for lung cancer.
- Increased heart rate for up to three hours after smoking marijuana: This, especially in older individuals and those with preexisting heart problems, can cause a heart attack or cardiac arrest.
- Issues with fetal brain development: There is an increased risk for problems with the baby’s brain if a mother smokes marijuana while pregnant.
Marijuana can also increase symptoms of mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia.
Facts about Legalization in CA
In November 2016, voters in California approved Proposition 64, which legalizes recreational marijuana possession and use within the state.
According to TIME, the following is now legal for adults who are 21 or older:
- Possessing up to one ounce of flowers or eight grams of concentrate
- Growing up to six plants at home
- Marijuana consumption in private residences
- Sharing marijuana with others
At this point, there are still no retail establishments that sell recreational marijuana and the dispensaries still require a valid medical card for purchase, but this is expected to change by January 2018. Individuals can grow pot plants for their own personal use or share them with others; however, no money can exchange hands. It is also not legal to smoke weed in public or drive under the influence of marijuana. On a federal level, marijuana is still considered illegal, and employers may still test employees for its use.
Recreational sales are expected to bring in large amounts of tax dollars to the state of California as retail sales will be taxed at 15 percent, the Los Angeles Times reports. California is also taking notice of how other states have handled recreational legalization, particularly how many children have been poisoned by ingesting edibles in Colorado. The state plans to ensure that when edibles are sold, they are low-dose, sold in child-resistant packaging, and not marketed to a young audience.
The legalization of marijuana in California reduces some of the stigma surrounding the drug, likening it more to alcohol, which can be enjoyed responsibly by adults in moderation. Legalization will also increase access to the potentially addictive drug, which will likely lead to more people abusing it and struggling with addiction as a result.
Who First Used Marijuana and For What?
The Cannabis sativa plant grows naturally in humid and tropical climates, and it has been used for many purposes throughout history. Ancient Chinese cultures are believed to have used it in the form of hemp to make rope, paper, clothing, and bowstrings. Due to its mind-altering properties, the cannabis plant has also been used for religious and spiritual ceremonies and for medicinal purposes.
The earliest recorded history of cannabis use is in 2727 BC from the Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung, per the DEA Museum. He is considered the Father of Chinese Medicine, and he used the cannabis plant for the treatment of constipation, absentmindedness, menstruation, gout, rheumatism, beriberi, and malaria, Psychology Today reports. In the second century AD, Hua T’o, a Chinese surgeon, began mixing cannabis with wine for use as anesthesia during surgery.
Cannabis use spread throughout the Middle East and Islamic Empire to Africa and also through Ancient Rome and Greece. Spaniards imported it into Chile and the Western hemisphere in 1545 in the form of fiber. Cannabis was grown in North America across the continent on farms and plantations for hemp products.
The name marijuana has a storied history as well and may have been coined in reference to the plant’s import from Mexico into the United States, as the Spanish word for it is marihuana, NPR publishes. Marijuana is believed to have entered the US from Mexico in the early 1900s with fleeing immigrants who introduced the practice of smoking the plant for psychoactive purposes.
By 1930, the plant was outlawed in 29 states, Live Science reports. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was an attempt to regulate the importation, possession, distribution, and cultivation of the Cannabis sativa plant, and to stop recreational use of the drug, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) publishes. In effect, the law made it difficult to commercialize or import the plant, thus negatively impacting profit and in turn criminalizing marijuana. In 1970, regulations were tightened, and marijuana was classified to be restricted at the same level as narcotic drugs, as a Schedule I controlled substance. The DEA classifies Schedule I drugs as having no accepted medicinal properties and a high potential for abuse and addiction.
Marijuana is thought to potentially help with things like pain, nausea, appetite suppression, anxiety, muscle spasms resulting from multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, and other conditions. As of now, 28 states have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes, Forbes publishes, even though the drug remains illegal at the federal level. As of November 2016, eight states have legalized recreational use of marijuana as well, Business Insider reports.
Marijuana is considered an addictive psychoactive substance, however. Recreational use can have many negative short-term and long-term consequences, hence why the drug is still regulated and tightly controlled on a federal level.
Facts about THC Potency
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive component in marijuana. In general, the higher the potency of THC, the more intoxicating the product will be. Potency has been rising in recent years as the drug has been legalized and commercialized in many states throughout America. In Colorado, for instance, legal THC levels are around an average of 18.7 percent, while in the past THC levels in illegal marijuana were below 10 percent, NBC News reports. Some samples in Colorado have a potency of close to 30 percent.
There are currently no laws about the rate of potency, although proposals are looking to curb potency of THC at 16 percent in the future. Growers are breeding and producing new strains of marijuana and increasing the potency of THC, which in turn can enhance the intoxicating effects of the drug.
In line with higher potency levels, emergency department visits related to marijuana have also increased in Colorado since the legalization and commercialization of the drug. Reports published by CNN show that emergency department visits by Colorado residents related to marijuana rose almost 45 percent from 2012 to 2014. This may be related to the rise in potency and to inexperienced users taking a drug that packs a harder punch than expected.
The higher the potency of THC, the more the brain is affected, as Forbes publishes that high levels of THC can have toxic effects that may trigger psychosis and high levels of anxiety and paranoia in those predisposed to these conditions. Over time, individuals can develop tolerance to levels of THC and become dependent on marijuana, suffering from withdrawal symptoms when it wears off. Higher levels of potency can therefore contribute to the drug’s addictive nature and may lead to more people battling marijuana addiction.
Treatment for marijuana dependence is mainly behavioral in nature. At times, individuals will have comorbid mental illness or a dependence on another substance. The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that, on average, individuals who seek treatment for marijuana dependence have been using marijuana near daily for more than 10 years prior to seeking treatment and have tried to quit more than six times.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most widely used therapies for marijuana dependence. In one study published in Psychiatric Clinics of North America, the use of this type of therapy in the treatment of cannabis use disorder showed a larger pattern of effectiveness. This particular type of therapy focuses on teaching individuals to identify drug-related behaviors they have learned, so they can change them. They do so by learning different skills that they may use to deal with triggers that could potentially cause relapse. The National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre gives examples of these skills: avoiding situations that put individuals at a high risk for using marijuana, managing cravings, practicing mood management, and learning how to refuse marijuana. Created as a preventative measure for relapses in alcohol dependence, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was then used to assist in the treatment of individuals recovering from cocaine dependency.
Another form of treatment for marijuana dependence is called Contingency Management, which may promote abstinence by providing rewards for positive behaviors related to recovery, such as negative drug tests or appointment attendance. For example, NIDA offers the examples of voucher-based reinforcement and prize incentives. In voucher-based reinforcement, individuals receive vouchers as a reward that can be exchanged for gift cards, movies, and other items. NIDA’s article states that the vouchers may begin at a low value and progress toward larger values to promote prolonged abstinence. The prize incentive program involves individuals drawing for a prize with every negative drug test or appointment attended. Either of these programs would be terminated if an individual were to test positive for marijuana use.
Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET) is another therapy option. With MET, individuals are encouraged to change their behaviors related to marijuana use without being confronted. This is a treatment of shorter duration, usually consisting of an assessment session followed by anywhere from 2-4 sessions with a therapist. According to NIDA, the first session will involve the therapist reviewing the assessment and discussing the individual’s personal marijuana use and coping strategies that may be beneficial to the individual. For the remaining sessions, individuals will discuss what techniques they are using to maintain abstinence while the therapist will assess progress. This type of therapy, when combined with CBT, has shown to be effective in treating marijuana dependence.
There are no medications that are specifically designed to treat marijuana dependence; there are medications, however, to help individuals manage the symptoms they may experience. These medications can include those for sleep or anxiety, both possible withdrawal symptoms. There are some medications being studied that may potentially reduce withdrawal symptoms or even inhibit the effects of marijuana if it is ingested in conjunction with the medication.