By: Joseph Raspolich
Marijuana is possibly the most well-known and ubiquitous recreational drug in the United States. Most people have had some experience with the drug, either having tried it themselves or knowing someone who has. In recent years, efforts to decriminalize and legalize it have led to the legalization of possession in seven states and the District of Columbia. Several other states have also decriminalized possession or made medical use legal.
Americans use marijuana more than the rest of the world, approximately three times as much as the global average. According to a Gallup poll, 13 percent of adult Americans said they were currently using marijuana in 2016, and 43 percent of adults said they tried it at least once.
With growing numbers of Americans encountering recreational marijuana every year, it’s important to know the physical and psychological effects over time. However, despite the ubiquity of this drug, scientists are just scratching the surface of its effects.
What is Marijuana?
Marijuana, also called weed, pot, and ganja, is a psychoactive drug from the cannabis sativa plant. For years, it was known for its presence at parties and concerts, but today it’s common to notice its distinctive scent in many different settings.
The active ingredient in marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a secondary metabolite in cannabis which is believed to play a role as a defense mechanism. There is evidence to suggest that cannabis use may date back to as early as the third millennium B.C. Around the turn of the 20th century, it began to be outlawed in the western world because of its intoxicating effects.
However, its popularity as a recreational drug grew throughout the century, and it’s other uses are continued to be explored.
Physical Effects of Marijuana
Like many psychoactive drugs, marijuana’s effects vary based on the method used to introduce it to your body, the dosage, and the individual user. For users who have just taken it, there are a number of acute effects and side effects. Most notably, the feeling of tranquility is accompanied by muscle relaxation and a loss of some motor function. Other side effects include:
- Shallow breathing
- Red eyes with dilated pupils
- Dry mouth
- Decreased reaction time
Negative Effects of Marijuana and Physical Risks
Because of its effects on reaction time and motor function, marijuana poses a significant risk to those who drive under the influence. Studies show that it can significantly increase your risk of getting into a crash, especially when used in conjunction with alcohol. However, a separate study compared states that legalized marijuana to control states and found that marijuana-related car accidents did not significantly increase. This could be due to a number of reasons, such as increased risk awareness or the prevalence of illegal use in other states.
Marijuana’s effects on the heart rate have also raised some red flags among researchers. Studies show possible links between marijuana use and heart complications like:
- myocardial infarction
- sudden cardiac death
- transient ischemic attack
- cannabis arteritis
Some researchers believe that the increased use of marijuana in the wake of decriminalization and legalization will lead to a spike in heart-related illnesses. Yet, because many studies have shown that the acute toxicity in marijuana is very low, there is very little awareness of the potential cardiovascular risks. A study looking at cases of heart-related sudden death in patients that had recently smoked cannabis ruled out other possible causes of death. They concluded that the overall risk of heart failure caused by marijuana is low, but that there may be a risk of severe heart complications in some patients.
Your heart may not be the only organ at risk when using marijuana. Other research suggests that heavy use of marijuana can lead to lung disease. Interestingly, it’s often pointed out that smoking marijuana is substantially less dangerous than smoking tobacco, because there is significantly less tar build up. While this is true, regular inhalation of any smoke can be potentially harmful to your lungs. Research has shown that smoking cannabis has also been associated with chronic bronchitis symptoms.
Psychological Effects of Marijuana
As a psychoactive drug, marijuana has several psychological effects that can be unpredictable. Users can experience anything from a pleasant euphoria to panic. Other psychological effects of marijuana include:
- Heightened sensory perception (like brightening of colors)
- Altered time perception
The variability of the effects of marijuana is due in large part to dosages. Low doses have mild effects while feelings of panic usually happen with very high doses. Extremely high doses have also been associated with hallucinations, delusions, and dysphoria.
Negative Effects of Marijuana and Psychological Risks
Despite the long standing prevalence of marijuana use, there is a lack of data when it comes to the long term psychological effects of marijuana. Research has shown that heavy and frequent use of marijuana can lead to lower IQ and cognitive function.
THC affects the brain by activating the cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1), which has an effect on memory, cognition, and pain. While occasional or infrequent use doesn’t seem to have any notable long-term effects, prolonged heavy use can affect cognitive functions.
According to a study published by the National Institute of Health, heavy and prolonged use of cannabis can have long-term effects on the executive functions of the brain. The functions, like decision making, reasoning, memory, and problem-solving, can take a month or more of abstinence to recover. The study also suggests that, after chronic marijuana use, there is a risk of decision making and risk taking impairment that doesn’t end after a period of abstinence.
Marijuana Effects as Medicine
Marijuana users commonly describe a feeling of increased appetite after smoking or taking marijuana as “the munchies”. This phenomenon often leads to weight gain among users, but it has peaked the interest of doctors and scientists. One Johns Hopkins University study in 1988 highlighted these appetite-increasing effects. Subjects that smoked marijuana increased their daily caloric intake by 40 percent.
This effect has some potential uses in the medical field and has been studied as a way to treat anorexia. Some patients develop anorexia as a symptom of diseases like AIDS/HIV or as a side effect of cancer treatments like chemotherapy. The appetite stimulating effects of cannabis have been used to combat anorexia and give patients a healthy appetite.
Doctors have also begun using marijuana to treat multiple sclerosis (MS), epilepsy, and other neurological movement disorders. A 2014 review looked at medical marijuana use across different cases and found that it was effective for curbing spasticity, spasms, urinary problems, and other symptoms.
However, researchers warn doctors to weigh risks carefully, specifically pointing at the possible risk of adverse psychological effects.
Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?
It’s common to hear marijuana called a “gateway drug,” meaning that cannabis is a mild introduction to drugs that leads users to harder drugs down the road. Many may dismiss this as rhetoric that is more of a relic of the 80’s and 90’s war on drugs rather than fact.
However, studies show that there is some relationship between marijuana use and subsequent hard drug use, but the nature of that relationship is still unknown. It could be that once people engage in illicit drug purchasing, they are more likely to be offered or have channels to obtain hard drugs. It could be that personality types that are more likely to try and buy cannabis are also more likely to try harder drugs. More research is needed to determine whether social factors, individual personality characteristics, or the effects of the drug are the reason this occurs.
Is Marijuana Addictive?
While there is little evidence to suggest that there is a significant risk of becoming chemically dependent on cannabis, there is a risk for psychological addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 30 percent of people who use marijuana have some form of marijuana use disorder. This disorder can come with withdrawal symptoms like irritability, mood problems, sleep difficulties, intense cravings, and restlessness.
If you are one of the four million people who are experiencing marijuana use disorder and would like help dealing with that addiction, call Delphi Health Group at 844-899-5777 today. Advisors are available 24/7 to help you decide your next step on the road to recovery.