The objective of this article is to explain the effects of marijuana in the body and to answer the question as to its ability to be detrimental to the user.
By: Susan Adams, M. Ed.
Is Marijuana Really Harmful?
Summary: Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug in the United States. Marijuana causes many harmful effects to users both medically, cognitively, psychiatrically, and socially. This article describes those effects so that readers may have a more informed and concrete perspective abut the drug.
Over 50% of Americans have had an opportunity to try Marijuana. Some use it experimentally while others become dependent. Given its easy access, most people who have an opportunity to try it do so.
Marijuana, hashish, and other forms of cannabis get their psychoactive properties from a potent chemical called THC. The THC is found in all partsof the hemp plant but is most concentated in the flowering parts at the top and least concentrated in the stem and seeds.
Therefore, the THC potency of marijuana can range from .5% to l4% depending on which parts of the plant are used, the growing conditions, and the properties that are generic to each plant. Hashish, which is produced by extracting and drying resin from the plant’s flowers also varies in potency but can range as high as 20% in THC.
In the brain, THC connects to specific nerve cerlls on sites termed cannabinoid receptors. These receptors are found in parts of the brain that regulate movement, coordination, and the cognitive processes such as learning, memory, judgement, perception and concentation. When marijuana is used, the THC overstimulates the cannabinoid receptors and disrupts the normal connections between receptors and the brain’s natural cannabinoids. Another way to explain this is to state that the cannabinoid receptors in the brain are ususally regulated by cannabinoids that are naturally found in the brain. These have similar chemical structures to THC. When the drug is used, the natural canabinoids get overstimulated by the addition of the THC.
THC is usually ingested by smoking it in hand-made cigarettes, water pipes, or regular pipes. It can also be consumed in food or drink. It can be used in isolation or with other drugs.
When smoked, THC goes from the lungs to the bloodstream and is carried to the brain and to other areas of the body. The smoking results in higher levels of THC in the bloodstream. The effects are felt within ten minutes of smoking and last from one to three hours. Absorption into the bloodstream is much slower when THC is taken by mouth–within about one half to one hour, but the effects last as long as four or five hours. THC is easily stored in the fat cells of the body and is slowly released for as long as one month. The release action increases with stress.
Immediate effects of THC consumption include rapid heartbeat, relaxation, expanding of bronchial poassages, and expansion of blood vessels in the eyes. There is also an altered state of consciousness and mild euphoria that results. Users tend to experience pleasant sensations, colors, and sounds become more intense. Time perceptions get distorted.
Reaction time and motor skills become impaired. Feelings of humger and thirst become pronounced. After the initial euphoria, users can become tired or depressed, anxious, distrustful, or even panicked. Some users may report feeling suicidal.
Cannabis is recognized as a substance that can produce adddiction. The two psychological characteristics of addiction are tolerance to cannabis and withdrawl symptoms following abrupt interruption of use. The tolerance means that there is a decreased sensitivity to the drug as a result of continuous exposure. Both biological processes and learning are believed to cause tolerance.
What are the results of cannabis abuse and addiction? Marijuana use has been shown to be harmful to fetal development in pregnant women. There can also exist impaired mental functioning. Prolonged and heavy use is related to the development of a number of psychiatric conditions including anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia.
Marijuana is also linked to retardation in social development–users tend to arrest their social development at whatever age their cannabis use began. Users may demonstrate involvement in risky sexual behaviors, poor academic performance, and an increase in delinquency, crime, and violent behavior. Many marijuana users do move on to other drugs. The use of marijuana is particularly dangerous as it is the only drug that, when used, creates the sense that there is NO effect. therefore, users often state that the drug has no side effects. In addition, users of marijuana can become very deaf to the thoughts and ideas of others. The thoughts in their heads are much louder than anything coming in to them. Thus, efforts to discuss harmful effects of the drug, are often not internalized.
There are many medical; consequences can occur with heavy marijuana use. Because it is usually smoked, the first place to look for medical problems is in the respiratory system. Even light use can cause coughing and irritation to the nose and throat.. More severe use can cause broncitis and lung infections.
Marijuana can also be related to the development of cancer of the respiratory tract and lungs. Marijuana smoke contains between 50%-70% more cancer-causing agents than tobacco smoke. Marijuana smokers tend to inhale deeply and hold their breath, thus, they have increased exposure to the cancer-causing agents. There is also some evidence that marijuana use can impair the immune system and increase cancer risk.
In addition, users are more prone to heart attcks shortly after smoking becasue the use of the drug raises blood pressure and heart rate while reducing the ability of the blood to carry oxygen. Chronic use of marijuana can also lead to strokes.
We have already ennumeratd the effects of marijuana on short-term memory, attention, learning, and coordination. In addition, as people grow older, they naturally lose nerve cells in the area of the brain responsible for these functions. This area is the hippocampus. The hippocampus has many cannabinoid nerve cells and long-term exposure to marijuana can thus quicken age-related memory loss.
Because marijuana impairs judgement and attention, even short term use can be dangerous and increase the risk of accidents.
The psychiaric consequences of marijuana use include triggers to panic, anxiety psychosis, and most usually even in mild use, depression. These generally subside once the drug use has stopped. This means that though marijuana produces many symptoms of psychiatric conditions, there is not enough documentation to state that it actually produces the illness.
What are the risks of moving from cannabis abuse to addiction? Most people who develop addiction have a number of risk factors which include early and heavy abuse of marijuana. Males tend to become addicted more than females, social influences and relationships with others who use drugs and alcohol. Attitudes about drugs and alcohol and psychiatric vulnerability are also factors. Children with learning difficulties who feel generally less good than their peers may seek a crowd who functions poorly in order to feel more accepted. Drugs and alcohol may be factors with such adolescents with poor self-concepts. Risk factors have a cumulative effect and addiction generally does not occur without warning signs.
Recovery from cannabis abuse or addiction requires a high level of motivation and the development of a new set of social skills to avoid and abstain from drugs. Treatment DOES work. If you are worried about your own use of cannabis, I hope that the information in this article will prove useful. If you are worried about someone you love, find a treatment center in your area to advise you about what to do.