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Marijuana

Chautauqua Alcohol & Substance Abuse Council is opposed to the use of marijuana as a recreational drug. Research on the health and safety effects of marijuana strongly correlates with many mental, emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual problems. In addition, many crimes, accidents, job and school performance problems have been associated with the use of marijuana. While not everyone who uses marijuana becomes drug dependent, the reality is that as with alcohol and other drugs marijuana use certainly can lead to profound, chronic and progressive chemical dependency.

Fact Sheet

  • Marijuana is a powerful, mind and mood altering drug. A very small amount of cannabis (i.e. 2-3 mg of THC) can produce a high for the occasional user; but the psychoactive effects are remarkably varied. At moderate to high doses mood varies considerably with anxiety and panic sometimes reported, and depression may be enhanced. Impairment of short term memory, disturbances in thought patterns, lapses in attention, depersonalization, and sensory distraction also occur. Larger doses can bring on stronger distortions of time and space, and illusions. Large doses can result in mental confusion and panic reactions. Extremely large doses can cause hallucinations and marijuana flashbacks have been reported by some users.
  • Photo: cannabis plantsResearch has consistently demonstrated that there are potentially serious and damaging physical effects from marijuana use and abuse to the cardiovascular system, respiratory system, in causing precancerous and cancerous growths, to the endocrine system, and the immune system. Cannabis can also inhibit the intracellular synthesis of proteins DNA and RNA, and inhibit cell division, similar to alcohol and the opioids.
  • Smoking marijuana can lead to worse results for the lungs than smoking tobacco. There is nearly five times more carbon monxide and three times as much tar inhaled into the lungs when one smokes a marijuana cigarette as opposed to a tobacco cigarette.
  • Research has long implicated cannabis as both a causative factor in the development of mental illness and personality problems as well as an exacerbating factor where mental illness is a pre-existing or concurrent condition. Recent research has largely supported these earlier findings, especially in noting a relationship between marijuana use and schizophrenia, depression, borderline personality, suicide attempt and self-injury histories, panic reactions, and anti-social personality characteristics.
  • Marijuana has been found to be directly related to poor job and school performance, impaired cognitive skills and learning at school, academic underachievement and dropping out; impaired driving and an increased risk for auto accidents; and marijuana has been found definitely related to crime.
  • There are scores of scientific studies that prove that marijuana is a harmful, addictive drug. As with alcohol and all drugs, marijuana can certainly lead to profound, chronic and progressive chemical dependency. Marijuana is currently up to 25 times more potent than it was in the sixties making the drug even more addictive, and many say that quitting marijuana is much more difficult than they thought (even than quitting cocaine).
  • Studies show that marijuana may cause Fetal Marijuana Related Birth Defects. This includes lower birth weights, a shorter gestation period, major malformations, and an increase in the occurrence of miscarriages.

The following and more information can be found at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Marijuana is the most commonly abused illicit drug in the United States. It is a dry, shredded green and brown mix of flowers, stems, seeds, and leaves derived from the hemp plant Cannabis sativa. The main active chemical in marijuana is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol; THC for short.

How is Marijuana Abused?

Marijuana is usually smoked as a cigarette (joint) or in a pipe. It is also smoked in blunts, which are cigars that have been emptied of tobacco and refilled with marijuana. Since the blunt retains the tobacco leaf used to wrap the cigar, this mode of delivery combines marijuana's active ingredients with nicotine and other harmful chemicals. Marijuana can also be mixed in food or brewed as a tea. As a more concentrated, resinous form it is called hashish, and as a sticky black liquid, hash oil. Marijuana smoke has a pungent and distinctive, usually sweet-and-sour odor.

How Does Marijuana Affect the Brain?

Scientists have learned a great deal about how THC acts in the brain to produce its many effects. When someone smokes marijuana, THC rapidly passes from the lungs into the bloodstream, which carries the chemical to the brain and other organs throughout the body.

THC acts upon specific sites in the brain, called cannabinoid receptors, kicking off a series of cellular reactions that ultimately lead to the “high” that users experience when they smoke marijuana. Some brain areas have many cannabinoid receptors; others have few or none. The highest density of cannabinoid receptors are found in parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thoughts, concentration, sensory and time perception, and coordinated movement.1

Not surprisingly, marijuana intoxication can cause distorted perceptions, impaired coordination, difficulty in thinking and problem solving, and problems with learning and memory. Research has shown that marijuana’s adverse impact on learning and memory can last for days or weeks after the acute effects of the drug wear off.2 As a result, someone who smokes marijuana every day may be functioning at a suboptimal intellectual level all of the time.

Research on the long-term effects of marijuana abuse indicates some changes in the brain similar to those seen after long-term abuse of other major drugs. For example, cannabinoid withdrawal in chronically exposed animals leads to an increase in the activation of the stress-response system3 and changes in the activity of nerve cells containing dopamine.4 Dopamine neurons are involved in the regulation of motivation and reward, and are directly or indirectly affected by all drugs of abuse.

Addictive Potential


Long-term marijuana abuse can lead to addiction; that is, compulsive drug seeking and abuse despite its known harmful effects upon social functioning in the context of family, school, work, and recreational activities. Long-term marijuana abusers trying to quit report irritability, sleeplessness, decreased appetite, anxiety, and drug craving, all of which make it difficult to quit. These withdrawal symptoms begin within about 1 day following abstinence, peak at 2–3 days, and subside within 1 or 2 weeks following drug cessation.5

Marijuana and Mental Health

A number of studies have shown an association between chronic marijuana use and increased rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and schizophrenia. Some of these studies have shown age at first use to be a factor, where early use is a marker of vulnerability to later problems. However, at this time, it is not clear whether marijuana use causes mental problems, exacerbates them, or is used in attempt to self-medicate symptoms already in existence. Chronic marijuana use, especially in a very young person, may also be a marker of risk for mental illnesses, including addiction, stemming from genetic or environmental vulnerabilities, such as early exposure to stress or violence. At the present time, the strongest evidence links marijuana use and schizophrenia and/or related disorders.6 High doses of marijuana can produce an acute psychotic reaction; in addition, use of the drug may trigger the onset or relapse of schizophrenia in vulnerable individuals.

What Other Adverse Effect Does Marijuana Have on Health?

Effects on the Heart

Marijuana increases heart rate by 20–100 percent shortly after smoking; this effect can last up to 3 hours. In one study, it was estimated that marijuana users have a 4.8-fold increase in the risk of heart attack in the first hour after smoking the drug.7 This may be due to the increased heart rate as well as effects of marijuana on heart rhythms, causing palpitations and arrhythmias. This risk may be greater in aging populations or those with cardiac vulnerabilities.

Effects on the Lungs

Numerous studies have shown marijuana smoke to contain carcinogens and to be an irritant to the lungs. In fact, marijuana smoke contains 50–70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than does tobacco smoke. Marijuana users usually inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer than tobacco smokers do, which further increase the lungs’ exposure to carcinogenic smoke. Marijuana smokers show dysregulated growth of epithelial cells in their lung tissue, which could lead to cancer;8 however, a recent case-controlled study found no positive associations between marijuana use and lung, upper respiratory, or upper digestive tract cancers.9 Thus, the link between marijuana smoking and these cancers remains unsubstantiated at this time.

Nonetheless, marijuana smokers can have many of the same respiratory problems as tobacco smokers, such as daily cough and phlegm production, more frequent acute chest illness, and a heightened risk of lung infections. A study of 450 individuals found that people who smoke marijuana frequently but do not smoke tobacco have more health problems and miss more days of work than nonsmokers.10 Many of the extra sick days among the marijuana smokers in the study were for respiratory illnesses.

Effects on Daily Life

Research clearly demonstrates that marijuana has the potential to cause problems in daily life or make a person’s existing problems worse. In one study, heavy marijuana abusers reported that the drug impaired several important measures of life achievement including physical and mental health, cognitive abilities, social life, and career status.11 Several studies associate workers’ marijuana smoking with increased absences, tardiness, accidents, workers’ compensation claims, and job turnover.

What Treatment Options Exist?

Behavioral interventions, including cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational incentives (i.e., providing vouchers for goods or services to patients who remain abstinent) have shown efficacy in treating marijuana dependence. Although no medications are currently available, recent discoveries about the workings of the cannabinoid system offer promise for the development of medications to ease withdrawal, block the intoxicating effects of marijuana, and prevent relapse.

The latest treatment data indicate that in 2006 marijuana was the most common illicit drug of abuse and was responsible for about 16 percent (289,988) of all admissions to treatment facilities in the United States. Marijuana admissions were primarily male (73.8 percent), White (51.5 percent), and young (36.1 percent were in the 15–19 age range). Those in treatment for primary marijuana abuse had begun use at an early age: 56.2 percent had abused it by age 14 and 92.5 percent had abused it by age 18.

How Widespread is Marijuana Abuse?

National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2007, 14.4 million Americans aged 12 or older used marijuana at least once in the month prior to being surveyed, which is similar to the 2006 rate. About 6,000 people a day in 2007 used marijuana for the first time—2.1 million Americans. Of these, 62.2 percent were under age 18.

Monitoring the Future Survey

The Monitoring the Future survey indicates that marijuana use among 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders—which has shown a consistent decline since the mid-1990s—appears to have leveled off, with 10.9 percent of 8th-graders, 23.9 percent of 10th-graders, and 32.4 percent of 12th-graders reporting past-year use. Heightening the concern over this stabilization in use is the finding that, compared to last year, the proportion of 8th-graders who perceived smoking marijuana as harmful and the proportion who disapprove of the drug’s use have decreased.

For additional information on marijuana, please visit www.marijuana-info.org.

Footnotes

1 Herkenham M, Lynn A, Little MD, et al. Cannabinoid receptor localization in the brain. Proc Natl Acad Sci, USA 87(5):1932–1936, 1990.

2 Pope HG, Gruber AJ, Hudson JI, Huestis MA, Yurgelun-Todd D. Neuropsychological performance in long-term cannabis users. Arch Gen Psychiatry 58(10):909–915, 2001.

3 Rodríguez de Fonseca F, Carrera MRA, Navarro M, Koob GF, Weiss F. Activation of corticotropin-releasing factor in the limbic system during cannabinoid withdrawal. Science 276(5321):2050–2054, 1997.

4 Diana M, Melis M, Muntoni AL, Gessa GL. Mesolimbic dopaminergic decline after cannabinoid withdrawal. Proc Natl Acad Sci, USA 95(17):10269–10273, 1998.

5 Budney AJ, Vandrey RG, Hughes JR, Thostenson JD, Bursac Z. Comparison of cannabis and tobacco withdrawal: Severity and contribution to relapse. J Subst Abuse Treat, e-publication ahead of print, March 12, 2008.

6 Moore TH, Zammit S, Lingford-Hughes A, et al. Cannabis use and risk of psychotic or affective mental health outcomes: A systematic review. Lancet 370 (9584):319–328, 2007.

7 Mittleman MA, Lewis RA, Maclure M, Sherwood JB, Muller JE. Triggering myocardial infarction by marijuana. Circulation 103(23):2805–2809, 2001.

8 Tashkin DP. Smoked marijuana as a cause of lung injury. Monaldi Arch Chest Dis 63(2):92–100, 2005.

9 Hashibe M, Morgenstern H, Cui Y, et al. Marijuana use and the risk of lung and upper aerodigestive tract cancers: Results of a population-based case-control study. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 15(10):1829–1834, 2006.

10 Polen MR, Sidney S, Tekawa IS, Sadler M, Friedman GD. Health care use by frequent marijuana smokers who do not smoke tobacco. West J Med 158(6):596–601, 1993.

11 Gruber AJ, Pope HG, Hudson JI, Yurgelun-Todd D. Attributes of long-term heavy cannabis users: A case control study. Psychological Med 33(8):1415–1422, 2003.

See Also