Marijuana is generally thought of as the least
harmful of the illicit drugs, and indeed, the short-term negative
effects of marijuana usage are not as obvious as with other illegal
substances. But even if the damage done is relatively small, when we
take into account the vast numbers marijuana users, marijuana may
actually be doing more damage than any other drug on the market!
Lots of people believe that marijuana is not a
harmful drug and that it should be as legal to buy and use as alcohol.
Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the Western world
and, besides alcohol, marijuana is the most commonly used drug by young
Marijuana is a dry, shredded green/brown mix of
flowers, stems, seeds, and leaves of the hemp plant Cannabis sativa, it
usually is smoked as a cigarette (joint, nail), or in a pipe (bong). It
also is smoked in blunts, which are cigars that have been emptied of
tobacco and refilled with marijuana, often in combination with another
drug. It might 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. Some people think
that the smoke smells like burning rope.
There are countless street terms for marijuana
including pot, herb, weed, grass, widow, ganja, and hash, as well as
terms derived from trademarked varieties of cannabis, such as Bubble
Gum, Northern Lights, Fruity Juice, Afghani #1, and a number of Skunk
The main active chemical in marijuana is THC
(delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). The membranes of certain nerve cells in
the brain contain protein receptors that bind to THC. Once securely in
place, THC kicks off a series of cellular reactions that ultimately
lead to the high that users experience when they smoke marijuana.
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 organs throughout the body, including the
brain. In the brain, THC connects to specific sites called cannabinoid
receptors on nerve cells and influences the activity of those cells.
Some brain areas have many cannabinoid receptors;
others have few or none. Many cannabinoid receptors are found in the
parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thought,
concentration, sensory and time perception, and coordinated movement
The short-term effects of marijuana can include
problems with memory and learning, distorted perception, difficulty in
thinking and problem solving, loss of coordination and increased heart
rate. Research findings for long-term marijuana abuse indicate some
changes in the brain similar to those seen after long-term abuse of
other major drugs.
For example, cannabinoid (THC or synthetic forms
of THC) withdrawal in chronically exposed animals leads to an increase
in the activation of the stress-response system and changes in the
activity of nerve cells containing dopamine. Dopamine neurons are
involved in the regulation of motivation and reward, and are directly
or indirectly affected by all drugs of abuse.
Marijuana can have an adverse effect on the heart.
One study has indicated that an abuser's risk of heart attack more than
quadruples in the first hour after smoking marijuana. The researchers
suggest that such an effect might occur from marijuana's effects on
blood pressure and heart rate and reduced oxygen-carrying capacity of
A user's lungs are also affected. 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. Many of the extra sick days among the marijuana
smokers in the study were for respiratory
illnesses. Even infrequent abuse can cause burning and stinging of the
mouth and throat, often accompanied by a heavy cough. Someone who
smokes marijuana regularly may have many of the same respiratory
problems that tobacco smokers do, such as daily cough and phlegm
production, more frequent acute chest illness, a heightened risk of
lung infections, and a greater tendency to obstructed airways.
Smoking marijuana possibly increases the
likelihood of developing cancer of the head or neck. A study comparing
173 cancer patients and 176 healthy individuals produced evidence that
marijuana smoking doubled or tripled the risk of these cancers.
Marijuana abuse also has the potential to promote
cancer of the lungs and other parts of the respiratory tract because it
contains irritants and carcinogens. In fact, marijuana smoke contains
50 to 70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than does tobacco
smoke. It also induces high levels of an enzyme that converts certain
hydrocarbons into their carcinogenic form�levels that may accelerate
the changes that ultimately produce malignant cells.
Marijuana users usually inhale more deeply and
hold their breath longer than tobacco smokers do, which increases the
lungs' exposure to carcinogenic smoke. These facts suggest that, puff
for puff, smoking marijuana may be more harmful to the lungs than
Some of marijuana's adverse health effects may
occur because THC impairs the immune system's ability to fight disease.
In laboratory experiments that exposed animal and human cells to THC or
other marijuana ingredients, the normal disease-preventing reactions of
many of the key types of immune cells were inhibited. In other studies,
mice exposed to THC or related substances were more likely than
unexposed mice to develop bacterial infections and tumors.
Research clearly demonstrates that marijuana has
the potential to cause problems in daily life or make a person's
existing problems worse. Depression, anxiety, and personality
disturbances have been associated with chronic marijuana use.
Because marijuana compromises the ability to learn
and remember information, the more a person uses marijuana the more he
or she is likely to fall behind in accumulating intellectual, job, or
social skills. Moreover, research has shown that marijuana's adverse
impact on memory and learning can last for days or weeks after the
acute effects of the drug wear off.
Students who smoke marijuana get lower grades and
are less likely to graduate from high school, compared with their
nonsmoking peers. A study of 129 college students found that, among
those who smoked the drug at least 27 of the 30 days prior to being
surveyed, critical skills related to attention, memory, and learning
were significantly impaired, even after the students had not taken the
drug for at least 24 hours.
These "heavy" marijuana abusers had more trouble
sustaining and shifting their attention and in registering, organizing,
and using information than did the study participants who had abused
marijuana no more than 3 of the previous 30 days. As a result, someone
who smokes marijuana every day may be functioning at a reduced
intellectual level all of the time.
More recently, the same researchers showed that
the ability of a group of long-term heavy marijuana abusers to recall
words from a list remained impaired for a week after quitting, but
returned to normal within four weeks. Thus, some cognitive abilities
may be restored in individuals who quit smoking marijuana, even after
long-term heavy use. Workers who smoke marijuana are more likely than
their coworkers to have problems on the job. Several studies associate
workers' marijuana smoking with increased absences, tardiness,
accidents, workers' compensation claims, and job turnover.
A study among postal workers found that employees
who tested positive for marijuana on a pre-employment urine drug test
had 55 percent more industrial accidents, 85 percent more injuries, and
a 75-percent increase in absenteeism compared with those who tested
negative for marijuana use. In another study, heavy marijuana abusers
reported that the drug impaired several important measures of life
achievement including cognitive abilities, career status, social life,
and physical and mental health.
Research has shown that some babies born to women
who abused marijuana during their pregnancies display altered responses
to visual stimuli, increased tremulousness, and a high-pitched cry,
which may indicate neurological problems in development.
During the preschool years, marijuana-exposed
children have been observed to perform tasks involving sustained
attention and memory more poorly than non-exposed children do. In the
school years, these children are more likely to exhibit deficits in
problem-solving skills, memory, and the ability to remain attentive.
Long-term marijuana abuse can lead to addiction
for some people. That is, they abuse the drug compulsively even though
it interferes with family, school, work, and recreational activities.
Drug craving and withdrawal symptoms can make it
hard for long-term marijuana smokers to stop abusing the drug. People
trying to quit report irritability, sleeplessness, and anxiety. They
also display increased aggression on psychological tests, peaking
approximately one week after the last use of the drug.
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