Is Marijuana Safe?
Ads touting medical marijuana flood newspapers and websites promise quick and easy access to the drug. Does this mean marijuana is safe? Is it even legal? What are the real facts about marijuana and what it can do to your body and mind?
Marijuana – A Mind-Altering Drug
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), all forms of marijuana are mind-altering or psychoactive. Marijuana’s main active chemical, THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), changes how your brain works. The higher the THC potency in marijuana, the greater the effects are on the user. NIDA reports that the amount of THC has been increasing in marijuana since the 1970s. In 2006, most marijuana contained 7 percent THC. According to the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), marijuana potency has increased to the highest level ever recorded. But marijuana also contains more than 400 other chemicals.
What Happens When You Smoke
Much of what happens depends on the potency of the marijuana. But it also depends on how much you smoke, whether you smoke in combination with drinking alcohol or using other drugs, what you expect to happen, your tolerance for the drug, and how and where you use it.
Typical user reactions include a relaxed or mellowed-out “high.” Others get the munchies, a ravenous desire for food, particularly salty or sweet food, or become thirsty. More serious reactions include paranoid thoughts and feelings of extreme anxiety which increase with higher THC potency, as well as in combination with alcohol and/or other drugs.
Short-term effects of smoking marijuana include learning and memory problems, difficulty in problem-solving and thinking things through, perceptive distortions (what you see, hear, touch and your sense of time). Your heart rate increases and you also suffer a decreased motor coordination.
Marijuana’s Long-Term Effects
Over time, regular marijuana use can potentially lead to various forms of cancer, as well as respiratory and immune system problems. Marijuana smoke, says NIDA, contains some of the same cancer-causing chemicals as smoke from tobacco – sometimes more. To put this in perspective, if a user smokes 5 joints of marijuana a day, it’s like smoking a full pack of cigarettes. You’re taking in as much cancer-causing chemicals.
Your lungs are more susceptible to infection from chronic marijuana smoking. Problems include wheezing and coughing, chest colds and risk of lung infections such as pneumonia. Studies have found that marijuana also impairs the ability of the T-cells in the lungs’ immune system to ward off certain infections.
Scientists are researching whether long-term marijuana use leads to changes in the brain that make a person more at risk for addiction to cocaine or other drugs, including alcohol. They do know that marijuana smoking causes some of the same changes in the brain as cocaine, heroin and alcohol.
Marijuana, when used long-term, is also addictive in some people. What this means is that they continue to use the drug despite the negative physical, psychological, social and family consequences. They cannot control their urges to smoke marijuana and constantly seek it out. They also build up a tolerance to the drug, requiring more of the drug and more often in order to achieve the same high. This is classic addiction.
Marijuana As Medicine?
Since 1970, under U.S. law, marijuana has been a Schedule I controlled substance. What this means is that the drug has no commonly accepted medical use (at least in the smoked form). Research has shown that THC, when manufactured into a pill available by prescription only, is useful in treating cancer patients’ nausea and vomiting following certain cancer treatments. It also helps AIDS patients to sustain their weight by eating more. NIDA reports that scientists are now studying whether the chemicals in marijuana may have additional medical uses that may result in the development of new medications.
Certain states, such as California, have decriminalized marijuana use for medicinal purposes only. But federal law is still enforceable in the state, and there have been arrests and prosecutions. In 2009, Massachusetts introduced bills that sought to tax and regulate the cannabis industry, and other states have also introduced or passed legislation regarding marijuana use.
Marijuana: Safe or Not?
Marijuana rapidly absorbed in the body’s fatty tissues in various organs. A standard urine test can generally detect traces (called metabolites) of THC days after use. Among heavy users, the drug’s traces can sometimes be detected weeks after they’ve stopped smoking.
Examining all the short- and long-term effects of marijuana on the human body and mind, the only logical conclusion is that, for most people, marijuana is not safe. This is especially true for teens whose brains are not yet fully developed. Pregnant women are also at high risk for abnormal fetal development if they smoke marijuana during pregnancy.
According to the 20th annual 20008 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS), by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, marijuana use among teens is down 30 percent over 10 years. Marijuana is still the most widely-used illegal drug among teens (PATS), and is the third leading drug threat to society, according to the U.S. National Drug Threat Assessment 2009. But teen attitudes reflect a growing social disapproval of marijuana, with 35 percent saying they don’t want to hang around with anyone using marijuana, up from 28 percent 10 years ago.
Whether or not medical use of marijuana is legalized, and beyond issues of taxation for revenue, the fact remains that you’re better off not smoking marijuana. Keep your mind and body free of the toxic chemicals of THC and other related chemicals (cannabinoids) in marijuana. So, is marijuana safe or not safe? You decide.