Health Effects of Marijuana

Health Effects of Marijuana

Health Effects of Marijuana

Health Effects of MarijuanaMarijuana is the most common term for a drug made from the leaves and flowers of three related plant species, called Cannabis sativa, C. indica and C. ruderalis. These plants contain the mind-altering substance tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), as well as several other active ingredients known collectively as cannabinoids. In their various forms, cannabis products rank as the third most popular recreational substance used in America, lagging only behind alcohol and tobacco. For a variety of social and cultural reasons, many drug users and potential drug users consider marijuana essentially harmless. However, use of the drug can produce a number of minor or major negative health effects, including the onset of long-term drug dependence and addiction.

The Basics

Most marijuana preparations are made from the dried leaves and flowers (as well as stems and seeds) of the three cannabis species. Common methods of using these dried preparations include smoking, consumption in food, and consumption in marijuana-based teas. Instead of marijuana, some users take a concentrated form of cannabis known as hashish, or a concentrated liquid called hashish oil. Hashish and hash oil typically have a higher cannabinoid content than marijuana.

Inside the brain and spinal cord, THC and the other cannabinoids in marijuana attach themselves to specific sites on individual cells called cannabinoid receptors. These receptors are not distributed evenly, and certain areas of the brain have particularly rich receptor concentrations. When cannabinoids activate the receptors in these areas, they produce the classic effects of a marijuana “high,” including heightened pleasure responses, sensory alterations, altered time perception, decreased muscle coordination, memory impairment, learning impairment, impaired concentration and alteration of basic thought processes. In addition, THC and other cannabinoids attach themselves to cannabinoid receptors in the immune system.

Secondary Effects

Along with its common popular effects, marijuana use triggers a number of unwanted and potentially dangerous or deadly secondary effects. For instance, several minutes after inhaling marijuana smoke, users experience a simultaneous increase in heart rate and decrease in blood pressure; in some cases, heart rate increases in marijuana smokers rise as high as 50 beats per minute. According to research published in 2001 in the journal “Circulation,” the combined effects of high heart rate and low blood pressure more than quadruple a marijuana smoker’s heart attack risks for approximately one hour following drug use.

Regular marijuana smokers can develop several lung-related problems commonly found in tobacco smokers, such as ongoing throat irritation, increased coughing and mucus (phlegm) production, increased risks for airway blockages and increased risks for infectious and non-infectious lung ailments. Along with the effects of smoke inhalation, part of the risk for illness may stem from direct disruption of the body’s normal immune function. In addition, marijuana smoke contains more cancer-causing secondary chemicals than tobacco, and also has higher levels of a toxic residue of the burning process called tar. While marijuana smokers don’t generally have the cancer risks associated with tobacco smoking, cannabis smoke does make potentially cancer-causing changes in lung tissue.

Depending on such factors as mood, dosage and social environment, marijuana use can trigger unpleasant mental and/or emotional experiences in anyone. However, people who eat marijuana-containing foods have particularly high risks for the onset of distinctly unpleasant hallucinations and delusional thoughts, as well as increased risks for serious disorientation and memory problems. In addition to their direct effects, these mental changes can significantly increase a user’s risks for some form of accidental injury. Frequent, long-term marijuana use can create ongoing disruptions of normal intellectual function that effectively mimic the symptoms of permanent memory or learning impairment.

Dependence and Addiction

In 2008, researchers at Cambridge University published a review that examined all previous studies on marijuana’s potential for creating physical dependence and addiction. They concluded that roughly 10 to 30 percent of all regular marijuana users will develop changes in their normal function that make them dependent on their drug intake for a feeling of “normalcy.” Users who don’t receive their expected or desired intake can develop withdrawal symptoms that include sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, mood swings, anxiety, muscular tension and depression. The Cambridge University researchers also found that roughly 9 percent of habitual marijuana users will develop an addiction to the drug. Above and beyond physical dependence, addiction produces recurring or persistent cravings for a drug or behavior, as well as an intense focus on satisfying these cravings, regardless of the effects on other personal, social, legal, or work-related priorities.

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