Marijuana, although it is no longer illegal in every state, is without a doubt the most abused substance, second to alcohol, in America.
How Marijuana Can Be Abused
Marijuana can be consumed in a number of ways. Often marijuana use is disguised so that others around the user won’t even know they are doing it. While it is typically smoked like a cigarette (joint), many people also use a bowl, pipe, or even a blunt (cigar). Some people even blend marijuana with tobacco to smoke it, but this makes it even worse since they will be combing the active ingredients in marijuana along with the harmful chemicals that are present in tobacco. It can also be cooked into food or brewed into tea.
How Marijuana Can Affect the Brain
The main active chemical that is present in marijuana is delta-9- tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. Over the years, scientists have learned quite a lot about how THC reacts in the human brain to trigger its numerous effects. When marijuana is smoked, the THC quickly moves through the lungs and into the bloodstream. The chemicals are then carried to other bodily organs and the brain. THC works on cannabinoid receptors in the brain, which kicks off a chain of cellular reactions that will give the user the high that they experience when they consume marijuana. Some areas of the brain will be affected more than others, because different parts of the brain have different amounts of cannabinoid receptors. Some areas have just a few receptors, while other areas have none at all. Although the highest density of cannabinoid receptors are located in parts of the brain that influence memory, pleasure, thinking, sensory and time perception, concentration, and coordinated movements.
When a user is high on marijuana they are extremely intoxicated. This can cause their perception to be distorted, and it can affect their ability to reason, think, and problem solve. It can also impair their coordination and seriously impact their memory and learning abilities. According to research, chronic marijuana users experience the greatest negative impact on memory and learning, and the affects can last for weeks, days, or months until the acute effects of the drug have worn off. This means that if marijuana users smoke on a daily basis, they could potentially function at reduced intellectual levels continuously.
Research conducted on the effects of long-term marijuana usage on the brain structure is inconclusive. There could be any number of reasons for this. It could be that the effects may be too subtle to be detected by current methods. The uncertainty surrounding the studies could also stem from other drug usage, withdrawal symptoms in chronic marijuana users, residual drug effects, or any number of other factors. However chronic marijuana users tend to show consistent alternations in brain imaging.
The fact is that marijuana stays in the system much longer than most drugs, and marijuana users will, almost without exception, use again before the substance has completely left their system. This ensures that the negative effects of marijuana use, namely reduced intellectual levels, impact on memory and learning, impaired coordination, reduced ability to reason, think and problem solve, will be a continuous issue in the lives of marijuana users.
The Potential to be Addictive:
According to research estimates, approximately 9% of users become addicts. This number can increase significantly if the user started young, or if they use daily.
Long-term marijuana users that try to quit report a range of withdrawal symptoms that include but are not limited to drug cravings, anxiety, irritability, decreased appetite, and insomnia, which can make it very hard for the user to abstain from use. These symptoms often start within one day after the user has quit, they peak at day two or three, and they typically subside within one to two weeks following cessation. This is true for those addicted to marijuana even though, at this point, the substance is still in their system.
Mental Health and Marijuana
It is truly shocking, and not widely known, that numerous studies have shown there is an association between chronic marijuana usage and increased rates of schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety. Interestingly, some of the studies have shown the age at first use to be an important risk factor, because early usage is a sign of increased vulnerability to future issues. Chronic usage, especially in younger people, may be an indicator of risk for mental health disorders.
Other Adverse Health Effects of Marijuana
- Heart Effects.
Marijuana usage can increase the heart rate by as much as 20% to 100% within minutes after smoking. The effect can last for up to three hours. Marijuana users have a greater risk of heart attack in the first hour after using the drug, mainly due to a combination of the increased heart rate and the heart rhythm effects that the increased heart rate causes. The risk increases with those that have cardiac vulnerabilities and among aging populations.
- Lung Effects.
Multiple studies have shown that carcinogens are present in marijuana smoke, and the smoke greatly irritates the lungs. To break it down, there are 50% to 70% more carcinogenic hydrocarbons in marijuana smoke than what there are in tobacco smoke. Since marijuana users typically inhale deeper and hold their breath longer than what the average tobacco smoker does, their lungs are exposed much longer to the harmful chemicals. Although the carcinogens are present and marijuana users show epithelial cell growth in their lung tissues, studies have found no conclusive evidence exists to say that marijuana usage causes upper digestive tract, upper respiratory, or lung cancer. However, marijuana smokers still have many of the same symptoms as what regular tobacco smokers do. They have frequent chest illnesses, phlegm production with or without a cough, and frequent lung infections.
- Daily Life Effects.
The fact of the matter is that marijuana use can cause problems in people’s daily lives, and it can exacerbate the problems that they already have. Studies have shown that chronic marijuana users report that their drug impairment effected many aspects of their daily life, including their mental and physical health, life achievements, cognitive abilities, career status, and social life. Further, studies show that marijuana users have more instances of tardiness, absences, workers’ compensation claims, accidents, and job turnover rates.
Available Treatment Options
Although there are no medications to treat marijuana addiction, other approaches have been found to be quite useful. Behavioral interventions, motivational incentives, and cognitive behavior therapy have all been shown to be effective. At Alpine Recovery Lodge in Utah we employ all of these methods in our treatment of marijuana addiction.