Perhaps no substance in the last 50 years has seen as intense a debate as marijuana has. Discussions on its legality, its effects, even its status as a medical substance have been hotly contested in recent years, with no end in sight. For many years, marijuana was a completely illegal drug, but recent pushes have made it legal for recreational or medicinal sale and use of marijuana to take place in all but 14 US. states. For the first time, public opinion has shifted in favor of marijuana legalization of some form. But still, there are advocates on both sides of this issue that want very much for things to swing in their direction. Legalization advocates say it should be legal to obtain and consume marijuana for any purpose, in all 50 states. Anti-marijuana advocates want to go back to it being completely outlawed in all 50 states. As with any contentious debate, the facts are often clouded by the two sides screaming to get their talking point to be louder than the other. And increasingly, it is getting difficult to tell fact from fiction or information from misinformation. That’s why we’re going to break down both sides of this argument, presented so that you have the facts for yourself and can draw your own conclusions. We’ll start with what marijuana actually is.
What is Marijuana and What Are its Effects?
Marijuana is a plant, put simply, and the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It is also the second-most abused drug in the State of Washington, next to only alcohol. It goes by many names, like:
- Mary Jane
- cannabis (this is the scientific term for the genus of the plant)
And that’s just a few of the more commonly-known names. There are countless others It is a green plant known to produce a chemical called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly referred to as THC. The leaves of the plant are dried and shredded, and most often are smoked in order to feel the immediate effects of the THC. There are several ways to consume marijuana, besides smoking. Most notably, marijuana is edible. It is frequently baked into sweets like brownies or cookies, and gives a similar effect to smoking it, just not as quickly. So what actually are the effects of THC? Unlike many drugs, the effects differ from person to person. One of the most common effects of THC is a euphoric sense of relaxation. THC is also known to cause laughter, increased appetite, and an altered sense of time and surroundings (though not to the psychedelic extremes of stronger hallucinogens). However, some people may not find that the THC in marijuana brings them a calming, relaxed feeling. In many cases, it’s just the opposite, bringing paranoia, panic, anxiety and fear. These are more common effects in people who are new to the drug, or have taken too much of it. The effects of marijuana usually last about 1-3 hours when smoked and several hours longer when eaten. Of course, while the immediate effects on the body wear off in a few hours, THC usually remains in the bloodstream for weeks after use. This is why drug tests are able to detect recent use of marijuana, even if days have passed.
Is Marijuana a Harmful Substance for Your Body?
You’re going to see a common theme throughout this discussion – very few questions about marijuana have simple, one-word answers. There is a lot of nuance, and more research is needed to properly identify the effects. One thing that is undeniable is that smoking marijuana is bad for you. That has less to do with the “marijuana” part and more to do with the “smoking” part. Inhaling smoke into your lungs is bad for your lungs. There’s no way around that simple truth. In terms of lung health, smoking marijuana shares many similar effects to smoking tobacco cigarettes. Some research shows that marijuana may be even more harmful to lung health than tobacco in the same quantities, due in part to the way marijuana is smoked. Marijuana smokers tend to inhale deeper and hold the smoke in for longer than those smoking tobacco cigarettes. Obviously, the increased exposure to the smoke does more damage to your lungs, in the same way, that swishing soda around your teeth does more damage to them. However, it is important to note that while smoking marijuana is correlated to lung irritations like bronchitis and chest colds, there is not yet any definitive link scientifically linking smoking marijuana and lung cancer. That killer remains squarely in the tobacco camp, as current marijuana research shows only the beginnings of potential evidence for a link to lung cancer. Of course, the physical effects of marijuana are not limited to simply smoking the substance. Consuming marijuana in any form causes an elevation in heart rate, which is why marijuana use is connected with an increase in heart attacks. This is especially true for those with existing heart conditions. In addition, extended marijuana use has been linked to reduced bone density, putting users at risk for osteoporosis.
How Marijuana Effects Mental Health
Marijuana drug abuse affects the brain, first and foremost. Smoking pot sends THC to the brain extremely quickly, and that causes some of the distorted senses we discussed earlier. But what about the long-term mental effects? For “experimental” users who only tried once or twice, there likely won’t be any. For long-term users, there most likely will be. Marijuana is a psychoactive drug, and something that affects the brain that drastically for that long doesn’t just go away. Marijuana is linked with long-term memory loss and myriad other mental health problems, especially among longtime heavy users. While there is conflicting evidence regarding whether marijuana use causes conditions like depression and schizophrenia, there is no question that using marijuana can aggravate those conditions and make them worse.
Okay, if Marijuana is Dangerous, Why is it Available Medicinally?
The primary use of medical marijuana is dealing with pain and anxiety. Because its effects include a euphoric feeling, calmness and laughter, it can help people with anything from chronic pain to social anxiety. Of course, marijuana’s effects aren’t consistent from person to person. So while it’s common to say marijuana helps people with anxiety, that isn’t true for everyone. Some may have their anxiety made worse by marijuana, or even develop anxiety where it wasn’t before. That being said, every drug has side effects. There is a case to be made that when it comes to dealing with anxiety and pain, marijuana is preferable for many people to prescription alternatives. Considering the high rate of addiction and dependence attached to opioids, it’s understandable why those dealing with pain would turn to what is ultimately a safer substance in marijuana. While fatal prescription opioid overdoses are spiking, not a single marijuana overdose death has ever been recorded in the United States. Of course, that isn’t to say that no deaths at all have been linked to marijuana use, because they have. People who drive under the influence of marijuana are twice as likely to have a car accident than those who don’t. And as mentioned previously, heart problems can arise due to the increase in heart rate. But deaths related solely to a marijuana overdose remain at zero. There are also ongoing studies regarding marijuana as a potential treatment for type-2 diabetes, as studies show pot users are less likely to be obese, have higher metabolisms, and have lower BMI than the average non-user. However, these studies are in their infancy, and there are no definitive correlations established as of yet.
Is Marijuana a “Gateway Drug?”
The term “gateway drug” is one that describes a substance that people use as a stepping stone to harder drugs. The belief has long been held that while marijuana may not be as harmful as drugs like heroin, meth, and cocaine, those who use marijuana are more susceptible to using those harder drugs. This claim is still under debate, and likely will be for a long time. But the research we have shows that the “gateway” effect of marijuana is inconclusive at best. It is true that many people who use marijuana go on to use other substances. However, studies have shown that the majority of marijuana users never go on to use “harder substances,” and that there is an inconsistent relationship between marijuana use and harder drug use. This makes the “gateway” theory difficult to either completely confirm or deny. It does not seem that there is a concrete causal link between marijuana use and further substance abuse. One proposed alternative to the “gateway drug” theory is that people with high risk factors to drug use are more likely to start with easily-available substances like cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana. However, in this theory, their use of lighter substances is not the cause of their move to harder drugs. It is simply circumstance that they had access to them first, but would have used “harder” substances, if available, just the same. Despite all this, there is some merit to the “gateway drug” theory from a biological standpoint. A phenomenon known as “cross-sensitization” comes into play for users of marijuana, alcohol and nicotine. People who use those substances can effectively “prime” their brains to be more susceptible to the effects of stronger drugs like opioids. When the body has been exposed to THC, it reacts much more powerfully to other substances. Of course, this is only a factor if the marijuana user actually moves on to harder drugs, and as we’ve discussed, most do not.
Health Effects and Risks Aside, is Marijuana Addictive?
If there’s one thing about marijuana that absolutely deserves a straight, unquestioned answer, it’s this. Yes, marijuana is addictive. Period. It affects the brain and brings feelings of euphoria similar to other addictive drugs. And any substance or activity that brings that kind of reaction is one you can get addicted to. Now, is it as addictive as opioids or some other substances? No. Dependency doesn’t root itself in the brain as quickly or as frequently, but it still happens often enough to be dangerous. Approximately 9 percent of marijuana users develop a dependency on the drug at some point, and that figure jumps up to 17 percent for daily users and those who started during adolescence. A habitual user of marijuana exhibits all the same signs as an addict of anything else. They spend huge amounts of money and time procuring the drug, they use it regardless of consequences, and they find it difficult to stop. Marijuana even comes with a set of withdrawal symptoms, like irritability and loss of appetite. They may not be life-threatening like alcohol’s withdrawal symptoms, but they still make it uncomfortable and difficult to quit, even for people who want to. That’s what addiction is: an inability to quit despite negative consequences and even the user’s own desire to quit. Northpoint Washington deals with addiction, in all its forms. And while the finer points of marijuana from a legal standpoint continue to be debated, the reality is marijuana is addictive, and we don’t recommend it for use, especially not for recovering addicts. Even an addict who has kicked one substance can fall easily into another, and marijuana is a prime culprit. Have you had experiences with marijuana use, either in you or a loved one? Tell us your story in the comments below.