Marijuana is a psychoactive drug that defies classification. It’s not a depressant, stimulant, or a psychedelic drug, though it can cause effects that are found in all three of those categories.
Marijuana is one of the most widely used recreational drugs both from illicit and legal sources, and it seems to have a wide range of subjective effects.
However, there are some common effects, including increased appetite, sedation, nausea suppression, seizure suppression, physical and mental euphoria, memory issues, insomnia, and mild hallucinations like color enhancement.
Marijuana can have opposing effects on different people. For instance, it can give one person anxiety but suppress anxiety in someone else. It has anti-nausea effects, but it can also cause nausea, especially when it’s ingested. Its wide range of subjective effects could be related to the fact that it has been used by so many people who all report their specific experiences. But it could also have to do with marijuana’s unique mechanism of action in the brain.
Marijuana is a naturally occurring psychoactive drug that’s found in plants of the Cannabis genus.
The main, psychoactive ingredient in cannabis is called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), but there are also 65 other cannabinoids (psychoactive chemicals that act on specific receptors) found in the plant. The drug can be used by smoking or vaporizing the dried plant, and it can also be baked into food and used as an extract.
When it’s used, THC and other cannabinoids attach to two specific cannabinoid receptors. These receptors have a variety of functions in the brain including the maintenance of homeostasis, your anxiety response, your perception of novelties, gastrointestinal activity, motor control, and olfaction. With such a wide range of functions all over the body, it’s clear why an agonist like THC can have such a broad range of effects. When THC binds to these receptors, it most commonly causes changes in your perception, heightened mood, and increased appetite.
Marijuana is a hotly debated subject in terms of its legality. Support for its legalization in the United States is growing, and many states have legalized it or decriminalized it. Proponentspoint to research that says marijuana has low toxicity and that it isn’t known to be physically addictive. It can be used to treat chronic pain, nausea in cancer patients, problems related to multiple sclerosis (MS), and sleep issues in people with MS and chronic pain.
However, marijuana is also linked to higher rates of injuries from car crashes and accidents, an increased likelihood of developing schizophrenia (or activating latent schizophrenia), worsening of existing mental health disorders, and suicidal ideation. While there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that marijuana causes significant physical harm (except that long-term use can make bronchitis worse), it may have some psychological consequences, including psychological dependence.
If you are worried about marijuana use in yourself, your friends, or family, there are signs and symptoms of a growing substance use disorder that you should know. Psychological dependence differs from chemical dependence in one clear way: it doesn’t involve your brain’s adaptation and reliance on a chemical substance. When you become chemically dependent, stopping can cause withdrawal symptoms that range from uncomfortable to deadly, depending on the drug and how much you used it. Marijuana doesn’t cause chemical dependence, but it may create psychological attachments to the drug and its effects.
For instance, if you use marijuana before bed every night and then stop using it, it may take you longer to get to sleep for a while because you believe you “need” to smoke to help you sleep. While there is little evidence that marijuana facilitates sleep, your psychological dependence results in psychological symptoms. Dependence can lead to problematic use and abuse leading to frequent intoxication, an increased risk of injuries and accidents, and psychological and cognitive side effects.
The first sign of a marijuana use disorder is a growing tolerance. If you can take higher doses than you used to before you are affected, you may be developing a problem. Next, psychological addiction will start to affect other parts of your life. Marijuana stops being purely for recreation; it starts to feel like a necessity.
If you are worried about a friend or family member’s marijuana use, there are some behavioral signs to watch for, including:
While marijuana use disorders don’t often require high levels of care in addiction treatment, polydrug use might require high levels of care, even medical detox. Marijuana use often accompanies alcohol and sometimes other drugs.
If you have developed a chemical dependency on alcohol or any other substance, you might need to start with medical detox.
Marijuana alone can be treated with a variety of therapies and methodologies. You will likely attend an outpatient or intensive outpatient treatment program, depending on the severity of the substance use disorder. If you catch marijuana use early, especially in a teenager, early intervention services might be all that’s necessary.
If you attend an outpatient program, you may go through a variety of therapies including individual, group, and family therapy.
Behavioral therapies may also be used to help motivate your treatment, encourage your readiness to change, and show you how to deal with stress and triggers with positive coping.
The risks to your physical health are minimal when it comes to marijuana. The clearest evidence of serious harm is in impaired driving. However, it can have some adverse psychological effects. High doses of THC can lead to panic, paranoia, and frightening hallucinations.
The danger of marijuana is most relevant to kids, teens, and young adults. Marijuana can negatively affect development, school performance, and the development of mental health problems in younger people. This can lead to the use of other drugs, poor performance at work or school, and an increase in the likelihood of auto accidents. Unfortunately, marijuana is the most common drug used among teens in the United States, and45 percent of 12th-graders said they used marijuana at some point in their lifetime.
Like drinking alcohol, using marijuana before your brain is finished developing can cause long-lastingcognitive impairments, particularly as it applies to a process called myelination. Myelin is a sheath that covers the axons of your nerve cells.
During your teen years and up to age 25, your brain is going through an increased rate of myelination, or myelin growth. Myelin helps you think clearly, quickly, and solve problems more easily.
The use of alcohol and, to a lesser extent, marijuana can slow down this process, leading to cognitive impairments. However, it takes long periods of heavy use to have a significant effect.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017, May 01). Marijuana. from https://teens.drugabuse.gov/drug-facts/marijuana
Squeglia, L. M., Jacobus, J., & Tapert, S. F. (2009, January). The Influence of Substance Use on Adolescent Brain Development. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2827693/
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017, January 12). Health Effects of Marijuana and Cannabis-Derived Products Presented in New Report. from http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=24625&_ga=1.198930671.1791292794.1484233196