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What Is Marijuana?

Marijuana comes from the cannabis plant. It appears as green, brown, or gray mixtures of dried, shredded leaves, stems, and seeds. It is usually rolled in cigarette papers and smoked (a joint) or smoked in a pipe or a water pipe (a bong). Some users slice open a cigar and fill it with loose marijuana (a blunt). To avoid smoke, some people use a vaporizer. This pocket-sized device pulls the active ingredients from the marijuana and collects their vapor in a storage unit. The person then inhales the vapor, not the smoke. Marijuana is also known as dope, pot, weed, ganja, grass, reefer, MJ, Mary Jane, chronic, gangster, boom, doobie, cannabis tea, jive, and ace

Marijuana has a chemical in it called delta- 9-tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC. A lot of other chemicals are found in marijuana, too—about four hundred of them, many of which could affect your health. But THC is the main mind-altering ingredient.

What Are the Negative Consequences of Using Marijuana?

Marijuana affects memory, judgment, and perception. Under the influence of marijuana, you could fail to remember things you just learned, lower your grade point average, or crash a car. Also, since marijuana can affect judgment and decision making, using it can cause you to do things you might not do when you are thinking straight—such as engaging in risky sexual behavior, which can result in exposure to sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) or getting in a car with someone who’s been drinking or is high on marijuana. The effects of marijuana can be unpredictable when mixed with other drugs. 

When people smoke marijuana for years, they can suffer some pretty negative consequences. For example, because marijuana affects brain function, your ability to do complex tasks could be compromised, as well as your pursuit of academic, athletic, or other life goals that require you to be 100 percent focused and alert. In fact, people who use marijuana over the long term report less life satisfaction, poorer education and job achievement, and more interpersonal problems compared to people who don’t use marijuana.

Is Marijuana Addictive?

Long-term marijuana abuse can lead to addiction or compulsive drug seeking and abuse. Long-term marijuana abusers trying to quit have reported withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, sleeplessness, decreased appetite, anxiety, and drug craving.3 Users do develop a tolerance for the drug—that means they need more marijuana to get the high they once got with smaller doses. Studies have found that young people who regularly use marijuana are more likely to use other drugs. As a result, they run a higher risk of becoming addicted to other drugs. Studies have shown a link between long-term marijuana use and increased rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.4 

Many teens using marijuana are unaware of its effect on the lungs. Marijuana smoke contains 50 to 70 percent more carcin-ogenic, or cancer-causing, hydrocarbons than does tobacco smoke. Marijuana users usually inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer than tobacco smokers do. This kind of deep inhaling further exposes the lungs to carcinogenic smoke.

Is It True That States Have Legalized the Use of Marijuana?

Yes. A number of states have legalized mari-juana use for medical purposes only, while a smaller number have legalized it for recrea-tional use as well. Nonmedical or recreational use of marijuana remains illegal in most states. It has been synthetically used in the form of a pill to treat nausea in cancer patients under-going chemotherapy and is being studied for use to treat obesity, pain, and other disorders.

How Does Marijuana Use Affect a Co-occurring Mental Health Disorder?

A number of studies show a link between long-term marijuana use and increased rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and schizophrenia. Some of these studies show age to be a factor, meaning that the earlier teens first use marijuana, the greater their risk of developing problems later on. However, at this time, it is not clear whether marijuana use causes mental problems or worsens them. Some teens may use marijuana in an attempt to self-medicate psychological symptoms that they already have. The effects of marijuana are less noticeable than the effects of other drugs. For users who have a co-occurring mental health disorder, symptoms of that disorder may be harder to recognize and treat.

How Does Marijuana Use Affect the Brain?

The main active chemical in marijuana is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC for short. When someone smokes marijuana, THC rapidly passes from the lungs into the bloodstream, which carries the chemical to the brain and other organs throughout the body. THC acts on certain areas in the brain, called cannabinoid receptors, which eventually leads to the high that users experience. esearch on the long-term effects of mari- juana abuse shows changes in the brain similar to those seen after long-term abuse of other major drugs. Long-term marijuana use can lead to addiction—that is, compulsive drug seeking and use despite its known harmful effects on family relationships, school, work, and recreational activities.

Is Marijuana Use Treatable?

No medication currently exists for marijuana addiction. However, inpatient and outpatient treatment programs are available. These programs combine detoxification (removing the drug from a person’s system), relapse prevention, group and individual therapy, and family therapy. Behavioral interventions—including cognitive-behavioral therapy and using incentives (e.g., providing vouchers to buy music or electronic items to patients who remain abstinent)—have shown positive results in treating marijuana dependence.

2013 by Hazelden Foundation. Updated 2015.