Marijuana is a preparation of dried, shredded leaves from the Indian hemp plant Cannabis sativa, which means “useful hemp”. Preparations made from Cannabis include marijuana, the dried plant material; hashish, the dried resin from the flowers and associated leaves; and hash oil, an oily solution of resins and other plant juices extracted in alcohol, filtered, and reduced by evaporation. Marijuana is the form most commonly used since it requires little or no processing. Since marijuana resembles lawn clippings it is commonly called grass. Other common street names for marijuana include, pot, reefer, weed, ganja, endo, and bud. (Longenecker, 97) Imported varieties go by such colorful labels as Acapulco Gold, Colombian Gold, and Panama Red. (Pinger et al, 308) The quality of marijuana varies in two ways: (1) the composition with regard to plant parts and (2) the concentration of the primary active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The best quality marijuana, referred to in Asia as ganja, includes only the tops of the plant, the flowers and young leaves. Poor quality marijuana, known in Asian as bhang, is made up of lower leaves, stems, and seeds.
The concentration of THC in the leaves and buds of a Cannabis plant varies depending on the variety of the plant and the growing conditions, including temperature and the amount of sunshine and moisture. (Pinger et al, 309) Hemp is actually the stalks, stems, and roots of the marijuana plant. In the United States, only these parts of the plant are legal to possess and can be used for making clothing, paper, paints, plastics, cosmetics, and feed for animals. The flowers, buds, and leaves of the marijuana plant are all illegal. (Somdahl, 31) In the United States the products of Cannabis are usually smoked. Marijuana is smoked either as hand-rolled cigarettes (joints), or through a pipe or a water pipe (hookah). A current trend involves removing the contents of a commercial cigar and rolling marijuana in the cigar paper, these marijuana cigars are called “blunts”. In other countries, where Cannabis may be used as an herb or spice, it is ingested.
Ingestion of marijuana in the United States is uncommon, although not rare. However, smoking is about three times as effective in delivering THC to the bloodstream as is ingestion. Hashish is smoked in pipes specially designed for this purpose; hash oil is usually applied to marijuana or tobacco cigarette, which is then smoked. Use of hashish and hash oil is popular with some people in Canada, but uncommon in the United States. (Pinger et al, 310) The inhaled smoke from marijuana brings THC into contact with the blood in the alveoli of the lungs, where is it then quickly absorbed because of its high lipid solubility. Experienced users develop the habit of inhaling the smoke deeply and then holding the smoke in the lungs for several moments to permit a more complete absorption of the THC. (Pinger et al, 310) In heavy users of marijuana, traces of THC can sometimes stay in their system for several weeks after they have stopped using the drug.
Teens who smoke marijuana nearly every day never rid their body of THC unless they quit. Marijuana stays in the body because THC is fat soluble, meaning it stores itself in the body’s fat cells. Fatty areas such as the brain, liver, kidneys, lungs, testicles, and ovaries can be greatly affected by this chemical. (Somdahl, 36) Peak concentrations of THC in the blood are reached 10 to 30 minutes after smoking begins. Because of its high fat solubility, THC does not remain the bloodstream for a long time. Most of the THC is absorbed out of the bloodstream within 30 minutes after smoking. The small amount of THC remaining in the bloodstream has a half-life of about 19 hours. This long half-life is the result of an equilibrium between levels of THC in the plasma and those in the fatty storage tissues in the liver and elsewhere. The disposition of THC and its metabolites into fat lengthens the time necessary for the clearance of THC from the body.
This is because THC and its metabolites are released slowly into the bloodstream from the fat, as levels of these compounds in the bloodstream drop. Enzymes in the liver biodeactivate THC to several compounds. The long-term storage of THC and its metabolites in the tissues is probably the reason that marijuana users seem to experience its effects more quickly than novice users, a phenomenon referred to as reverse tolerance. (Pinger et al, 311) The acute physiological effects of marijuana are seen moments after smoking begins, this is because of THC’s rapid absorption and distribution. These effects include changes in both the cardiovascular system and the CNS. There are increases in the pulse rate and blood pressure. There is a reddening of the eyes as blood vessels of the cornea dilate and a dryness of the throat and mouth (cottonmouth). Other effects often reported include dizziness and nausea. (Pingeret al, 312)
When smoking marijuana the balance and stability of stance may be affected primarily when eyes are closed. There is a decrease in muscular strength and hand steadiness. Information processing and the ability to perform sequential tasks in the proper order become impaired. At higher doses, simple motor tasks and simple reaction times are also impaired. (Pinger et al, 312) THC reduces pain, nausea, and intraocular (inner eye) pressure. It also has the beneficial effect of relaxing bronchial airways. THS has been approved as an anti-nausea drug for chemotherapy patients and as an appetite stimulant for AIDS patients. It can also be prescribed for glaucoma (elevated pressure in the eye). (Longenecker, 98) The chronic effects of marijuana are similar to those that result from smoking tobacco. The smoke from marijuana contains some of the same chemicals found in tobacco smoke. These chemicals cause sore throats and coughs; they can also lead to bronchitis and the lung disease emphysema, as well as cancer. (Somdahl, 37)
A marijuana smoker consumes fewer cigarettes in a day than a tobacco smoker, so the burden on the throat and lungs may be somewhat less. But marijuana contains a great number of carcinogens and is inhaled more deeply, so that puff for puff, marijuana is probably more dangerous than cigarettes. (Pinger et al, 313) Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, discovered that smoking one to three marijuana joints a day is as dangerous and health-threatening as smoking fifteen tobacco cigarettes, that is almost an entire pack. (Somdahl, 38) There are many psychological effects that go along with smoking marijuana, some users describe the acute psychological effects of mild THC intoxication as similar to a state of daydreaming, or the way one feels just before falling asleep. The user develops feelings of carefree relaxation, sleepiness (sedation), and mild euphoria. These feelings are accompanied by enhanced taste, touch, smell, visual, and auditory perceptions. There are also changes in thought formation and an alteration in the perception of time.
Cravings for food, especially sweets, sometimes occur. (Pinger et al, 314) At high doses of marijuana, hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, disorientation, and confusion have been reported. These may be intensified and more vivid at even higher doses. (Pinger et al, 315) A healthy immune system is important. It protects us by fighting off infections and disease. Scientists have learned that marijuana smokers are less immune to certain health problems than are nonsmokers. This is because the drug stops white blood cells from growing. White blood cells are important in protecting people from getting sick. (Somdahl, 39) In 1995 alone, more than forty-seven thousand people were treated at emergency rooms across the United States for marijuana-related illnesses. Most were for some of the side effects brought on by using marijuana. Severe anxiety, paranoia, and panic attacks were the most common. It has been shown that marijuana either alone or in combination with alcohol, is detrimental to automobile driving ability. Impairments include reduced concentration, slowed reaction time, and impaired judgement.
Some users had been involved in accidents, including automobile crashes, while driving under the influence of this drug. Marijuana can interfere with driving skills for at least for to six hours after smoking. (Somdahl, 40) The most serious of the psychological effects of chronic marijuana use is the phenomenon called the amotivational syndrome. This is characterized by apathy, lack of motivation, memory dysfunction, loss of interest in achievement and in the future, diminished scholastic/job performance, and introversion. This condition usually disappears several weeks after detoxification, however in some cases it may linger on for months or years. (Pinger et al, 313) Not everyone who uses marijuana becomes addicted. Those who do, usually find themselves using the drug more and more often. It becomes difficult to quit and becomes a big part of their daily life. This effect is known as tolerance. (Somdahl, 41)
The development of physiological tolerance to THC has been demonstrated in both human and animal research. Tolerance has been demonstrated by both performance and physiological measurements, including heart rate and electroencephalogram (EEG) measurements of alpha rhythm. Tolerance is more likely to develop in the high-dose daily user. The development of such tolerance might cause the user to increase the dose or switch to a more powerful drug that can provide the desired high. (Pinger et al, 313) Tolerance and dependence occur only with very high doses given at close intervals over extended time. Mild withdrawal symptoms occur, including irritability, restlessness, chills, nausea, and possibly vomiting. Recent data indicates significant physical damage to the neurons in the hippocampus, a brain area essential to normal memory processes, in long-term heavy users. (Longenecker, 99) Marijuana is the most frequently used illicit drug in the United States. Getting hooked on marijuana can happen to anyone at anytime.
Researchers also suggest that marijuana smokers stand a greater risk of trying even more dangerous drugs. This risk has earned marijuana its reputation as a “gateway drug”. Along with alcohol and tobacco, it has been blamed as one of the first drugs most people use before moving on the more dangerous ones. Marijuana brings up a very controversial issue. The effects of this drug can be beneficial and yet harmful. There is a lot of information we have yet to learn about this drug, but until then it is hard to make a decision on the drug’s whereabouts or come to a conclusion about marijuana.
Longenecker, Gesina L. How Drugs Work: Drug abuse and the Human body. California: Ziff-Davis, 1994 Pinger, Robert, et al. Issues for Today Drugs. 2nd ed. Missouri: Mosby-Year Book, 1995 Somdahl, Gary L. Marijuana: Drug Dangers. New Jersey: Enslow, 1999