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Indiana Prevention Resource Center (IPRC)

June: Marijuana Abuse Awareness Month

As of 2014, marijuana was the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2015). June is Marijuana Abuse Awareness Month, and it is a good time to think about the risks of marijuana use and abuse. Because of the legalization of marijuana in some states, it is important that individuals fully understand what marijuana is, the effects it can have, and how it can still be abused.

Marijuana is a drug that comes from the dried leaves, flowers, stems, and seeds of the cannabis plant and contains a mind-altering chemical called THC (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2015). This drug is considered a hallucinogen because THC can distort how the mind perceives the outside world (Drug Free World, 2015). Marijuana has several street names including pot, weed, dope, ganja, Mary Jane, reefer, and many others. It is usually smoked as a cigarette, otherwise known as a joint, but it can be smoked from a pipe as well. Blunts are emptied cigars that have been partly or completely filled with marijuana. Vaporizers can be used to inhale the vapor, instead of the smoke from marijuana. Marijuana can be consumed in brownies and candy or brewed as tea (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2015). When marijuana is smoked, the user usually begins to feel the effects within a few minutes with the peak usually occurring around 30 minutes and typically lasting for a few hours. Onset of action is slower when marijuana is eaten, but the effects last longer (Drug Free World, 2015).

Marijuana use can have both short and long-term side effects, especially when an individual uses the substance regularly or in large amounts. THC activates specific brain cell receptors, which causes the “high” that is associated with marijuana use. While the user usually perceives most of these feelings as pleasant or desirable, less pleasant effects can include altered sense of time, changes in mood, impaired body movement, difficulty with thinking and problem-solving, and impaired memory (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2015).

In terms of long-term effects, marijuana has the greatest impact on those who begin using as teenagers. Because their brains are still developing, marijuana may cause long-term or permanent damage to thinking, memory, and learning functions as well as affect how the brain builds connections between areas (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2015). Since marijuana is often smoked, it can result in breathing problems, similar to those associated with tobacco smokers. These can include a cough, more frequent lung illness, and a higher risk of lung infections. Additionally, marijuana can increase the heart rate for up to three hours after smoking. It can also increase the risk of a heart attack. If used during pregnancy, marijuana increases the risk of brain and behavioral problems in the fetus. Some mental problems have been associated with long-term marijuana use as well. These include hallucinations, paranoia, worsening symptoms in schizophrenia patients, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts among teens (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2015).

Even though marijuana is legal for medicinal use and/or recreational purposes in some states, it is important to understand that it can be abused like almost any other substance. According to SAMHSA, marijuana is the most used drug after alcohol and tobacco in the United States, and about 20 million teens and adults report having used marijuana during the past month. Additionally, 4.2 million people ages 12 and up met the criteria for substance use disorder based on marijuana use (SAMHSA, 2014). Because of this, Cannabis Use Disorder is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). The diagnostic criteria for Cannabis Use Disorder is defined as, “A problematic pattern of cannabis use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, as manifested by at least two of the following, occurring within a 12-month period” (DSM-V). Symptoms that might count toward this diagnosis include disruptions in functioning due to cannabis use, the development of tolerance, cravings for cannabis, and the development of withdrawal symptoms. Inability to sleep, restlessness, nervousness, anger, or depression within a week of ceasing heavy use of cannabis are some withdrawal symptoms (SAMHSA, 2014).

While it is widely believed that marijuana is not addictive, about one in 11 users do become addicted (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2015). About half of the users who enter treatment for marijuana use are under the age of 25 (U.S. Library of Medicine, 2007). Unfortunately, no medication can treat marijuana addiction, and there are none available to assist with withdrawal symptoms, prevent relapse, or block the effects of marijuana. However, behavioral support including cognitive-behavioral therapy and motivational enhancement therapy is often effective. (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2015). Some outpatient services are available for marijuana treatment and have been helpful as well.

With the increasing attention that marijuana has received lately, it is important to be informed about the potential risks of the drug. Simply because it is legalized in some states does not mean that it is safe. While marijuana has several known and potential medical uses, exaggerated claims about safety and effectiveness should be viewed with skepticism. It is especially vital to encourage youth to avoid marijuana use since it can have such a detrimental effect on their developing brains. For adults, people must also remember that abuse can still occur as well as dependence, so even in states where use is legal, the safest choice is to avoid using it at all.

*[For more resources on the topics covered in this article, see the IPRC HOME library e-Resources accessible from IPRC homepage or at http://www.drugs.indiana.edu/search/home-library.aspx].

By Heather Dolne 6/5/2015