Depressants are surely some of the most well-known and widely-used mind-altering substances. This specific class of drugs includes such substances as alcohol, benzodiazepines, and heroin to name just a few. However, there are few depressants that have become as ubiquitous as marijuana, which also happens to be one of the most controversial of all drugs, depressant or otherwise. Since marijuana remains a key component of today’s substance use culture and a topic of debate for citizens, law enforcement, and public officials alike, it’s important to have an understanding of the drug’s background. In particular, what is marijuana? Where does it come from? How did it become so widely used? Why is it so controversial? What are the drug’s actual effects? And, perhaps most importantly, is marijuana addictive?
Although it may seem like a relatively modern nuisance, cannabis use actually dates back several thousands of years. Over the course of our long history with this plant, it’s been used to achieve euphoria, for spiritual journeys, as a form of therapy, and even in textile production. However, many of the earliest writings — found in China before spreading throughout the rest of Asia and Europe — describe cannabis as a medicinal treatment.
The first time cannabis was referred to as a psychoactive agent was in the writings of Chinese emperor Shen Nung in 2737 BCE. According to Shen Nung, cannabis has a number of powers and applications, including as a medication for malaria, gout, rheumatism, and even for things like absentmindedness. Of course, Shen Nung also mentioned the plant’s intoxicating powers, but due to it having many medicinal applications, the intoxicating properties of the plan weren’t considered a deal-breaker. Meanwhile, those living in India used cannabis almost purely for recreational purposes. The Muslims, too, also used cannabis recreationally since the Koran prevented them from being able to drink alcohol. In fact, it was Muslims who first began producing hashish — which was essentially a concentrated form of the psychoactive ingredients that cannabis contains — and who would eventually introduce it to those living in Iran, North Africa, and, eventually, the rest of the world.
Marijuana was brought to the Americas by the Spanish in 1545; however, it was the English who introduced marijuana to American natives at Jamestown in 1611, at which point it became a major commercial crop (in addition to tobacco) since it could also be harvested as a source of fiber. By the late-nineteenth century, cotton has taken the place of hemp — a cannabis by-product — as the predominant cash crop in the American South. Meanwhile, marijuana was being used less and less for its psychoactive properties; previously, some of the psychoactive elements in marijuana were used in patented medications that were being developed, but during this period, marijuana was very infrequently used in favor of opium and/or cocaine. It wasn’t until the 1920s that marijuana began to garner a stronger place in pop culture.
According to some, the rapid cultural significance of marijuana is partly responsible for inspiring Prohibition. Meanwhile, there are some who attribute the rise in recreational marijuana use in the United States to jazz musicians and people in show business, resulting in so-called “reefer songs” and marijuana clubs called “tea pads” being all the rage at the time. While bootlegging alcohol was a major offense at the time, authorities mostly disregarded the growing marijuana trend since users didn’t seem to be nuisances and because marijuana wasn’t actually an illegal substance. Until the 1930s, marijuana was even prescribed for things like nausea and labor pains, but at this point the U.S. government launched a marketing campaign in which they portrayed marijuana as a dangerous narcotic, which rapidly changed public perceptions. With the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marijuana was finally classified as a Schedule I substance, which is a designation that indicates the highest abuse potential with no accepted medical uses.
Since then, many studies have shown that marijuana is actually substantially less harmful than most other substances, including alcohol, which is legally available to those of appropriate age. The strongest argument that remains against marijuana is its designation as a “gateway drug”, which is still one of the most compelling reasons for the substance remaining illegal despite the fact that the same could (and has) been said about alcohol.
As with many psychoactive substances, marijuana tends to affect people in different ways according to their state of mind, experience with mind-altering substances, and other factors. For instance, some individuals report that marijuana makes them extremely paranoid and fearful while others don’t experience this effect at all. However, some of the most consistent effects of marijuana are its depressant-like effects, including drowsiness, decrease in fine motor control, sense of strong physical and emotional relaxation, decreased sense of personal identity, poor perceptions of space and time, increased hunger, and other such effects. Of course, there are a number of potential long-term effects, too, including respiratory problems, impaired ability to complete complex tasks, decline in cognitive abilities, and possible transition to harder and more dangerous substances.
There’s been intense debate as to whether or not marijuana is actually addictive. According to the evidence that’s available, the most likely scenario is that marijuana is not actually addictive in the same way that heroin, alcohol, and benzodiazepines are addictive; however, the use of marijuana is habit forming. This means that individuals can develop a marijuana use habit, resulting in physiological distress when they’re unable to use marijuana. For the most part, this distress would include mostly psychological rather than physical symptoms, including agitation, mood swings, anxiety, insomnia, inability to concentrate, and so on.
It’s not easy to live in active addiction to marijuana. Use of the drug becomes the main focus of one’s life, inhibiting performance in virtually every other area. However, there are resources available to help individuals get their lives back. For marijuana addiction, individuals can choose from a variety of different treatment programs, including outpatient or inpatient. For the most part, the important thing is to participate in psychotherapy, group counseling, life skills treatment, and other therapies that will help a marijuana addict achieve long-lasting sobriety.
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