What is Marijuana?
Marijuana is the dried leaves of the Cannabis sativa plant. It is called cannabis, weed, pot, or dope and refers to the dried flowers, leaves, stems, and seeds of the cannabis plant. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), the cannabis plant contains more than 500 chemical substances and 100 compounds or cannabinoids (related to THC). Among these 100 compounds is THC, which has a mind-altering effect. Generally, in the cannabis plant, there is a compound called CBD, which does not include a mind-altering effect. Cannabis can be ingested by smoking, eating, drinking (brewed teas), and vaping. “Stronger forms of marijuana include sinsemilla (from specially tended female plants) and concentrated resins containing high doses of marijuana’s active ingredients…” Additionally, resins like hash oil and waxy budder are being added to the vapes, altering the plant’s potency.
According to a 2018 Canadian report by the Canadian Medical Association, both questions of available data about the clinical use of marijuana, potential harms, and the overall health impact of using marijuana should inform policymaking around the nonmedical use of marijuana. According to the 2021 US National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 52.5 million people over 12 years of age reported using marijuana in the last year.
Since 1995, the level of potency of THC in the cannabis plant has more than tripled. Many of the studies performed on THC have not kept pace with the levels of THC and its impact on mental health. According to the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), the levels of CBD in cannabis plants have declined, which seems to change the impact of marijuana on the brain and body. Some products listed THC as high as 97% and no CBD.
How does Marijuana work on brain function?
The properties of marijuana (THC) that are mind-altering impact memory, learning attention, decision-making, coordination, emotions, and reaction time. Some studies have demonstrated that marijuana use by pregnant women may negatively impact the brain development and behavior of their children.
THC acts on the cannabinoid receptors naturally in the brain, activating the reward system. THC attaches to the nerve cells or the neurons throughout the nervous system. It signals the release of dopamine “at higher levels than typically observed in response to naturally rewarding stimuli. The surge of dopamine “teaches” the brain to repeat the rewarding behavior, helping account for marijuana’s addictive properties.”
There is much disagreement as to the benefits or harms of marijuana use. Ironically, marijuana can act as a stimulant, a depressant, or a hallucinogen. It lingers in the body longer than alcohol. In some circumstances, marijuana seems to aid in treating illnesses such as those going through cancer treatments and epilepsy, and oddly enough, some people with psychosis have had improved performance in learning and memory.
Effects of Marijuana Use
- Decreased motor activity
- A sense of calm
- Increased sensory experience
- Food cravings
- Belief of transcendent insight
Long-term Impact of Marijuana Use on the Brain
Studies on rats and mice have shown permanent changes in the brain; however, studies on humans have produced conflicting results. Generally, it is believed that the younger one is when marijuana use begins, the greater the impact on the developing brain. Furthermore, as with any other drug, the person’s age, health condition, mental status, genetics, environment, gender, and duration and amount of use all determine how marijuana influences brain function and mental health.
Some studies have shown that myocardial infarction (lack of blood flow to the heart) or atrial fibrillation (irregular or rapid heartbeat) are present within an hour of smoking, placing some smokers at greater risk for a stroke.
Marijuana Use and Mental Health
For those who regularly use marijuana and who have an underlying mental health disorder, the drug can exacerbate the condition. Episodes of psychosis, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse have been found. “Recent research suggests that smoking high-potency marijuana everyday could increase the chances of developing psychosis by nearly five times compared to people who have never used marijuana.”
Acute consequences of Marijuana Use
- Impaired short-term memory
- Impaired attention, judgment, and other cognitive functions
- Impaired coordination and balance
- Increased heart rate
- Anxiety, paranoia
Long-term (cumulative effects of repeated use)
- Potential for marijuana addiction
- Impairments in learning and memory with the potential loss of IQ
- Increased risk of chronic cough, bronchitis
- Increased risk of other drug and alcohol use disorders
- Increased risk of schizophrenia in people with genetic vulnerability
- Social anxiety
- Suicidal thoughts
- Worsen psychotic illness like bipolar disorder
- Decreased motivation
People using extremely strong THC cannabis concentrates (butane hash oil, for example) “may put themselves at a greater risk of experiencing mental health harms such as depression, anxiety, and psychosis.”
Low doses of THC with CBD can modulate anxiety; however, high levels of THC with no CBD can increase anxiety. The University of Washington’s report, Effects of Marijuana on Mental Health: Anxiety Disorders, stated that “Among the anxiety disorders, social anxiety disorder (SAD) [is] the one most associated with problematic marijuana; SAD is correlated with marijuana dependence at rates more than twice that of other anxiety disorders…”
The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction’s report on cannabis stated that those suffering from PTSD and using cannabis had poorer mental health outcomes. More human studies are needed on other mental health disorders and cannabis use.
According to the CDC, individuals who start using marijuana during their youth and those who use the drug regularly are more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder.
As mentioned above, those who develop a marijuana use disorder, or an addiction, can suffer cognitive problems (memory, learning, concentration problems) and coordination issues. The increasing strength of the THC and lack of CBD in current marijuana plants and vapes causes this problem.
It is estimated that 3 in 10 people who use marijuana suffer from marijuana use disorder or addiction. The general definition of addiction is a person’s inability to stop using the drug despite negative consequences on health, work, school, and family. Because the strength of THC in plants has been rapidly increasing, researchers have not studied the long-term impact on the body and the brain.
- Sleep disorders
- Decrease in appetite
- Weight loss
- Stomach pains
If you or someone you know suffers from marijuana addiction, please call our helpline and speak with one of our trained staff. We can answer most of your questions and set your mind at ease. Do not wait till you or your loved one hits “rock bottom” before you seek help. Treatment works.