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Marijuana Use — Harmless or Addictive?
In recent years there has been a growing debate about marijuana—legalize it or not? Is it harmless or not? Is it addictive? Why is alcohol legal and marijuana illegal?
Both sides cite “scientific” evidence to support their position. Both sides have noted medical professionals supporting their position. Sometimes both sides even cite the same medical study as supporting their position.
However, marijuana is a psychoactive drug (a chemical substance that exerts effects including changes in mood, cognition, and behavior) like narcotics, nicotine and alcohol. For this reason, it is important to understand more about marijuana.
WHAT IS MARIJUANA?
Marijuana (cannabis sativa) is a plant found all over the world. It can grow to a height of 18 feet. The plant has two types of flowers, male or female, that generally bloom from late-summer to mid-fall. Hashish, which normally produces stronger effects than marijuana, is made from the resin of the female flowers.
Marijuana costs between $400 and $6,000 per pound, depending on the psychoactive effect of the marijuana. In most areas of the United States, marijuana is readily available.
WHAT CAUSES MARIJUANA TO HAVE A PSYCHOACTIVE EFFECT?
The main active chemical in marijuana is THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). When someone smokes marijuana, THC goes into the lungs within seconds after inhaling the smoke and in seconds more is absorbed into the bloodstream and passed to the brain.
There are receptors in the parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thought, concentration, sensory and time perception, and coordinated movement. Once in the brain, THC binds to these receptors and stimulates them.
Because all of us have different DNA and metabolize things differently, the psychoactive effect of marijuana will be felt differently by each of us. Some users become relaxed and others just go to sleep. Some users feel a bit dazed and light-headed while some feel that their ability to concentrate is enhanced. Some user’s eyes dilate (open wider) and colors seem more intense and their senses are sharpened, while others believe that their senses are dulled and their reflexes slowed. Many users experience feelings of anxiety, fear or paranoia. While it does not happen with everyone, THC also triggers a feeling of hunger in many people.
MARIJUANA USE IN THE UNITED STATES
- Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug in America. Of the nearly 20 million current illicit drug users, 14.6 million (about 75 percent) are using marijuana.
- More young people are now in treatment for marijuana dependency than for alcohol or for all other illegal drugs combined.
- The average age of initiation for marijuana use generally has been getting younger.
- Mentions of marijuana use in emergency room visits have risen 176 percent since 1994, surpassing those of heroin.
- Marijuana affects alertness, concentration, perception, coordination, and reaction time— skills that are necessary for safe driving. A roadside study of reckless drivers in Tennessee found that 33 percent of all subjects who were not under the influence of alcohol and who were tested for drugs at the scene of their arrest tested positive for marijuana.
- Students who smoke marijuana get lower grades and are less likely to graduate from high school, compared with their nonsmoking peers.
- A study of 129 college students found that, among those who smoked the drug at least 27 of the 30 days prior to being surveyed, critical skills related to attention, memory, and learning were significantly impaired, even after the students had not taken the drug for at least 24 hours. These “heavy” marijuana abusers had more trouble sustaining and shifting their attention and in registering, organizing, and using information, than did the study participants who had abused marijuana no more than three of the previous 30 days. As a result, someone who smokes marijuana every day may be functioning at a reduced intellectual level all of the time.
- Marijuana users in their later teen years are more likely to have an increased risk of delinquency and more friends who exhibit deviant behavior. They also tend to have more sexual partners and are more likely to engage in unsafe sex.
- Americans spent $10.6 billion on marijuana purchases in 1999.
- Workers who smoke marijuana are more likely than their coworkers to have problems on the job. Several studies associate workers’ marijuana smoking with increased absences, tardiness, accidents, workers’ compensation claims, and job turnover.
- A study among postal workers found that employees who tested positive for marijuana on a pre-employment urine drug test had 55 percent more industrial accidents, 85 percent more injuries, and a 75 percent increase in absenteeism compared with those who tested negative for marijuana use.
CAN SMOKING MARIJUANA AFFECT YOUR HEALTH?
- The British Lung Foundation reports that smoking three or four marijuana joints is as bad for your lungs as smoking 20 tobacco cigarettes.
- Marijuana smoke contains 50 percent to 70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than does tobacco smoke. Using marijuana may promote cancer of the respiratory tract, disrupt the immune system and heighten the risk of lung infection, chronic cough, bronchitis and emphysema.
- In a 2003 study, researchers in England found that smoking marijuana for even less than six years causes a marked deterioration in lung function. The study suggests that marijuana use may rob the body of antioxidants that protect cells against damage that can lead to heart disease and cancer.
- Marijuana users have more suicidal thoughts and are four times more likely to report symptoms of depression than people who never used the drug.
- The British Medical Journal recently reported that marijuana use is associated with an increased risk of developing schizophrenia.
- One study has indicated that an abuser’s risk of heart attack more than quadruples in the first hour after smoking marijuana. The researchers suggest that such an effect might occur from marijuana’s effects on blood pressure and heart rate and reduced oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood.
IS MARIJUANA ADDICTIVE?
- Marijuana is much more powerful today than it was 30 years ago, and so are its mind-altering effects.
- Scientists at the National Institute on Drug Abuse have demonstrated that laboratory animals will self-administer THC in doses equivalent to those used by humans who smoke marijuana.
- Long-term marijuana abuse can lead to addiction for some people; that is, they abuse the drug compulsively even though it interferes with family, school, work, and recreational activities.
- Drug craving and withdrawal symptoms can make it hard for long-term marijuana smokers to stop abusing the drug.
- People trying to quit smoking marijuana display increased aggression on psychological tests, peaking approximately one week after the last use of the drug.
- Subjects in an experiment on marijuana withdrawal experienced symptoms such as restlessness, loss of appetite, trouble with sleeping, weight loss, and shaky hands.
- According to one study, marijuana use by teenagers with prior serious antisocial problems can quickly lead to dependence on the drug. The study also found that, for troubled teenagers using tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana, progression from their first use of marijuana to regular use was about as rapid as their progression to regular tobacco use, and more rapid than the progression to regular use of alcohol.
- Some heavy users of marijuana show signs of dependence, developing withdrawal symptoms when they have not used the drug for a period of time.
UNLIKE HEROIN AND COCAINE, DOES MARIJUANA LEAD TO CRIME?
- Research shows a link between frequent marijuana use and increased violent behavior.
- Young people who use marijuana weekly are nearly four times more likely than nonusers to engage in violence.
- More than 41 percent of male arrestees in sampled U.S. cities tested positive for marijuana.
- Less than one percent of all state prison inmates in 1997 were serving time just for marijuana possession (0.7 percent), and only 0.3 percent of marijuana-possession offenders were in prison on a first offense.
- On the federal level, nearly 98 percent of the 7,991 offenders sentenced for marijuana crimes in 2001 were guilty of trafficking. Only 2.3 percent—186 people— were sentenced for simple possession of marijuana.
- The median amount of marijuana involved in the conviction in federal court of marijuana-only possession offenders in 1997 was 115 pounds. In other words, half of all federal prisoners convicted just for marijuana possession were arrested with quantities exceeding 115 pounds.
- The vast majority of those behind bars for marijuana offenses are mid- and large-scale traffickers and distributors
The advocates of the legalization of marijuana dispute most, if not all, of the points stated above. They cite medical studies that show the positive results from using marijuana to relieve the pain of chemotherapy or aid someone with glaucoma.
However, it is true that marijuana is a psychoactive substance and the continuous use of psychoactive substances is harmful to most people. It is also true that most users of marijuana will develop a tolerance that requires more marijuana use to achieve the same result.
At Novus, we see many people who arrive to detox from alcohol and opiates who are also regular users of marijuana. Attempting to overcome a perceived problem with psychoactive substances is only treating the symptom of the problem, not dealing with the cause and seems to inevitably lead to more problems—not less.
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