It’s been the boogie man of many public service announcements. It’s been the subject of much controversy in political, medical, and social arenas. And its legitimacy and legality are still up for debate.
No matter which side you stand on the issue of cannabis, there are a lot of things to consider. Often referred to as marijuana or weed, cannabis is most often smoked or ingested orally.
Why so many differing opinions? Some say that its benefits outweigh the risks, and that it’s even safer than alcohol. However, it is still a psychoactive drug, and its dangers should be fully understood before use.
What Is Cannabis
Cannabis is a Schedule I drug according to the DEA. It’s grown typically in greenhouses, but can be found in fields and even in the wild in some parts of the world.
It’s still illegal in most countries across the globe. The World Health Organization found that half of all drug seizures in the world are for cannabis.
Some of the debate among the legality of cannabis is that it’s already so widely used, despite being outlawed so thoroughly. After alcohol, it’s the second most widely used addictive substance worldwide.
THC is also similar in structure to certain neurotransmitters called anandamide that…block messages that are responsible for cognitive function, memory, and motor function.
Varieties of Cannabis
There are currently two different chemovares, or chemical variants, of cannabis. Both get you high, but affect you differently. Many growers also produce hybrids that have effects from both.
Cannabis sativa is the most common. Sativa gives what many refer to as a ‘head high.’ It can improve focus and creativity, and reduce anxiety.
Cannabis indica originated in the mountains of India and Pakistan. Users often refer to indica as ‘in the couch’ since its high affects the body more than sativa. Indica makes users lethargic, relaxed, and is frequently used as a sleep aid.
Cannabis vs Hemp
Some sativa plants don’t contain the compound that makes you high. These cannabis plants are used for industrialized hemp. Even these plants were made illegal for some time, but since 2014, farmers have started growing hemp again under strict government regulation.
In order to be classified as hemp, the plants must contain 0.3% of THC or less. Farmers harvest either the seeds or fibers to be used primarily in health foods or textiles.
How Does Cannabis Get You High
We mentioned a head high versus a body high, but how exactly is that happening? Cannabis plants the psychoactive chemical delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or simply THC.
THC is one of many cannabinoids in cannabis. Cannabinoids don’t necessarily get you high, but they are structurally similar to THC, and are unique to cannabis.
THC is also similar in structure to certain neurotransmitters called anandamide that attach to cannabinoid receptors in the brain, sending messages to enhance mood and creativity. However, these also block messages that are responsible for cognitive function, memory, and motor function.
How it’s Consumed Makes a Difference
While which type of high you feel depends on which type of cannabis you use, the way you use it makes a big difference in your experience as well.
Smoking is perhaps the most popular method. Either rolled like a cigarette or in any variation of a pipe, it hits the bloodstream quickly this way.
Ingesting cannabis will take up to an hour to feel the effects, but it is usually far more potent. Oils and tinctures synthesized from cannabis are also very potent.
CBD and Other Non-Psychoactive Cannabinoids
THC is just one of over 100 cannabinoids found in cannabis. However, it seems to be the only psychoactive one. The most well-known, and commercialized, is cannabidiol. Better known as CBD, it’s also found in high quantities in hemp plants. CBD is advertised to reduce anxiety, insomnia, and alcohol and drug cravings.
Effects of Cannabis
The effects of each chemovare do differ slightly, but they share a lot of similarities, too.
They both put you in a relaxed state, and slow your motor functions and reflexes. For many, they feel happier, and things are funnier than they usually are. In most cases, cannabis increases appetite, what a lot of people call ‘the munchies.’
Physical and Psychological Side Effects
Like all mind-altering substances, cannabis can produce other less than desirable side effects. Some of the include:
- Red eyes
- Dry mouth
- Memory and cognitive decline
- Paranoia and anxiety
The more cannabis that is taken, the more severe thse side effects become, particularly the psychological effects like memory loss. Studies are still being done as to whether these effects are long-lasting or permanent.
The cannabinoid receptors that THC binds to in the brain are part of what is called the endocannabinoid system. It is, in fact, named for cannabis. Besides being responsible for memory, emotions, and immune responses, it’s also seen as the system that monitors the body’s mental equilibrium. The National Center of Biotechnology Information describes it as the bridge between mind and body.
The endocannabinoid system essentially communicates with other parts of the brain and tells them “things are normal and we’re safe.” For some people, interfering with this system causes paranoia and anxiety. Blocking these functions of the mind has many negative consequences for some people’s well-being.
Is Cannabis Addictive?
Casual cannabis users will argue that it’s not addictive physically or psychologically, but science has shown otherwise.
The NCBI found that up to 30% of heavy users have Marijuana Use Disorder. Use disorders are diagnosed when drug use interferes with important aspects of a person’s life, like work or interpersonal relationships.
Physically, the brain becomes used to the presence of cannabinoids, and increases the threshold of cannabinoids needed to feel the effects. This is called tolerance, and essentially means that someone needs to take more and more cannabis over time to feel high.
The NCBI found that up to 30% of heavy users have Marijuana Use Disorder.
Dependence on a substance is often defined as the appearance of withdrawal symptoms after someone has stopped taking that substance. Anyone who abuses cannabis is fully capable of developing a dependence.
Cannabis withdrawal looks like:
- Trouble sleeping
- Decreased appetite
- Physical and emotional restlessness
These symptoms usually go away after about two weeks. Some substance withdrawals can require medical intervention. However, cannabis withdrawal is simply unpleasant.
Other Risks of Cannabis Abuse
When you compare the effects and dangers of cannabis to other drugs like heroin (another Schedule I substance), it seems relatively harmless. However, like all substances, it does come with its own set of risks. How severe they are depends on the extent of cannabis use.
Cannabis can trigger schizophrenia in those that are genetically predisposed to it. In some cases, cannabis use can lead to psychosis, but that can be cured when it’s out of your system.
One argument against federal legalization is the way it impairs driving ability. With the slower mental and physical reaction times, getting behind the wheel can be incredibly dangerous.
Smoking cigarettes has been proven time and time again to be responsible for lung disease and cancer. Proponents of cannabis argue that it isn’t anywhere near as dangerous as cigarettes because it lacks the chemicals added to cigarettes and cigars. What harm can smoking simply a dried leaf do?
Well it turns out that smoking anything can lead to declining lung health. Frequent cannabis smokers reported more bronchitis and inflamed airways. THC also suppresses the immune system, leading cannabis smokers to be more susceptible to pneumonia and other lung infections.
Cannabis can trigger schizophrenia in those that are genetically predisposed to it.
Doctors and researchers agree that using mind-altering substances before the brain has fully developed is dangerous. It can lead to a higher likelihood of addiction, and stronger adverse side effects.
The NCBI found that daily cannabis use is increasing for young teenagers. They also found that people that start using cannabis before the age of 18 are more likely to become addicted to it than those who start in adulthood.
Can You Overdose on Cannabis?
The short answer is no. True, you can take so much that you feel uncomfortable and unwell, but it’s almost impossible to ingest a toxic level of THC. No overdose deaths have ever been reported for cannabis. Compare that to the 140,000 deaths related to excessive alcohol use in the US each year.
Does Cannabis Offer Benefits?
Another reason cannabis is such a contentious drug is that it does offer some benefits that aren’t seen in other addictive substances. It’s proven to not be a gateway drug like many have said in the past.
Currently, CBD products are wildly popular and boast incredible health benefits, to the point where they might seem like snake oil. However, it has been proven to reduce anxiety, and manage epilepsy
Some cannabis-based medications that have THC are used in some countries, mostly as a pain suppressant, nausea suppressant, and appetite stimulants in some cancer patients.
Of course, medical marijuana has been around for a long time. Because it contains CBD, and THC, those with medical prescriptions can get the benefits of both. Because medical marijuana is pure cannabis and not generally synthesized from the compounds within it, it should be discussed thoroughly with a doctor if it's right for you.
What to Do if You’re Addicted
The Federal legalization of cannabis may happen soon, and it may not. Even if it is rescheduled it can still be addictive and harmful. Afterall, alcohol is very legal in the US and it comes with its fair share of dangers.
At Sequoia Behavioral Health, we recognize the nuances of cannabis addiction. Anything that gets in the way of you or a loved one’s livelihood, or any part of life, should be addressed. No matter how you started or the reason you use it, if cannabis use is taking a toll on your life, we’re here to help.
Call us today to see how we can help you on your journey to sobriety.