Marijuana is now legal to use as a recreational drug in the states of Colorado and Washington. Other states are considering approving the drug for their residents as well. Attitudes toward marijuana have undergone a significant shift in just the past few decades. Now, nearly 40 percent of Americans view the drug as mostly harmless. But what are the facts about marijuana use?
What Is It?
In its most common form, marijuana is the chopped stems, seeds, leaves and flowers from the naturally occurring plant Cannabis sativa. This plant material is usually smoked in either cigarettes or with the use of a special pipe. Baking the drug into food items referred to as edibles is becoming increasingly popular. The material is also sometimes reduced into a highly concentrated resin known as hashish.
Although the marijuana plant contains multiple chemical substances, what makes it so appealing to users is THC. This is a psychoactive ingredient that produces a feeling of high for users. Some plants, known as skunk cannabis, are bred for particularly strong levels of the ingredient.
Is It Medicine?
One of the controversies surrounding legalization of marijuana has to do with its use as medication. Even though the drug has been approved for medical use in many states, the federal government still lists marijuana as a controlled (Schedule I) substance with a high abuse risk and no proven medical value.
According to the FDA, approved medications must have clearly defined ingredients that are consistent dose by dose. Medical marijuana does not meet this requirement. However, there are FDA-approved medications which contain THC that are used to alleviate nausea and pain. Other, non-psychoactive chemicals in cannabis are the subject of current research to evaluate their effectiveness in treating various medical disorders, such as childhood epilepsy.
Side effects of medicinal pot include risk of addiction and increased heart rate. In addition, regular marijuana use has been associated in several scientific studies with an increased risk of mental illness. A small portion of users experience psychosis, either when they use the drug or later on. This usually happens when a high potency form is used beginning at a young age. Far more common side effects include anxiety, depression, absence of motivation and suicidal ideation.
What About Potency?
The younger a person starts using marijuana the greater the risks, but potency is also a factor in determining how harmful marijuana use may be. Although some strains of the drug (e.g. skunk) are bred for high potency, even normal marijuana is considerably more potent today compared to past forms of the drug. Police-confiscated marijuana has become notably more potent over the years. Marijuana collected in the 1980s was roughly 4 percent THC while pot confiscated by police in 2012 was closer to 15 percent.
What About Addiction?
Around 10 percent of marijuana users become addicted. Among those who start using in their teens and who smoke daily, nearly 17 percent form an addiction.
Marijuana use carries many of the symptoms associated with addiction, such as preoccupation with using, failed attempts to stop using and withdrawal problems. Daily pot smokers often report cravings, trouble sleeping, and irritability when they try to wean themselves off the drug. These are common symptoms of drug withdrawal.