Marijuana has been a hotly debated topic for the past several years. What was once a taboo substance marked by reefer madness is now argued to be a safe recreational drug and a useful medication. As more and more states legalize the drug for medical and recreational use, more and more research is being done to study its effects.
Is marijuana a harmless substance or is it a dangerous illicit drug?
Learn more about the world’s most prevalent psychoactive substance.
Marijuana is a psychoactive drug that is derived from several naturally occuring drugs in the Cannabis genus. The plants are native to East Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, but they are grown and cultivated all over the world. The plant has some psychoactive chemical compounds in it including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and 65 other drugs classified as cannabinoids. Regarding their psychoactive effects, cannabinoids are difficult to classify. The drug’s effects are largely subjective, with several common characteristics. However, users have reported excitatory, relaxing, and even psychedelic effects. Still, it is not definitively classified as a depressant, stimulant, or psychedelic drug.
Marijuana has been used as a psychoactive drug for decades, and some historians suggest it has been used for spiritual ceremonies for centuries. In the past several years in the United States and Western cultures, its use as a medical drug has been championed and studied. Though it is still federally classified as a Schedule I drug (the strictest regulatory category for a chemical substance in the U.S.), it has been cleared for recreational use in nine states.
Still, marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug in the U.S., with more than 11 million adults using the drug in 2015. Alcohol is the only recreational substance more prevalent than marijuana. With many states legalizing and decriminalizing marijuana use, there has been an initial increase in the drug, but it has since declined in recent years.
As a medicinal drug, marijuana is used to treat chronic pain, appetite loss, and nausea. It’s also being studied as a potential treatment for other diseases and disorders, including muscle spasms, HIV, and Parkinson’s disease.
While naturally occurring cannabis has few adverse effects, it’s long-term effects are unknown. Illegally grown and traded marijuana is also growing in strength, making it more potent and unpredictable. Synthetic versions of the drug are incredibly dangerous, though those are not true marijuana.
Marijuana does not carry a high risk of physical dependence. In other drugs, frequent or regular use can cause a buildup of tolerance that leads to dependence when your brain grows accustomed to the existence of the foreign chemical. Marijuana doesn’t seem to cause tolerance of chemical dependence in the same way as other recreational drugs, like alcohol.
However, marijuana can cause euphoria in its users, which can lead to psychological dependence. While not as common as with drugs like heroin, cocaine, or even alcohol, drugs that aren’t chemically addictive can be habit-forming. Plus, other drugs and alcohol can often accompany marijuana use in party settings, which can lead to other addictions.
Psychological addiction to marijuana can often be characterized by a feeling like you need marijuana to feel normal.
For instance, you may have a nagging thought that you need marijuana before going to sleep. Even though it has no clear sedative effects, you may be reliant on the psychological comfort its effects brings.
Other signs of addiction to marijuana can include:
Because marijuana is not known to cause physical dependence or addiction, the treatment options for someone who uses marijuana exclusively will be different than someone who uses other illicit drugs. However, there are resources available for marijuana addiction. When you first enter an addiction treatment program, you will go through an intake and assessment period to help determine your exact needs. If you have used other drugs, especially depressants like alcohol or benzodiazepines, you may be placed in a high level of care. Some drugs can cause serious withdrawal symptoms that need medical detoxification to be safe.
Marijuana addiction may only require a lower level of care, like intensive outpatient treatment or outpatient treatment. When you enter a program, you will sit down with your primary therapist and explore your biological, psychological, and social background to help create a treatment plan that’s tailored to your specific needs. Depending on those needs, you will go through various therapies designed to help you learn how to cope with stress without marijuana, identify and avoid triggers, and create a relapse prevention plan.
After addiction treatment, clinicians can connect you to community resources to help you continue your commitment to recovery.
Marijuana typically is not dangerous on its own while in its natural state. It has a low overdose potential, and it’s rare for the drug to be linked to serious medical complications. Smoking marijuana can be hazardous to your lungs because its smoke contains ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, and formaldehyde, which has been linked to medical consequences including cancer. However, there has not been as much definitive research linking marijuana smoke to cancer like there has been for tobacco cigarettes.
Marijuana has been linked indirectly to physical dangers like accidents and injuries caused by intoxication. The drug can impair your attention, memory, and cognitive ability, which can potentially lead to a car crash. Studies in 2017 found that car accidents became more frequent in states that legalized marijuana for recreational use. Marijuana also has been linked to psychosis, and the threat of marijuana-induced psychosis might be growing with the increasing potency of illicit cannabis.
When it comes to the illegal drug trade, the more potent a drug is, the easier it will be to transport and make a profit. For instance, if $100 worth of a drug is shipped in a large crate, it may be found and seized. If you can synthesize or grow a version of that drug that is much more potent, you might be able to transport $100 worth in a small box.
Clandestine marijuana producers have a vested interest in creating more potent marijuana. One of the ways they do this is by producing cannabis with more THC.
THC is one of the major psychoactive effect producing chemicals in marijuana. However, it’s also the chemical that has been linked to inducing psychosis. There is another chemical in the drug called cannabidiol (CBD) that counteracts the psychosis-inducing effects of THC. However, illegal marijuana is often found to have more THC and less CBD than it ever has before, making modern marijuana more dangerous. Cannabis used in medical treatment typically has more balanced levels of both chemicals.
DiSalvo, D. (2018, September 01). Study: CBD From Marijuana May 'Reset' The Brain To Counteract Symptoms Of Psychosis. from https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2018/08/31/study-cbd-from-marijuana-may-reset-the-brain-to-counteract-symptoms-of-psychosis/#457345466a36
LeBeau, P. (2017, June 22). Auto crashes are on the rise in marijuana states from https://www.cnbc.com/2017/06/21/auto-crashes-are-on-the-rise-in-marijuana-states.html
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, June). Marijuana. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/marijuana
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, June). What is the scope of marijuana use in the United States? from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/what-scope-marijuana-use-in-united-states