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The marijuana plant, with its curling leaves, beautiful flowers and distinctive scent, has been the subject of intense debate in the United States. Some people say that smoking pot is harmless, and should be considered part of the human experience. Others say that marijuana is a powerful medicine that should be given to people with chronic and painful conditions. And still others believe that the drug is dangerous, and it should be banned altogether. A CBS poll, conducted in 2009, found that the public was almost completely split on the legalization issue, with 41 percent stating that the drug should be legal and 51 percent expressing opposition to this idea. It’s clearly a polarizing topic.

From an addiction standpoint, it doesn’t matter whether or not the drug is beneficial for some or whether people with chronic conditions can use the drug for medicine. After all, substances like alcohol and tobacco are certainly legal, and no one would argue that both of these substances are both dangerous and addictive. The truth is that marijuana abuse comes with some very serious consequences, and some people who abuse marijuana develop addictions that can impact their families, their friends, their communities and their future. Read on to find out more about the facts behind marijuana addiction.
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Routes of Use

Marijuana useMarijuana is often sold in tiny, plastic bags. To the untrained eye, the user might be carrying a small bag of an herb like oregano, but the smell of marijuana is distinctive and can help others immediately identify the drug as marijuana. The sweet-and-sour smell is truly unlike any other scent provided by an herb. Users can pull tobacco from cigarettes or cigars and fill the gap with marijuana, or they can roll the drug up in papers and smoke it directly. Some users place a small amount of marijuana in a water pipe and then inhale the steam. And, still others bake marijuana in foods, such as brownies or breads.

Unlike heroin or methamphetamine, which users purchase at an extremely high cost in most parts of the country, marijuana is relatively inexpensive. In fact, according to the Office of Applied Studies of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 58.3 percent of adults who used marijuana in the last year got the drug for free. Sometimes these users received the drug outright, and sometimes they shared a portion of the drug that someone else was using.

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Marijuana is a powerful drug that is designed to attach to specific parts of the brain. These cannabinoid receptors are sprinkled liberally throughout the body, but the vast majority of them are attached to the portions of the brain that control:

  • Pleasure
  • Memory
  • Concentration
  • Perception of time
  • Coordination
  • Sensation

When the marijuana is attached to these cannabinoid receptors, a chain of chemical reactions take place and the user begins to feel a variety of symptoms, from hunger to giddiness to relaxation. Users commonly report that the sensations vary, depending on the state of mind they’re in when they use the drugs. If they feel tense and upset when they use, the drug tends to augment these feelings. If they feel happy when they use, the drug intensifies those feelings of pleasure.

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Short-Term Negative Effects

Marijuana use may be linked to augmented pleasure in some people, but its use isn’t without risk. In fact, some of the risks associated with marijuana use are due to the fact that the drug is illegal. Drugs like this are not regulated by any sort of governmental agency; therefore, people who use these drugs never really know what they are going to get. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, marijuana is often “cut” or mixed with other drugs. Some dealers mix in hallucinogenic drugs, in order to claim that their marijuana is more powerful. Others mix in chemicals to stretch the amount of marijuana they have, and make more money as a result.

These additional drugs can come with serious side effects, including:

  • Disturbances in heart rhythm
  • Seizure
  • Stroke
  • Collapse

These effects could take hold the very first time the person uses marijuana. In other words, these aren’t side effects that take place after years of use. They are side effects that can kick in from the first hit. And some of them are life-threatening.
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Marijuana and Addiction

marijuana addictionMany people who abuse marijuana claim that the drug isn’t addictive. They may believe that a natural substance that comes from a plant is somehow inherently safe, and couldn’t possibly be associated with something as dangerous as addiction. Or, they may believe that, since withdrawing from marijuana isn’t life-threatening, that the drug isn’t truly all that powerful and can’t be associated with addiction.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has studied marijuana addiction for many years, and the organization has come up with some startling results that indicate that marijuana is, indeed, quite addictive. The NIDA reports that about nine percent of users develop an addiction to the drug, and that number rises to 25 to 50 percent if people use the drug every day. When these people try to stop using marijuana, they do feel a series of withdrawal symptoms, including irritability and anxiety, along with a severe craving for the drug. In other words, marijuana seems to have the ability to cause an addiction on a chemical level. Addiction can be considered one of the short- and long-term risks of marijuana abuse.
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Long-Term Effects on the Body

People who smoke marijuana tend to pull in deep breaths of smoke and hold that smoke in their lungs for long periods of time. People who use marijuana in conjunction with tobacco could be exposing their lungs to dangerous amounts of carcinogens as a result of this practice. Even people who do not use tobacco with their marijuana could face a higher risk of chest colds and chronic coughs due to the constant exposure of smoke to their lungs.

The NIDA also reports that smoking marijuana can cause serious long-term damage to the heart. The drug increases heart rate 25 to 100 times, and it can cause some people to experience a skipping, jittering, out-of-control heart rhythm. People who have existing heart conditions may be at particular risk for this side effect, and it’s possible that some people could have heart abnormalities and not even know it. These people could be exposing their heart to damaging chemicals, making their underlying problem even worse.
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Long-Term Effects on the Mind

While these bodily side effects might be frightening, the mental risks of marijuana abuse are far more extensive and can be much more severe. For example, a study published in the journal The Lancet found a clear link between chronic use of marijuana and the mental illness schizophrenia. People who used marijuana on more than 50 occasions had a much higher risk of developing schizophrenia than did people who had used marijuana fewer than 50 times. That risk persisted, even when researchers controlled for other mental illness risks and economic status. In other words, marijuana use and this mental illness are closely linked. Researchers aren’t yet sure why this link exists, and more work is ongoing on this issue.

marijuana and the brainChronic marijuana use has also been linked to a wide variety of other mental illnesses, including depression. A study published in BMJ found that daily use of marijuana resulted in a five-fold increase in the risk of depression in young adults. Weekly use of marijuana resulted in a two-fold increase in the risk of depression. Interestingly, the researchers also attempted to discern if these young adults used marijuana because they were depressed. In other words, they tried to discern if the link was there because people who are depressed used marijuana to help with their depression or if marijuana use itself caused the depression. Researchers found no link between depression scores and later augmented use. It seems that the depression was caused by the drug use.

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In addition to serious and chronic mental illnesses, marijuana use has been linked to cognitive declines. People who abuse marijuana slow down the speed and function of their minds, and they may be working at an impaired level of cognition most, if not all, of the time. One study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people who used marijuana over a long period of time performed worse on tests of memory and learning than people who did not use marijuana. The poor scores on the test were directly correlated with the length of time the person used marijuana. In other words, the longer the person used the drug, the worse score the person got on the test. It’s clear that marijuana can have a serious impact on the brain’s ability to function properly.

Marijuana has also been linked to a form of apathy, particularly in young people. Smoking marijuana seems to make people feel disconnected, sedated and unable to work up the energy to achieve a goal. It’s possible that the underlying mental illnesses caused by marijuana use, combined with the lower level of brain activity caused by marijuana, could stand behind this lack of motivation. But, it’s also possible that this is a separate mental illness altogether.

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Other Concerns

Marijuana may be easy for people to find, and sometimes it might even be free for people to use, but it’s still not legal. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers marijuana a Schedule I drug, meaning that it’s held in one of the most restricted categories available to that institution. People who are caught using marijuana, selling marijuana or carrying the drug from place to place could face serious law enforcement action, and those charges could persist on the person’s record for decades. This could make it hard for the person to get a job, rent an apartment or even open a bank account.

Addictions are also just extremely isolating. People who spend all day, every day, looking for marijuana don’t have the time to head to work, maintain their relationships or live a fulfilling life. Their addiction drives what they do, and they may feel an extreme sense of loneliness and longing for companionship. Their family members might also feel the same, as they miss the person they once knew.

Rehabilitation programs, such as those in our network, can help. While there are no specific drugs that have been developed to medicate and treat marijuana addiction, counseling sessions and support groups can provide a meaningful route the person can use to gain control and beat the addiction back. Marijuana is clearly too dangerous to abuse over the long term. If you or someone you know is addicted, please call us and find out how we can help.
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