Cannabis, or marijuana is the most commonly used drug in the 12-17 year old age group. Research consistently demonstrates that the younger the user, the greater the chances of developing addictive disorders. This is why cannabis is often referred to as a “gateway drug”.
For this reason, For this reason, users will often experiment with other “harder drugs” once they have tried cannabis.
It’s therefore important to address any concerns about marijuana use and addictive behaviours before someone begins to explore other illicit drug use.
Cannabis, colloquially known as weed, hash, dope, grass or pot, can be smoked or vaped, but also used in food and drinks.
It is used mostly for pleasure or recreation and to improve mood and reduce anxiety. It works by increasing stimulation of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, for example, dopamine, that are involved with pleasure, relaxation and euphoria.
How exactly does it work?
The chemical structure of THC is similar to anandamide, a chemical in the brain which functions as a neurotransmitter, sending chemical messages between nerve cells throughout the nervous system. Anandamide is an endogenous cannabinoid, which affects parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, concentration, movement and coordination, and sensory and time perception.
The similarity in THC and anandamide’s structures causes the body to recognise the THC and to alter normal brain communication. THC attaches to cannabinoid receptors and disrupts various mental and physical functions. Through cannabinoid receptors, THC also activates the brain’s reward system, releasing dopamine at higher levels than usual. This surge in dopamine encourages the brain to repeat the rewarding behaviour, which contributes to cannabis’s addictive properties.
Certain forms of cannabis have been refined to be able to be prescribed by medical doctors to provide pain relief and treat medical ailments such as epilepsy. It’s important to note that medicinal cannabis behaves differently to illicit forms of the drug. (THC)
The physical effects of cannabis on your body may vary depending on the way the drug is ingested.
If inhaled, the drug enters the bloodstream immediately and makes its way to your internal organs, including your brain. This can happen in seconds or minutes.
If you eat or drink products that contain cannabis, it first has to be processed by your digestive system and liver, before making it into your bloodstream, which usually takes longer.
Cannabis’s main active ingredient is THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) which stimulates the part of the brain which responds to pleasure. As a result, dopamine is released, which creates a relaxed and euphoric state, known as a “high”.
Physical Effects of Cannabis
Cannabis has the ability to significantly change brain function and affect bodily functions. With continued use, these changes can promote addiction.
Physically, cannabis can:
- affect your ability to form new memories
- increase your appetite
- slow your reaction times and cloud your judgement
- irritate your lungs, burn your mouth or throat, and increase your risk of bronchitis
- affect your circulation by increasing your heart rate and dilating your blood vessels, causing bloodshot eyes
- release the neurotransmitter, dopamine, to trigger euphoric feelings and heighten your sensory perception
- alter your ability to process information and impair your judgement/decision making
- weaken your immune system and make you vulnerable to infection
- if pregnant, affect your unborn child, by reducing their memory, concentration, and problem-solving abilities
- change your sex drive
- impact ability to form memories
- result in addiction
Psychological Effects of Cannabis
As cannabis is a psychoactive substance it can have serious negative impact on a user’s mental health in the medium to long term. Cannabis negatively impacts mental health by increasing the chances of experiencing depressive disorders, or worsening previously existing mental health issues.
Often these effects are more severe than with other ‘harder’ drugs. The psychological health effects of cannabis include:
- feeling unusually happy
- feeling restless
- feeling confused
- experiencing a change in your perception of time, sound, sight, touch, and distance
- experiencing hallucinations
- feeling anxious or panicked
- feeling distant from reality
- having difficulty concentrating
Long Term Effects on Mental and Physical Health
Long term use of cannabis can negatively impact both a user’s mental and physical health. Long term cannabis use is associated with worsening symptoms of:
Physically long term effects of cannabis use can include:
- physical dependence
- upper respiratory tract cancers and chronic bronchitis
- cardiovascular system damage
- mental health conditions including depression
- poor adolescent psychosocial development
Roughly, one in ten individuals who use cannabis are at risk of becoming addicted. Becoming addicted to cannabis means you will continue to use the drug even if it negatively affects your health, work life, home life, finances or relationships.
The chances of becoming addicted to cannabis are higher the younger you are. Addiction rates also increase if you use the drug heavily.
If you become physically dependent on marijuana, you will experience withdrawal symptoms that may include:
- loss of appetite
- upset stomach and digestive system
Detoxing from Cannabis
The first step of cannabis addiction treatment is detoxing – the process of allowing the body to metabolise and excrete the drug. The detox process should be professionally supervised to safely manage the withdrawal symptoms that occur with sustained cannabis use.
Depending on the addiction history of the individual, and especially when other drugs of addiction are being used, a medically supervised hospital drug detox is recommended.
A hospital detox is necessary where polydrug use (concurrent use of multiple substances) is present.
Because there are both physical and psychological components that define cannabis addiction, a psychosocial recovery program should be used in tandem with hospital detox for the best outcome.