The herbal substance can be rolled up and smoked like a cigarette, smoked in a pipe, eaten as an edible or inhaled using a vaporizer or vaping pen. Some people also smoke weed to treat health conditions. Weed is most often used and misused by teens and young adults.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved marijuana for treating specific medical problems, three individual components of marijuana – called cannabinoids – have been approved as drugs.
But while a 2017 report issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine noted several therapeutic effects of marijuana, it also summarized its many harmful effects and recommended more research be done to understand all the possible health effects associated with weed and its derivative products.
The recreational use of weed has been shown to lead to negative health consequences, including dependence and addiction, which can interfere with someone’s education, career and relationships.
Table of Contents
What Is Weed?
Marijuana goes by many names, including weed, cannabis, grass, hash and pot. It is an herb that can be green, brown or gray.
Weed contains many different compounds known as cannabinoids. These cannabinoids affect someone’s central nervous system (CNS) which consists of the brain and spinal cord. One of the most well-known cannabinoids in weed is the mind-altering chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
As the main psychoactive chemical in weed, THC causes most of the intoxicating effects produced by the drug. The marijuana plant contains more than 500 chemical compounds overall.
Is It Legal?
Weed is classified as a Schedule I drug by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. This means that it is an illegal substance with a high potential for abuse, per federal law, and offers no accepted medical use.
This designation remains despite the legalization of marijuana for recreational or medical use in certain states within the United States.
Effects on the Brain
Weed has direct short- and long-term effects on the brain. Weed specifically targets the parts of the brain responsible for memory, learning, attention, decision-making, coordination, emotions and reaction time.
When weed is inhaled, the THC compound enters the body through the lungs and then passes into the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, it is carried to organs throughout the body, including the brain.
The THC compound acts on brain cell receptors that ordinarily react to other naturally occurring THC-like chemicals, resulting in activation and overstimulation that leads to the high people feel after smoking weed.
It can also cause short-term effects including:
- Altered senses
- Changes in mood
- Altered sense of time and space
- Impaired body movements
- Impaired memory
- Lack of problem-solving skills, difficulty thinking, impaired decision-making
- Hallucinations, delusions and psychosis (when used in higher doses)
Long-Term Effects on the Brain
Changes to the brain and its development associated with marijuana use are most significant during adolescence.
A study conducted in part by researchers at Duke University in New Zealand showed that when people started smoking marijuana heavily in their teens and developed a marijuana use disorder or addiction, they lost an average of eight IQ points between the ages of 13 and 38.
The mental functioning did not fully return even when the teens quit smoking weed as adults. This suggests that marijuana’s effects on attention, memory and learning may be permanent.
Effects on the Body
Marijuana can have several health benefits like relieving pain and inflammation, decreasing pressure within the eyes, relieving symptoms of glaucoma along with reducing nausea and vomiting.
But it can have negative effects on someone’s body, especially when used long-term. Health problems associated with marijuana use can include heart problems, coughing and breathing problems and a weakened immune system.
Cannabinoids in weed can raise resting heart rate, dilate the blood vessels and make the heart pump blood harder. Research shows that people with existing cardiovascular problems like heart disease who are also under stress, develop chest pain more quickly after smoking marijuana.
There is also evidence that suggests that someone’s risk of heart attack increases within the first hour after smoking weed.
Marijuana smoke can also irritate the lungs. Respiratory problems associated with smoking weed are comparable to someone’s risk from smoking cigarettes.
Smoking weed can cause bronchitis, a persistent phlegmy cough and an increased risk of lung cancer.
Dangers of Weed Resins
THC-rich extracts (also referred to as resins) from the marijuana plant can also be smoked. These highly concentrated resins come in the form of honey-like hash oil, waxy budder and a hard, amber-colored shatter.
The practice of smoking these extracts — called “dabbing” — has proven to be dangerous. Dabbing delivers large amounts of THC to the body, increasing someone’s risk of negative or harmful side effects. It also involves butane (lighter fluid), which can result in burns from fires and explosions.
Deciding to Quit Smoking Weed
Understanding addiction and acknowledging an addiction to weed are the first steps to recovery.
Someone who smokes weed daily can become used to its effects both physically and psychologically. Deciding to stop using weed should, therefore, be approached with the proper guidance, monitoring and support.
Once someone who uses marijuana has consulted with their doctor about the best way to proceed with quitting the drug, they should be prepared physically and mentally for the challenge that lies ahead. People who use marijuana are more likely to successfully quit smoking weed when they know what to expect and have a plan.
Set a Date
It is important to set a date to quit using weed. This date should not be contingent on when a “stash” runs out nor should it be generic, like “tomorrow” or, “next week.” It needs to be a specific date.
Get Rid of the Reminders
Once the date comes to quit smoking weed, it is also time to toss out any paraphernalia used to smoke it. Cravings are more likely when there is a constant reminder of what someone is giving up. These are called triggers and should be avoided.
Be Prepared for Withdrawal
Knowing that it’s going to get tough before it gets better is an important part of staying focused on the end goal. Do research ahead of time and know what to expect. Be prepared for anxiety, jitters and irritability during the detox phase.
Withdrawal from weed occurs during the detoxification process. Detox is the body’s natural cleansing process.
As the body works to eliminate the substance it has become dependent upon, patients may experience uncomfortable symptoms. With weed, this occurrence is called marijuana withdrawal syndrome. This condition only recently became a recognized diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association.
Marijuana withdrawal syndrome often does not result in serious physical symptoms as is the case when withdrawing from other drugs and substances. Instead, marijuana withdrawal is mostly characterized by several different psychological symptoms.
One study out of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Addiction Medicine showed that teens especially were affected by symptoms of marijuana withdrawal. Of the approximately 40 percent of teens who experienced marijuana withdrawal symptoms, they were also more likely to meet the criteria for mood disorders.
The length of time someone experiences these symptoms and how severe the symptoms might become are dependent on many different factors including how long and how often they used weed. Symptoms of marijuana withdrawal typically begin less than 24 hours after someone stops using weed and can persist for about seven to 10 days, peaking in intensity around days two to four.
There are currently no medications available to treat marijuana withdrawal syndrome. If symptoms are severe, hospitalization or inpatient rehabilitation may be necessary. Outpatient programs and teletherapy are also available.
Symptoms of weed withdrawal might include irritability or aggression, anxiety, marijuana cravings, trouble sleeping, lack of appetite and major depression.
Physical symptoms might include upset stomach or pain, excessive sweating, shakiness or tremors, headache, or fever and chills.
Risk of Relapse
Some withdrawal symptoms can last for more than 30 days and up to three months after quitting weed.
Persistent withdrawal symptoms lead many users to experience setbacks. It is estimated that between 40 to 60 percent of people trying to stop smoking weed relapse.
The longer weed is used, the more likely a person is to suffer from marijuana withdrawal symptoms and thereby the more likely they are to have a setback. This is why a plan and an appropriate support system are paramount.
Addiction to Smoking Weed
It is possible to get addicted to weed. About 30 percent of people who have used marijuana have some degree of a marijuana use disorder, and 1 in 10 of those people will become addicted, according to NIDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Addiction to weed is especially likely when it is used often over an extended period.
Addiction is more likely to happen if someone starts smoking marijuana as a teenager. NIDA concluded that people who start using marijuana before the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely than adults to develop a marijuana use disorder. And the CDC estimated that approximately one in six people who smoke marijuana that begin using the drug before the age of 18 would become addicted.
Addiction is a chronic disease that causes a person to seek out and use drugs compulsively. People who have difficulty controlling these urges regardless of outcomes or harmful consequences. While 2015 data from NIDA showed that in 2015 about 4 million people in the United States fit the diagnostic criteria of a marijuana use disorder, only 138,000 voluntarily sought treatment for it.
Signs that someone might be addicted to weed include:
- Unsuccessful attempts to quit using the drug
- Giving up activities or hobbies that one used to enjoy in exchange for using weed
- Continuing to use weed when it is known that it is causing problems with home, school and work
An overdose occurs when someone takes too much of a drug and is likely to cause dangerous symptoms that can become life-threatening.
There are no reports of deaths due to marijuana use alone. But using too much weed can lead to uncomfortable side effects, including psychosis. The risk for negative side effects and overdose is more significant when people use marijuana products with high THC levels, according to NIDA.
Symptoms reported by people who smoke large amounts of weed include anxiety, paranoia and psychotic reactions like delusions and hallucinations.
Sometimes weed is used simultaneously with other substances like alcohol or other drugs. Mixing weed with other illegal or prescribed substances can increase someone’s risk of overdose or adverse side effects.
Some research shows that using weed is likely to lead to the use of other illegal drugs as well. There’s also the risk of the possible development of addictions to these substances in addition to marijuana.
Since weed use is likely to come before the use of more potent, addictive drugs, it is sometimes considered a “gateway drug.” Gateway drugs are thought to come before the use of “harder” substances, like meth, heroin or cocaine.
Studies show that early exposure to addictive substances like THC or weed can change the way the brain responds to other drugs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Research involving rodents shows that repeated early exposure to THC leads to an enhanced response to addictive substances in the reward centers of the brain. This area of the brain is paramount in the development and treatment of addiction.
But not everyone who uses marijuana goes on to use harder substances. In fact, NIDA concluded that the majority of individuals do not.
Also, some argue that marijuana is an effective “exit” drug for people who are dependent on harder substances, including opioids. Research cited in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence suggests that marijuana use reduces the severity of opioid withdrawal and improves treatment outcomes. It’s important to note that dronabinol was the weed compound used in the study. Always consult with your doctor before trying with detox from substances.
If you or someone you know struggles with quitting marijuana or has a marijuana use disorder, help is available. At The Recovery Village, a team of professionals can design an individualized treatment plan to address substance use and co-occurring disorders. Call and speak with a representative to learn more about which program could work for you.
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Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.