Drug Awareness: Marijuana

Marijuana is probably one of the most politicized drugs in recent history. The two sides that are fighting for, or against it, are very passionate about their perspectives. The pro-marijuana faction tends to praise marijuana’s benefits and downsize or ignore the potential dangers. The anti-marijuana faction keeps pointing out that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance, aside with heroin and LSD.

It’s not easy to place marijuana within a drug group. It produces excitatory effects, but it’s not considered a stimulant. It produces sedative effects, but it does not pose the same dangers as other opioids, such as sipping into a coma or dying. It does produce some mild hallucinations at high doses, but its structure in no way resembles LSD or other hallucinogens. So what is it then?

Firstly, Cannabis and Marijuana are not the same thing, though they’re often used interchangeably. Cannabis is the botanical term for the hemp plant cannabis sativa. It has been commercially valuable for thousands of years, going back to the stone ages in China, as a manufacturing material for rope, pots, twine, shoes, and so on.

Marijuana is the actual drug, which comes from the leaves of the plant and not the hemp. The key factor is contained in a sticky substance, called resin, that accumulates on these leaves. In a hot dry climate, such as North Africa, the fiber content of the plant is weak, but it produces so much resin that the plant looks like its covered with dew. In North America it’s the opposite, less resin is produced but it has a higher content of fiber, making it a perfect use for ropes and such.

There are as many as eighty different compounds, called cannabinoids, identified from cannabis resin. The chief ingredient that produces the intoxicating effects is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Different concentrations of THC create different cannabis products. The best known is marijuana, dried and shredded leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant. Marijuana usually contains 5-8% THC, sometimes even more. The most familiar way to smoke it is as a cigarette.

A more potent form of marijuana can be obtained by cultivating just the unpollinated, or seedless, portion of cannabis. These plants usually grow bushier and with a higher resin content, resulting in THC concentration of 8-15%. This type of marijuana is called sinsemillia, a Spanish word for “without seed.”

There’s another cannabis product, which is usually found in Asia, Europe, or the Middle East. Hashish is a form of cannabis, when the resin itself is scraped from cannabis leaves and then dried. It can either be smoked by itself or with tobacco. The THC concentration is usually 8-14%. The most potent forms of cannabis are hashish oil and hashish oil crystals, made by boiling hashish in alcohol, filtering it out, and leaving a residue with a THC concentration from 15-60%.

There’s other cannabis products, such a kief (marijuana dust), edibles (food made with marijuana), and more. In India they have been using marijuana as a recreational substance since ancient times, specifically bhang. Bhang is a syrupy liquid made from cannabis leaves with THC content equivalent to marijuana cigarettes (aka joints).

Cannabis and Hashish were not popular in the west until the 1800’s. The main reason they received so much attention is due to the exotic stories in the Arabian Nights and the tales of Marco Polo, which contain references to hashish. Another reason is that Napoleon’s soldiers brought back hashish from Egypt. Soon enough a club was established in Paris, called Club de Hachichins (Club of the Hashish-Eaters). Members included famous artists such as Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Baudelaire, and Honoré de Balzac. They would gather “to talk of literature, art, and love” while consuming large quantities of hashish, which consisted of concentrated hemp paste, butter, sweeteners, and flavorings.

Marijuana didn’t become popular in the USA until the 1920’s, during the prohibition. Its recreational use was largely restricted to jazz musicians and people in show business. Marijuana clubs, called tea pads, suddenly became vastly common. More than five hundred were estimated in Harlem, Manhattan. These establishments were tolerated by the authorities because marijuana was not illegal at the time, and smokers were not a nuisance to the community. Marijuana was not considered a social threat at all.

It all started to change in the 1930’s, when it started being publicized as a “killer weed.” The reason behind this change was due to the migration of Mexican immigrants, for whom smoking marijuana was a casual adjunct to life (folk-remedy for headaches, cheap mild euphoriant, relaxant…) These immigrant communities were met with hostility due to the Depression, people started venting their anger on immigrant groups who were perceived as a competition for American jobs. The fact that these groups were also smoking an alien and foreign-sounding substance didn’t help. Soon different regulations were put on Marijuana, such as the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, and Harrison Act of 1914. In 1969 these acts were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court because marijuana possession was illegal.

The effects of marijuana vary with the THC content, the amount of smoke inhaled, and how long the smoke is held in the body. The effects of THC are felt within seconds, peak levels are reached in the blood in ten minutes and start to decline afterward. The effects last from one to four hours. Low levels of THC are retained and absorbed into the fatty issue for several days, the excretion from fatty tissue is notoriously slow. In fact, left over THC in the body intensifies the effect of marijuana on a subsequent occasion. This means that if you smoke often, you would get a quicker high with a smaller quantity of drug.

Due to the slow marijuana elimination from the body, drug testing often works quickly. Broken down remnants of THC are detectable in the urine for days, or weeks after smoking, depending on how chronic the smoking is. But the problem with these tests is that they can’t identify when marijuana has been smoked, or if it was smoked at all. These tests only show that exposure to marijuana has occurred, so just being a room with a marijuana smoker can make the test positive, even if you didn’t smoke it or know someone was smoking it.

Physiological effects of marijuana are not immediate, and are relatively minor. Depending on whether the smoker is standing up, sitting down, or lying down, the blood pressure changes. Elevated heart beat is also common, so are bloodshot eyes, and drying of the mouth with an urge to drink. The rest of the physiological effect vary. In North America, “munchies” are a common occurrence after getting high, but in Jamaica marijuana is perceived as an appetite suppressant. Also, in North America marijuana is associated with elevated sexual desires, but in India it’s the opposite, it’s considered a sexual depressant. These effects depend on the person’s expectations of being high, if one thinks they’ll get munchies, they might. But it also could depend on the amount of THC in the marijuana. In India THC content is usually higher, thus the physiological effects could be harsher.

Psychological effects are associated with a feeling of euphoria and well-being. Marijuana smokers report an increased awareness in their surroundings, a sharpened senses, such as sight and sound. Frequently everything becomes funny after smoking, the most innocent stories and comments could set off uproars of laughter. People feel that their creativity rises, and time starts to pass more slowly. Higher doses of THC could induce sleepiness and dreaming, especially if combined with alcohol. It’s harder for people to pay attention to details after smoking, often forgetting what they, or others, have said. The problem is that marijuana causes such a rush of distracting ideas in the mind that it’s difficult to concentrate on new information. That’s why driving while smoking, or high, is not recommended. The driver doesn’t pay attention to the surroundings as much as he would sober, “. . . Probably because they are attending to internal events rather than what is happening on the road.”

Even though the description of psychological effects sounds amazing, it’s not always the case. “It is possible that marijuana smoking among individuals predisposed toward or recovering from a psychosis may trigger psychotic behavior,” though there’s little evidence that small amounts of THC will provoke such reactions in people without similar issues.

Long Term Effects of Marijuana:

  • Tolerance – Technically the more you smoke, the easier it is for you to get high. This is the opposite of the usual chronic drug-use effect, marijuana smokers develop a reverse tolerance, a greater sensitivity. But it’s not due to the drug, rather to the way the drug is smoked. Novice smokers tend to take smaller inhalations, don’t keep it in the lungs long enough, and simply don’t get as high. The more they practice smoking, the better they get at it, thus learning to smoke right and get high faster. The tolerance seems to always stay the same, as shown by laboratory rats, it’s simply HOW you smoke that makes a difference.
  • Withdrawal and Dependance – Dependance is very rare in marijuana, unless a very large dose is administered regularly for a long time. Then withdrawal symptoms include irritability, hot flashes, restlessness, and insomnia. Thought in recent studies it was shown that a regular administration of average doses could also inhibit dependency, with more mild withdrawal symptoms lasting for a shorter time. Though the dependence and withdrawal are substantially milder compared to other drugs, such as heroin and alcohol. There could be a psychological dependence, resulting in marijuana craving. Though it’s difficult to say if it’s the marijuana being craved, or the circumstances surrounding the usual high, such as being with friends, laughter, etc.
  • Cardiovascular Effects – Unless the smoker already has a preexisting disorder, such as a heart disease, high blood pressure, or arteriosclerosis, there’s no evidence of adverse effects in the cardiovascular functioning.
  • Respiratory Effects and the Risk of Cancer – It’s obvious that administering any kind of smoke to your lungs is bad, and marijuana is one of the worst. If you real my post about nicotine, you know how bad a cigarette is for you, now imagine all of the tar and carbon monoxide multiplied by five. That’s a joint. Long term marijuana smoking causes an obstruction of air flow in the lungs, resulting in asthma and bronchitis. Though marijuana doesn’t pose the threat of developing emphysema, while tobacco does. There is also no evidence that marijuana produces a higher insistence of cancer. No increases of any kind of cancer has been found as a result of marijuana use, though there are still studies going to learn more about the relationship between marijuana and cancer.
  • Effects on the Immune System – Humans don’t show any changes in their immune system after administering marijuana, so there’s no real impact.
  • Effects on Reproduction – Both men and women get affected by marijuana when it comes to reproduction. Marijuana lowers the levels of testosterone in men, reduces the count of sperm, and increases the percentage of abnormally formed sperm. In women, marijuana reduces the level or luteinizing hormone, a hormone necessary for the fertilized egg to be implanted in the uterus. However, there’s little or no effect on fertility in either genders.
  • Long-Term Cognitive Effects – After numerous studies, it was discovered that any behavioral problems related to attention and memory can be reversed by stopping marijuana use.

Besides from the feeling of euphoria, there’s also medical uses of marijuana. Surprisingly enough, marijuana was used as a treatment for asthma in ancient China. The instant effects of marijuana in the lungs dilates bronchioles in the lungs, making it easier to breathe. Though as mentioned above, long term usage might worsen asthma.

Main medical uses of marijuana are to reduce nausea and weight loss. Chemotherapy leaves a horrible side effect of debilitating nausea, lack of appetite, and loss of body weight. AIDS and Crohn’s disease patients suffer from similar symptoms. Standard drugs are often ineffective in these situations, but marijuana,specifically THC, is an amazing help.

The reason that marijuana hasn’t been legalized is due to the fact that smoking it has the same effect as smoking tobacco. Besides from that there is no real threat to marijuana, and if tobacco is legal, then it should be legal too, or both should be illegal. It’s not fair to allow for one substance to harm us so much just because it’s a huge business, and not allow the other one which has considerably smaller effects on the body long-term to be seen as a “killer weed.”

It’s obvious that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, or other drugs, so why make it seem like such a harmful substance, especially that it could make the society happier, and has such important role in the medical world. If alcohol and nicotine are allowed, why isn’t marijuana? Either make it all illegal, or let this substance, which is so much less harmful than the other two, attainable to everyone who wants.

***
Graphs and Citations:

Loren L. Miller, Marijuana: Effects on Human Behavior. New York: Academic Press.

Monique C. Braude and Stephen Szara, Pharmacology of Marijuana, Vol. 2, Orlando, FL, Academic Press

Levinthal, Charles F. Drugs, Society, and Criminal Justice. Pearson, 2016.

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