Many states have enacted marijuana reform laws over the past several years. Some states have legalized marijuana for medical use in limited forms while others like Colorado and Washington have legalized recreational cannabis for adults over 21. While there is strong evidence to support marijuana’s medical value, there is also evidence to show that marijuana does have addictive properties, contrary to popular belief.
Developing A Realistic Understanding Of Cannabis
One unfortunate side effect of the growing presence of marijuana dispensaries across the country is the pervasive misconception that marijuana is entirely safe. Another is the growing number of school children, some as young as eighth grade, reporting using marijuana in the past*. In 2017, about 14% of surveyed eighth-grade students reported smoking marijuana at least once. The rates increased to over 30% for tenth-grade students and 45% for twelfth-grade students.
Marijuana may not cause acute withdrawal symptoms like opioids or cocaine, and there may be no visible signs of damage from prolonged marijuana use, but marijuana has an undeniable effect on cognitive processing and memory, especially for younger users.
Potential Dangers Of Cannabis Use
Cannabis may not carry an overdose risk like other drugs, and the short-term effects are generally mild compared to the effects of stronger substances. Typically, marijuana use can create feelings of relaxation and euphoria, increase appetite, and help a person sleep more soundly.
Some of the medical applications of cannabis include treating the symptoms of anxiety disorders, depression, and chronic pain. Marijuana can help dull pain sensations and alleviate headaches and joint pain. It can also help with cancer treatment; quelling the nausea often caused by chemotherapy and helping patients maintain their appetite.
While there are distinct benefits of medical cannabis and many believe that recreational marijuana should not carry the same stigma as other, “harder” illicit drugs, there are definite risks associated with prolonged cannabis use. Excessive consumption can lead to memory problems and can exacerbate the symptoms of some mental health disorders like depression and bipolar disorder. In a recent study supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)***, researchers found that adolescent marijuana consumption correlated heavily with poor academic achievement and an increased risk of depression later in life.
Another NIDA-backed study**** looked at the effects of cannabis use disorder on the brain. The study concluded that the brain has to work around the presence of cannabis in the bloodstream and eventually adapts to prolonged cannabis use. A “cannabis use disorder” describes a person using higher doses of cannabis due to tolerance. Some of the long-term effects of cannabis can include reduced inhibitory control, reduced cognitive flexibility, and impaired memory.
Over time, a person will become resistant to the effects of cannabis due to overstimulation of the brain’s natural endocannabinoid receptors. The person will require larger and larger doses of cannabis to achieve the desired effect, and this eventually leads to cannabis use disorder.
Luckily, it is possible for cannabis users to “reset” their natural endocannabinoid systems by abstaining from marijuana use. While marijuana does not cause physical withdrawal symptoms, a person with cannabis use disorder will likely experience cravings for marijuana and other adverse side effects in the first few days of abstinence, but these side effects fade relatively quickly.
Overcoming The Effects Of Cannabis
A study from the Center for Addiction Medicine at Harvard Medical School** reported that marijuana use at a young age can interfere with learning ability. Researchers studied the effects of cannabis abstinence and found that although cannabis use can be detrimental to memory and learning ability, these effects appear to be reversible with abstinence. After one week of cannabis abstinence, visual learning ability showed marked improvement. After four weeks, the ability to process and retain new information improved.
Changing Perceptions Of Marijuana
While most medical marijuana dispensary employees will extoll the value of marijuana and downplay the potential risks, it is vital for all marijuana users to understand the risks of cannabis use disorder and the potential for long-term damage. The growing number of dispensaries across the country inherently shifts people’s perspectives on marijuana. Someone who previously considered it a dangerous drug may start to change his or her mind after seeing several legitimate cannabis businesses appear in the local area.
Changing Attitudes In California
While it is important to quash misconceptions about marijuana and encourage responsible use, it is equally important to acknowledge the potential risks of cannabis. California was one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana, and state policymakers continue to track the costs and benefits of the marijuana industry in California in relation to public health.
The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) recently released a marijuana report***** tracking marijuana perceptions in California communities. The study tracked perceived harm, whether people believe marijuana dispensaries are offering stronger strains of cannabis, driving ability after consuming marijuana, and perceived risks associated with use.
Some results of this study included data that indicates school-age children are now more likely to self-report cannabis use as their first drug use experience. They also report viewing cannabis as minimally dangerous with a very low perceived impact on driving ability.
Finding Help For Cannabis Use Disorder
Cannabis may be legal in many areas of the country, but it is only legal for adults over the age of 21. Children and teens who consume cannabis face a high risk of developing long-term medical issues. While some of these effects are reversible, they may still interfere with academic achievement and career opportunities later in life for some young people.
The Fight Addiction Now community includes people all over the country who have experience with substance abuse in some way. Some members are former drug users in various stages of recovery. Others include researchers, caregivers, medical professionals, and friends and family of people who have experienced addiction firsthand.
Cannabis may not be as dangerous as other drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, alcohol, or heroin, but cannabis use disorder still has the potential to cause significant problems, especially in young people. Visit the Fight Addiction Now community and take part in the conversation.