Marijuana is the most commonly abused illicit drug in the United States. A dry, shredded green/brown mix of flowers, stems, seeds, and leaves of the plant Cannabis sativa, it usually is smoked as a cigarette (joint, nail), or in a pipe (bong). It also is smoked in blunts, which are cigars that have been emptied of tobacco and refilled with marijuana, often in combination with another drug. It might also be mixed in food or brewed as a tea. As a more concentrated, resinous form it is called hashish and, as a sticky black liquid, hash oil. Marijuana smoke has a pungent and distinctive, usually sweet-and-sour odor.
The main active chemical in marijuana is THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). The membranes of certain nerve cells in the brain contain protein receptors that bind to THC. Once securely in place, THC kicks off a series of cellular reactions that ultimately lead to the high that users experience when they smoke marijuana.
Common street names for marijuana are grass, pot, weed, bud, Mary Jane, dope, indo, and hydro.
When marijuana is smoked, its effects begin immediately after the drug enters the brain and last from 1 to 3 hours. If marijuana is consumed in food or drink, the short-term effects begin more slowly, usually in 1/2 to 1 hour, and last longer, for as long as 4 hours. Smoking marijuana deposits several times more THC into the blood than does eating or drinking the drug.
Within a few minutes after inhaling marijuana smoke, an individual’s heart begins beating more rapidly, the bronchial passages relax and become enlarged, and blood vessels in the eyes expand, making the eyes look red. The heart rate, normally 70 to 80 beats per minute, may increase by 20 to 50 beats per minute or, in some cases, even double. This effect can be greater if other drugs are taken with marijuana.
As THC enters the brain, it causes a user to feel euphoric— or “high”—by acting in the brain’s reward system, areas of the brain that respond to stimuli such as food and drink as well as most drugs of abuse. THC activates the reward system in the same way that nearly all drugs of abuse do, by stimulating brain cells to release the chemical dopamine.
A marijuana user may experience pleasant sensations, colors and sounds may seem more intense, and time appears to pass very slowly. The user’s mouth feels dry, and he or she may suddenly become very hungry and thirsty. His or her hands may tremble and grow cold. The euphoria passes after awhile, and then the user may feel sleepy or depressed. Occasionally, marijuana use produces anxiety, fear, distrust, or panic.
Someone who smokes marijuana regularly may have many of the same respiratory problems that tobacco smokers do, such as daily cough and phlegm production, more frequent acute chest illnesses, a heightened risk of lung infections, and a greater tendency toward obstructed airways. Cancer of the respiratory tract and lungs may also be promoted by marijuana smoke. Marijuana has the potential to promote cancer of the lungs and other parts of the respiratory tract because marijuana smoke contains 50 percent to 70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than does tobacco smoke.
Marijuana's damage to short-term memory seems to occur because THC alters the way in which information is processed by the hippocampus, a brain area responsible for memory formation. In one study, researchers compared marijuana smoking and nonsmoking 12th-graders' scores on standardized tests of verbal and mathematical skills. Although all of the students had scored equally well in 4th grade, those who were heavy marijuana smokers, i.e., those who used marijuana seven or more times per week, scored significantly lower in 12th grade than nonsmokers. Another study of 129 college students found that among heavy users of marijuana critical skills related to attention, memory, and learning were significantly impaired, even after they had not used the drug for at least 24 hours.
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