Marijuana has often been promoted and advertised by supporters as a safe, beneficial drug substance that can help individuals relax and even escape from some physical pain. It is certainly a very popular drug substance – in fact it is the most commonly used and abused illicit drug substance in the United States. Considering that marijuana is now legal for medical use in twenty-three states and legal for recreational use in four states, and also considering that marijuana is sometimes referred to as a gateway drug, many individuals may be faced with a difficult question: is marijuana a safe drug? The answer actually lies in the question itself – marijuana is a drug, so it cannot ever be considered truly safe.
What are Drugs?
Drugs are chemical substances that create physiological changes in the user’s body. These changes are what produce the desired effects that drug users seek, but unfortunately they fail to see beyond these effects to the truth about drugs: they cannot solve any of the problems for which they are taken, and they create a host of new problems in their wake.
To illustrate how drugs cause more harm than good, consider an individual who is experiencing stress at work. They don’t really know how to cope with this stress or successfully resolve it, so they decide to smoke marijuana occasionally in order to relieve their stress. Marijuana isn’t actually resolving their stress at all, it is simply causing the individual to disconnect from their emotions temporarily, giving them the impression that they are without stress.
Needless to say, the individual continues to feel stressed by work and continues to smoke marijuana in order to deal with it. Over time, he finds that instead of smoking marijuana once a week, he’s smoking marijuana four times a week. Not only that, but the same amount of marijuana he once felt great relief with isn’t quite as relieving as it once was, so he has to smoke more. This is a manifestation of drug tolerance, and one of the key indications that addiction is on the horizon.
The next thing the individual knows, he’s smoking marijuana every night and occasionally in the morning too, in anticipation of work and the stress it will bring, and he finds that he is thinking about marijuana more and more during the day every day. His body has come to depend upon marijuana in order to “get by” every day, and he has no control over whether he uses marijuana, how often, and in what quantities. His life begins to fall to pieces around him – he loses his job, his family, his home and his possessions, and still he cannot stop his marijuana use. He is completely addicted, and he will need help in the form of professional rehabilitation treatment in order to recover.
Marijuana comes from the cannabis sativa plant. The leaves, flowers, stems and seeds of this plant are dried and then smoked – either in hand-rolled cigarettes, pipes, water pipes or blunts – or mixed into food or brewed into tea.
There are over four hundred known chemicals contained in marijuana, not the least of which is the psychoactive chemical delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly known as THC. No matter how marijuana is ingested, THC moves into the bloodstream, brain and other organs, and begins to interact with cannabinoid receptors in the endocannabinoid system. This neural communication network is critical in the processes of brain development and function, and is also responsible for the individual’s memory, thinking, concentration, perceptions and coordinated motion. THC overstimulates the endocannabinoid system, creating a very desirable euphoric high, altered mood and perceptions, impaired coordination, difficulties in normal thinking and problem solving capabilities, disruption of learning abilities and impaired memory. It is also important to note that since the endocannabinoid system is critical in the process of normal brain development, the interruption of this system in an individual’s early years can cause them to experience permanent impairments in their cognitive ability and basic motor functions.
An Increasing Risk
Individuals who use marijuana, especially frequently and in high volumes, often experience a host of side effects as a result. Some of the more common side effects of marijuana use include:
- Daily cough
- Excessive phlegm production
- Frequent upper respiratory illnesses
- Higher risk of lung infections
- Sensory distortions
- Poor physical coordination
- Slower reaction time
- Elevated heart rate
- More frequent suffering of common illnesses
- Suppressed immune function
- Growth disorders
- Reduced sexual capacity
- Reduced ability to study, learn and retain information
- Lack of motivation
- Personality changes
- Mood disturbances
- Difficulty thinking clearly and understanding
Additionally, the National Institute on Drug Abuse recently reported that there appears to be an alarming rise in THC concentrations in marijuana which greatly increases the risks associated with the use of this drug. In the 1980s, marijuana samples that were confiscated by police routinely averaged a THC concentration of around four percent. However, in 2012, marijuana samples that were confiscated by police routinely averaged a THC concentration of around fifteen percent, nearly four times as much as three decades earlier. Individuals who are consuming marijuana with these dangerously higher THC concentrations are at risk of experiencing far more extensive health, dependence and addiction problems as a result.
Marijuana as a Gateway Drug
When an individual becomes tolerant of marijuana, they are no longer experiencing the desired relief from their life problems that pushed them into marijuana use in the first place. Many individuals seek to solve this problem by taking larger quantities of marijuana more frequently, but others simply turn to the use of more potent drug substances, like cocaine and heroin, in order to achieve the desired effects. It is for this reason that marijuana has earned the title of “gateway drug” – a drug substance whose use seems to routinely lead to the use of more potent and dangerous drug substances.
Resolving Marijuana Addiction
Marijuana may not be as difficult to recover from as certain other drug substances, like methamphetamine, heroin or cocaine, but the truth is that successfully resolving marijuana use is neither a fast nor easy process. The individual will first have to withdraw and detox from marijuana use, establishing the better physical health that will be critical to their full recovery and long-term success. Then, the individual will have to take the time to dig deep and uncover their initial reason for turning to marijuana use in the first place. This often means that the individual will have to confront many of the difficult emotions they were seeking to hide through their marijuana use. With the help of a professional counselor, the individual can begin to take responsibility for their past decisions and actions and begin to rebuild the self-confidence and self-respect that will be so critical to their successful future.
As part of their rehabilitation treatment program, the individual should also participate in some sort of drug education courses in order to gain a better understanding of drug substances and their effects on the human body. Knowing the truth about these dangerous chemical substances can further guard against a relapse into drug use in the future. Finally, the individual should learn some valuable life skills that can aid them in coping with the challenges and difficulties that arise in life – without turning to drug use.
The journey to full recovery definitely requires patience and discipline, but it comes with the great reward of restoring to the individual their ability to control and manage their own life – entirely without drug use.