Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States (SAMHSA, 2014). Its use is widespread among young people. According to a yearly survey of middle and high school students, rates of marijuana use have steadied in the past few years after several years of increase. However, the number of young people who believe marijuana use is risky is decreasing (Johnston, 2014).
Long-term marijuana use has been linked to mental illness in some users, such as:
- temporary hallucinations—sensations and images that seem real though they are not
- temporary paranoia—extreme and unreasonable distrust of others
- worsening symptoms in patients with schizophrenia(a severe mental disorder with symptoms such as hallucinations, paranoia, and disorganized thinking)
Marijuana use has also been linked to other mental health problems, such as:
- suicidal thoughts among teens
Marijuana also affects brain development. When marijuana users begin using as teenagers, the drug may reduce thinking, memory, and learning functions and affect how the brain builds connections between the areas necessary for these functions. Marijuana’s effects on these abilities may last a long time or even be permanent. For example, a study showed that people who started smoking marijuana heavily in their teens and had an ongoing cannabis use disorder lost an average of eight IQ points between ages 13 and 38. The lost mental abilities did not fully return in those who quit marijuana as adults. Those who started smoking marijuana as adults did not show notable IQ declines (Meier, 2012).
Is Marijuana addictive?
Contrary to common belief, marijuana can be addictive. Research suggests that about 1 in 11 users becomes addicted to marijuana (Anthony, 1994; Lopez-Quintero 2011).This number increases among those who start as teens (to about 17 percent, or 1 in 6) and among people who use marijuana daily (to 25-50 percent) (Hall, 2009a; Hall, 2009b).
A Rise in Marijuana’s THC Levels:
The amount of THC in marijuana has been increasing steadily over the past few decades (Mehmedic, 2010). For a new user, this may mean exposure to higher THC levels with a greater chance of a harmful reaction. Higher THC levels may explain the rise in emergency room visits involving marijuana use. The THC levels in today’s cannabis is from 3X to 10X more potent than the in the 1970s.
The popularity of edibles also increases the chance of users having harmful reactions. Edibles take longer to digest and produce a high. Therefore, people may consume more to feel the effects faster, leading to dangerous results.
Dabbing is yet another growing trend. More people are using marijuana extracts that provide stronger doses, and therefore stronger effects, of THC (see “Marijuana Extracts“).
Higher THC levels may mean a greater risk for addiction if users are regularly exposing themselves to high doses.
Synthetic Marijuana ” Spice”
“Spice” refers to a wide variety of herbal mixtures that produce experiences similar to marijuana (cannabis) and that are marketed as “safe,” legal alternatives to that drug. Sold under many names, including K2, fake weed, Yucatan Fire, Skunk, Moon Rocks, and others — and labeled “not for human consumption” — these products contain dried, shredded plant material and chemical additives that are responsible for their psychoactive (mind-altering) effects.
For several years, Spice mixtures have been easy to purchase in head shops and gas stations and via the Internet. Because the chemicals used in Spice have a high potential for abuse and no medical benefit, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has designated the five active chemicals most frequently found in Spice as Schedule I controlled substances, making it illegal to sell, buy, or possess them.
Spice products are popular among young people; of the illicit drugs most used by high-school seniors, they are second only to marijuana. (They are more popular among boys than girls — in 2012, nearly twice as many male 12th graders reported past-year use of synthetic marijuana as females in the same age group.) Easy access and the misperception that Spice products are “natural” and therefore harmless have likely contributed to their popularity. Another selling point is that the chemicals used in Spice are not easily detected in standard drug tests.
Some Spice products are sold as “incense,” but they more closely resemble potpourri. Like marijuana, Spice is abused mainly by smoking. Sometimes Spice is mixed with marijuana or is prepared as an herbal infusion for drinking.
Spice users report experiences similar to those produced by marijuana—elevated mood, relaxation, and altered perception—and in some cases the effects are even stronger than those of marijuana. Some users report psychotic effects like extreme anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations.
So far, there have been no scientific studies of Spice’s effects on the human brain, but we do know that the cannabinoid compounds found in Spice products act on the same cell receptors as THC, the primary psychoactive component of marijuana. Some of the compounds found in Spice, however, bind more strongly to those receptors, which could lead to a much more powerful and unpredictable effect. Because the chemical composition of many products sold as Spice is unknown, it is likely that some varieties also contain substances that could cause dramatically different effects than the user might expect.
Spice abusers who have been taken to Poison Control Centers report symptoms that include rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion, and hallucinations. Spice can also raise blood pressure and cause reduced blood supply to the heart (myocardial ischemia), and in a few cases it has been associated with heart attacks. Regular users may experience withdrawal and addiction symptoms.