Marijuana (also known as cannabis, and by a huge number of different “street” names – see below) is a psychoactive drug from (and very frequently in the form of) the cannabis plant, which has been used by humans since prehistorical times for recreational, medicinal and spiritual purposes thanks to its relaxing and euphoric effects. It is the most popular illicit substance consumed worldwide, available in pretty much every country on Earth, and has had a significant effect on the development of culture and philosophy. Available in three main forms – the buds and leaves of female cannabis plants (technically “marijuana” only refers to this form), and resin (commonly known as hashish or “hash”) and oil extracted from these plants – marijuana is normally smoked, though it can also be eaten, inhaled as a vapour, drunk as a tea or via a tincture, or taken in suppository or pessary format. The primary psychoactive chemical in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (one of nearly 500 compounds present in the plant) is currently used medically to treat some symptoms of multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and other neurological disorders.
The signs of being “stoned” on marijuana are somewhat notorious, with users tending to display and similar physical symptoms and behavioural traits regardless of age, ethnicity or any other classification. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that some of these symptoms appear similar to those produced by certain medical conditions, or even simple fatigue, so anyone worried about potential marijuana use in a loved one should avoid rushing to conclusions. It’s also worth remembering that some strains of marijuana made available on the market over the last couple of decades are vastly stronger than those to which people had access during the peak of the “hippie” era in the 1960s, and produce consequently more pronounced, or even different, symptoms from the stereotype.
Nevertheless, some signs and symptoms to look out for include:
Advocates for the decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis often tout its “safe” qualities, pointing out that it is effectively impossible to overdose on the drug. However, while this is true, regular marijuana use does have a number of consequences for both physical and mental health.
Smoking marijuana, despite popular opinion, increases the risk of cancer – over 50 known carcinogens have been identified in marijuana smoke – and when smoked with tobacco this risk is greatly increased. Links between marijuana and a range of pulmonary, vascular and neurological disorders have been suggested and research is ongoing. Users also experience enhanced risk of accidents (including on the road) thanks to worsened reaction times and coordination. Indirectly, long-term marijuana abuse tends to lead to a generally sedentary and inactive lifestyle, with well-known associated health risks; the effect upon a user’s appetite can also lead to an increased likelihood of obesity (compounded by the aforementioned sedentary lifestyle). Skin and dental complications may also arise as a result of smoking.
Over the last couple of decades, there has been a growth in the belief amongst many medical professionals that marijuana abuse can cause psychosis, especially in younger users: studies have shown a correlation between marijuana consumption and the risk of psychosis, which increases along with THC volume. While there is as yet no conclusive evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship, or that marijuana use causes rather than exacerbates psychosis, many doctors now caution against using marijuana on that basis. Other implications for mental health include the impact on a user’s wellbeing of prolonged inaction, decreased initiative, inanition, weight gain and a lack of realistic life goals which can all result from regular marijuana abuse. Around 10% of users eventually become dependent; withdrawal symptoms can include anxiety, cravings, insomnia and fluctuating appetite.
The origins of human consumption of marijuana are unknown but date back several millennia at the very least. The cannabis plant is native to South Asia and several geographically disparate Asian societies are known to have smoked it (either recreationally, as part of mystic rites, or both) in the first millennium BC, while hemp – a variety of the cannabis plant – has been used for making rope and fabric since Neolithic times. Its modern prominence as the world’s leading illicit recreational drug dates back to the 19th century when it began to be consumed on a large scale in the west at the same time as efforts began to restrict its availability, as a result of what was seen as its negative impact on working habits, morals and the social fabric: despite intensive propaganda efforts and draconian legislation, by the time of the social upheaval of the 1960s (in which it played a significant role) marijuana was well established as a recreational drug favoured by the masses. Today it is the most commonly consumed illegal drug in the UK (where it is a Class-B controlled substance): at least 6.5% of Britons aged 16-59 (around 2.1 million people) consumed marijuana in 2015/16, and significant pressure is growing for cannabis to be decriminalised thanks to its popular perception as a harmless, “safe” drug. Nevertheless, in recent years a growing body of evidence has shown the link between cannabis and the development of psychosis and other mental health disorders, and the government has consistently refused to change national policy with regards to cannabis. There are a huge number of street names and pseudonyms for marijuana; listing all these would be practically impossible but some of the most prominent include: pot; weed; hash; skunk; puff; smoke; green; trees; resin; solids; Mary Jane; reefer; herb; buds; chronic; ganja; stick.
Although weed is not considered particularly physically addictive – a minority of long-term users will present physical symptoms of withdrawal – it is increasingly being recognised that psychological dependence to marijuana can prove extremely damaging to a person’s life and mental wellbeing. You may well be addicted to weed if you find that: you are needing ever-greater doses of marijuana to get “high”; you’ve tried to cut down or stop using marijuana altogether but have failed (perhaps repeatedly); you spend a good portion of your life under the influence of marijuana (possibly smoking as soon as you wake up); you feel like you can’t relax, or enjoy yourself, unless you’ve consumed marijuana; you’ve let your social responsibilities slide (for example, not turning up at a family wedding because you’ve been too “stoned”); you find yourself being left out of events by family and friends because they don’t want you to be around if you’re “high”; you’ve faced disciplinary action at work, or even lost a job, because of failing a drug test, being “high”, or missing work; you feel like you are using marijuana to escape some pressing personal problems which feel like they matter less when you’re high. While none of these issues in isolation means beyond a doubt that you have a marijuana addiction, if several of them apply to you it’s probable that your marijuana consumption has gone past the merely “recreational” and you may wish to speak with your GP about getting treatment to break your addiction.
Any addiction can cause substantial shame on the part of the addict – especially if his/her life has been changed significantly by their substance abuse – and one of the most important things someone can do for a weed addict is reassure them that they’re not alone, that they are surrounded by love and good wishes, that it’s not too late for them to turn their life around, and that they will have plenty of support if they choose to seek treatment. That last factor is critical: no matter how desperately their family and friends want them to break their addiction, they won’t be able to until they themselves make the decision to want to stop and to get help. Remind them of all the things in life they used to enjoy before their weed consumption took over their life; speak with them about life goals and show them how exciting their life can and will be once they’ve got rid of the burden of addiction. If their case is especially serious, and residential rehabilitation is recommended, you may wish to help them research facilities in their area and to get an understanding of the likely treatment they’ll receive whilst at rehab – as well as reading up on the possible withdrawal symptoms associated with marijuana addiction and on what steps they might take once out of rehab to ensure they don’t fall back into destructive patterns once again. Simply by being there with them and showing an interest in their situation, you can encourage an addict to believe that all is not lost and that there are still people out there who care about them very much.