Marijuana or cannabis is one of the most popular drugs in the world, regarded by many as relatively safe to consume. Today, Marijuana has been legalized in states across the USA, with 61% of Americans supporting further legalization. Similar data shows that at least 52% of the population has used cannabis at one point in time, with about 9.5% of the population (about 2/5ths the rate of current alcohol use) currently using. Cannabis is extremely popular and regarded as safe, but many people are unaware of the hallucinogen's long-term side effects and potential impact on users. For example, many are unaware that an estimated 2.9% of Americans suffer from cannabis use disorder. Marijuana also significantly impacts individuals and their ability to function, which can lead to many of the same problems with health and addiction as alcohol.
Marijuana is widely regarded by medical professionals to be relatively safe in small quantities. It’s being tested in clinical trials for use in treating mental disorders and anxiety. But, like any drug, including prescription pain pills, drugs used without dosing and for the very long term can and most often do have negative side effects. Understanding the long-term effects of marijuana will help you to review those risks and decide what to do about it if you or a loved one is using.
What is Marijuana Really?
Marijuana or cannabis is a plant, which is harvested during the flowering stage and typically dried. Products from the marijuana flowers or “bud” contain chemicals known as cannabidiols, which interact with cannabidiol receptors in the brain. While there are more than 500 known cannabidiols in marijuana, the most common known to produce psychoactive effects is THC. When these chemicals bind with receptors, they stimulate the brain to produce effects including relaxation, a sense of well-being, hallucinations, and other mind-altering effects. Most of these effects are tracked to THC, because most marijuana contains anywhere from 3-30% THC.
Marijuana can be consumed by smoking, vaporizing, or eating the drug.
Long-Term Effects of Using Marijuana
Marijuana has a relatively light addiction profile, so most users do not become addicted unless they use heavily. However, cannabis has numerous side-effects on the brain, which vary depending on the original health of the user, how much they use, and how long they use. In addition, anyone with a co-occurring mental disorder such as anxiety or depression are more susceptible to negative side-effects, simply because they are prone to self-medication and abusing substances to relieve the symptoms of their disorder.
While long-term side effects will vary, the most common will include:
Anxiety and panic
Short-term memory problems
High or low blood pressure
Inability to function at work or when driving
Long-term cannabis abuse is also associated with negative side effects such as diseases of the liver, lungs, heart, and vascular system. These side effects are largely linked to smoking, where many users inhale many of the same chemicals found in tobacco, or even mix marijuana into tobacco.
Many users also experience problems relating to difficulty concentrating, inability to focus, poor memory, and poor coordination. In some cases, users may have reduced motivation because they are focused on acquiring more marijuana and not on life priorities. Importantly, the direct impacts of marijuana on memory and concentration depend on the strain and the percentage of THC present in the drug.
Marijuana Toxicity – In some cases, marijuana can be cut with other drugs. Over long-term use or during heavy use, substances used to cut marijuana can cause toxicity or overdose. Here, users experience sudden changes in heart rate and blood pressure and sudden changes in breathing. The result is often chest pain and arrhythmia which can result in seizures, stroke, or sudden collapse. In the case of suspected marijuana toxicity, it is important to get the user to the hospital as quickly as possible, preferably with a sample of the drug they were using.
Changes in Physical and Mental Ability
Marijuana impacts the brain significantly during use, which will come into play even over short-term use. However, over long-term use, these changes can impact an individual’s ability to perform in work and personal settings. For example, cannabis affects motor skills and concentration, making it unsafe to drive or operate machinery when “high”.
The longer an individual uses marijuana, the more likely they are to attempt to use while at work, when driving, or when performing actions that require full concentration and focus. This may, in turn, negatively impact performance, social skills, and career.
What is Marijuana Use Disorder?
Most people think of marijuana as non-addictive, and while it has a low addiction profile, the drug is still addictive. Use disorder happens when the body builds up tolerance, causing users to have to increase their intake to achieve the same effects. Over time, the body adjusts, contributing to changes in dopamine and serotonin production within the brain. When the user isn’t high, they experience emotional dampening, which translates to feeling numb, emotionless, agitated, or irritated. Some also experience withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, cravings, mood swings, irritability, and even anger.
Roughly 2.9% of the U.S. population meets criterion for marijuana use disorder, also known as cannabis use disorder. This makes up about 20% of all total users, making marijuana use disorder considerably more prominent than most expect. This can result in problematic behavior where users focus excessively on cannabis and smoking over anything else, using the drug even when it interferes with their personal or professional life.
The risk of cannabis use disorder and addiction is lower than that of many other drugs such as heroin. However, the risk is still there, and it often develops over long-term use. The higher the dose and the more regularly the person uses, the more likely they are to develop a substance abuse problem.
Anyone displaying symptoms of a substance use disorder needs help. Marijuana, like many other drugs, is generally regarded as safe in small doses, but when used regularly and over the long-term, can be extremely harmful. Users experience mental side effects including paranoia and anxiety. They experience reduced concentration and memory. And, when addicted, they begin to prioritize marijuana over work, social, and romantic goals. There is help.
Marijuana detox programs work to ensure that users' detox as safely and as comfortably as possible. Users are given psychological support throughout this process to combat the strong paranoia, agitation, and anxiety that frequently begin when withdrawing from cannabis. After detox, an individual experiences therapy tailored around their needs to tackle not just the addiction, but the underlying problems that originally contributed to the substance abuse.
At least 44% of the population uses cannabis at least occasionally, and for many people that use creates no major problems for them. However, just like alcohol, marijuana can be dangerous, addictive, and threatening to a person’s life and happiness. If you or a loved one is struggling, there is help.