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Article Summary

About Cannabis

Street names: marijuana (grass, weed, pot, dope, ganja and others), hashish (hash), hash oil (weed oil, honey oil)

What is it?

Cannabis sativa, also known as the hemp plant, has been cultivated for centuries for industrial and medical use, and for its "psychoactive," or mind-altering, effects. Marijuana, hashish and hashish oil all derive from the cannabis plant.

More than sixty-one chemicals, called cannabinoids, have been identified as specific to the cannabis plant. THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is the main psychoactive cannabinoid, and is most responsible for the "high" associated with marijuana smoke.

Hemp grown for industrial use has very low levels of THC. Hemp fibres are used to make rope, fabric and paper. Hemp seeds are high in protein and yield an oil with nutritional and industrial value.

Many claims about the medical uses of marijuana have not been scientifically proven; however, research has shown that THC and other pure cannabinoids can relieve nausea and vomiting and stimulate appetite. This can help people who have AIDS or who take drugs used to treat cancer. Further research is needed to establish the medical value of marijuana in relieving pain, reducing muscle spasms and controlling some types of epileptic seizure.

Where does cannabis come from?

Cannabis is native to tropical and temperate climates, but is cultivated around the world. Modern illicit growing operations use sophisticated methods to produce high potency marijuana.

What does cannabis look like?

Marijuana is the dried flower buds and leaves of the cannabis plant. It ranges in color from grayish green to greenish brown and may contain seeds and stems. Hashish is the dried, compressed resin of cannabis flower tops. It ranges in color from brown to black, and is sold in chunks. Hash oil is made by boiling cannabis flower tops or resin in an organic solvent, which produces a sticky reddish-brown or green substance. The THC content of each variety of cannabis varies, although hash is generally more potent than marijuana, and hash oil is usually the most potent form.?Marijuana, hash or hash oil are sometimes mixed with tobacco, and are most often rolled into a cigarette called a joint, or smoked in a pipe. Cannabis is sometimes cooked in foods, such as brownies, or made into a drink.

Synthetic THC (dronabinol) is produced under the trade name Marinol?. A related synthetic cannabinoid (nabilone) is sold as Cesamet?. Both are prescribed to people who have cancer or AIDS.

How does cannabis make you feel?

How cannabis affects you depends on:

  • how much you use
  • how often and how long you've used it
  • whether you smoke it or swallow it
  • your mood, your expectations and the environment you're in
  • your age
  • whether you have certain pre-existing medical or psychiatric conditions
  • whether you've taken any alcohol or other drugs (illicit, prescription, over-the-counter or herbal).

When people first try cannabis, they often feel no psychoactive effect. With repeated use, however, these effects are felt.

People can have very different experiences with cannabis. Some may feel relaxed, lively, talkative and giggly, while others feel tense, anxious, fearful and confused. What's more, the kind of high a person has can vary from one drug-taking episode to another. People who are familiar with the drug learn to stop when they've had enough, and have more control of the effects, than do people who are new to the drug.

At low doses, cannabis mildly distorts perception and the senses. People who use the drug say that it makes music sound better, colors appear brighter and moments seem longer. They say that it enhances taste, touch and smell and makes them feel more aware of their body. Some enjoy these effects, but others find them uncomfortable.

Smoking larger amounts may intensify some of the desired effects but is also more likely to produce an unpleasant reaction. Too high a dose may result in feelings of losing control, confusion, agitation, paranoia and panic. Pseudohallucinations (seeing things such as pattern and color that you know are not real) or true hallucinations (where you lose touch with reality) can occur.

The physical effects of cannabis include red eyes, dry mouth and throat, irritated respiratory system (from smoking) and bronchodilation (expansion of breathing passages). Appetite and heart rate increase, while blood pressure, balance and stability decrease. Cannabis may cause drowsiness or restlessness, depending on the amount taken and individual response to the drug.

How long does the feeling last?

When cannabis is smoked, the effect is almost immediate and may last several hours, depending on how much is taken. When swallowed, the effect is felt in about a hour, and lasts longer than when smoked. Although the high lasts only a few hours after smoking, THC is stored in fat cells and expelled from the body over a period of days or weeks, depending on the frequency of use and the amount used. This is why drug tests for cannabis use can give a positive result long after the effect of the drug has worn off.

Is cannabis dangerous?

While no one has ever died of a cannabis overdose, those who use cannabis should be aware of the following possible dangers, and take measures to avoid them:

  • Cannabis impairs depth perception, attention span and concentration, slows reaction time, and decreases muscle strength and hand steadiness - all of which may affect a person's ability to drive safely.
  • Cannabis and alcohol, when taken together, intensify each other's effects and can cause severe impairment.
  • Cannabis intoxication affects thinking and short-term memory. Using cannabis while at school or work may interfere with learning or work performance.
  • Unless you have a medical exemption, it is illegal to grow, possess or sell cannabis.
  • Illicit cannabis products are not subject to any health and safety standards, and may be contaminated with other drugs, pesticides or toxic fungi.
  • Large doses of potent cannabis, especially when swallowed, can cause "toxic psychosis." Symptoms include auditory and visual hallucinations, paranoid delusions, confusion and amnesia. When cannabis use is stopped, these symptoms usually disappear within a week.
  • Cannabis use raises the heart rate and lowers blood pressure. People with angina or other coronary artery disease may increase their risk of heart attack if they use cannabis.
  • Using cannabis during pregnancy may affect the baby. Research suggests there may be a link between cannabis use during pregnancy and subtle cognitive problems in children. Cannabis smoke contains many of the same chemicals found in cigarette smoke, which are dangerous to the fetus.

Is cannabis addictive?

It can be.

People who use cannabis regularly can develop psychological and/or mild physical dependence. People with psychological dependence crave the high. The drug becomes overly important to them, they may feel they need it, and if they can't get it, they feel anxious. Long-term frequent use can lead to physical dependence. People who develop physical dependence may experience a mild withdrawal syndrome if they suddenly stop using cannabis. Symptoms can include irritability, anxiety, upset stomach, loss of appetite, sweating and disturbed sleep. These symptoms generally last for a week or so, although sleep problems may continue longer.

What are the long-term effects of using cannabis?

Healthy adults who occasionally use cannabis in low doses are not likely to have any harmful long-term effects. However, people who use cannabis heavily or regularly, or people with certain medical or psychiatric conditions, risk the following possible long-term effects:

  • Cannabis smoke contains tar and other known cancer-causing agents. People who smoke cannabis often hold unfiltered smoke in their lungs for maximum effect. This adds to the risk of cancer.
  • Smoking cannabis irritates the respiratory system. Chronic marijuana smoking has been linked to bronchitis. One study estimated that three to four joints per day causes the same damage as smoking 20 or more tobacco cigarettes.
  • The constant intoxication associated with heavy cannabis use often reduces motivation for work and study, although this usually returns when drug use is stopped.
  • There is a possible association between heavy regular cannabis use and the onset of schizophrenia. It is not clear, however, whether cannabis use releases latent symptoms of schizophrenia, or whether people use cannabis to help them cope with the symptoms of an emerging psychosis. Evidence suggests that continued cannabis use in people with schizophrenia accentuates psychotic symptoms and worsens the course of the illness.
  • Chronic, heavy use of cannabis may impair people's attention, memory and the ability to process complex information for weeks, months and even years after they have stopped using cannabis.

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