Many US states have introduced legislation legalising the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana. That tends to create the misconception that it’s an entirely harmless substance, which doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.
In some places, even past drug arrests can lead to significant impacts on every part of your life. For example, if an illegal immigrant is arrested for possessing marijuana, depending on the circumstances, it could affect their ability to get citizenship. Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, and the Controlled Substances Act regulates the manufacture, import, possession, use, or distribution of a regulated, controlled substance, which marijuana is.
Even in states where marijuana is legal for recreational use, you can still find yourself on the wrong side of the legal system in some situations. For example, driving under the influence of marijuana is illegal, and you have to be of a certain age to use it, even in states where it’s been legalized.
These problems don’t even speak to the potential mental and physical health consequences of marijuana.
What to know about marijuana
Marijuana goes by a number of other names, including weed, pot, and cannabis. The cannabis plant is made up of more than 100 compounds known as cannabinoids. Cannabinoids in marijuana include THC, which is psychoactive, and CBD, which doesn’t cause someone to feel high.
People use the drug in different ways, including smoking it, vaping it, and mixing it into food and drink, which are known as edibles.
There is a range of individual factors that influence how marijuana might affect someone. The amount they use, their frequency of use, and whether or not they use it with other substances are a factor. How someone uses it, their individual biology, and their sex also play a role.
An overview of legalisation
There are currently 19 states in the country, along with the District of Columbia, that have legalized small amounts of marijuana for recreational use in adults. One of the most recent states to pass legalization legislation was Rhode Island, which passed the Rhode Island Cannabis Act. Connecticut also recently legalized marijuana for recreational use.
The first states to approve legalization measures were Colorado and Washington in 2012. Alaska, Oregon, and DC followed in 2014. In 2016, four more states approved recreational marijuana, including California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada.
States like Michigan have been pushing the federal government to offer clarity on marijuana legality under the Federal Controlled Substances Act.
What is decriminalisation?
There’s another term you’ll often hear in the discussion about marijuana and its legalisation, which is decriminalisation.
Decriminalisation means that certain small amounts of marijuana are a civil or local infraction, meaning they’re the lowest misdemeanour and carry no possibility of jail time.
In 2020, Delaware, New Jersey, and Virginia decriminalized simple marijuana possession, and there are civil penalties for underage possession or consuming it in public places.
A lot of states have taken action to reduce the penalties for convictions related to marijuana. Legislation in many states over the past years has amended some of the penalties for crimes related to marijuana.
Forty-one states, two territories, and DC have record-clearing laws that can potentially apply to cannabis. Of these, seven states have laws that specifically address clearing records for offenses related to cannabis.
Short-term marijuana effects
The reality is that even if marijuana becomes legal at a national level, that doesn’t mean it’s automatically safe. Alcohol can be a good comparison to marijuana. Alcohol is legal to use if you’re at least 21 in the US, but it’s very regulated. Drinking can also be harmful to your health, particularly when you drink in excess.
Regular alcohol consumption is linked to a greater risk of many types of cancers and other chronic health conditions. Alcohol use can also negatively affect your mental health.
The same is true with marijuana. No matter its legal status, it’s not something that you should view as being inherently safe.
When you use marijuana, THC passes from your lungs and into your blood. Your blood carries the THC to your brain and the other organs in your body. If you use edibles, your body absorbs the THC more slowly.
You have certain brain receptors that THC affects. Marijuana activates parts of the brain with the highest number of receptors, causing the high that people might feel.
Short-term marijuana effects might include:
- Changes in senses, like seeing brighter colours
- Alterations in the sense of time
- Mood changes
- Impaired body movement
- Problems with thinking
- Memory impairment
- Hallucinations, delusions, and psychosis, when used in large doses
Long-term effects of marijuana
Marijuana can affect brain development. When someone starts using it from an early age, it may impact memory, learning, and thinking and affect how connections between the areas of the brain form. Researchers are currently studying more about the long-term and potentially permanent effects of marijuana.
A study conducted by a team from New Zealand in conjunction with Duke University researchers found people who started smoking heavily when they were teens and had an ongoing marijuana use disorder lost around 8 IQ points on average between the ages of 13 and 38. In that research, lost mental abilities didn’t fully return even when the participants quit using marijuana as adults.
The amount of THC that marijuana contains has been increasing steadily over the past few years, and that means there’s a greater risk of adverse effects than there was in the past. Higher THC levels may explain at least partially why ER visits involving marijuana have gone up so much in recent years.
Edibles are likely another reason for the increase in emergencies related to marijuana. When you use edibles, it takes longer to digest, so you don’t feel a high as quickly. That can lead people to consume more, thinking it ‘didn’t work’, and that can cause dangerous outcomes.
People with marijuana are more likely to experience a variety of negative lifestyle impacts than people who don’t use the drug.
Compared to people who don’t use marijuana, frequent users report having lower satisfaction with their life, poorer mental health, and worse physical health. They also report more relationship problems and less success in their careers and academically.
Marijuana use is associated with a greater likelihood of dropping out of school, more time missed from work, and a higher rate of injuries and accidents.
Is marijuana really a gateway drug?
It’s often debated whether or not marijuana is truly a gateway drug. A gateway drug is one that tends to lead to more drug use of more dangerous and potent substances.
Animal studies show that early exposure to THC and other addictive substances can change how the brain responds to other drugs. For example, in animal studies, when rodents are exposed to THC when they’re young, they have an enhanced response to other addictive substances later on in the brain areas controlling reward. They’re more likely as a result to show addiction-like behaviors.
That doesn’t mean marijuana is definitely a gateway drug, but it is something everyone should consider.
Can you overdose?
An overdose of any substance is when you take such a high dose that it creates dangerous, life-threatening side effects or death.
Marijuana on its own doesn’t typically cause overdose-like symptoms, but when you use large amounts, it can create dangerous and uncomfortable symptoms like paranoia and anxiety. In the most extreme cases, some people have a psychotic reaction with hallucinations and delusions, and they need treatment in an emergency room.
Emergency room responders say they’ve seen an uptick in visits to the hospital because of marijuana edibles.
Is it addictive?
If you regularly use marijuana, it can lead to a substance use disorder. A substance use disorder is a name for a medically diagnosed addiction. When you have a substance use disorder, you can’t stop using whatever it is, even though you know it’s causing problems for your health and your life.
Researchers believe anywhere from 9%–30% of people who use marijuana could develop some level of marijuana use disorder.
If you start using marijuana before you’re 18, you’re four to seven times more likely to have a marijuana use disorder as an adult.
There’s also some evidence to show that marijuana dependence can occur, leading to withdrawal symptoms when someone stops using it.
Symptoms of marijuana withdrawal can include sleep problems, mood disturbances, reduced appetite, anxiety, and cravings.
While the push for federal legalization of marijuana seems to be full steam ahead, many health care professionals are urging legislators to slow down and really take the time to understand the implications.
In states that have long had legal marijuana usage, there are increasing rates of overdose and death.
Some experts also worry that when states legalize marijuana despite the federal lack of legality, there’s not the same level of regulation and oversight as well as testing otherwise in place from the FDA for food, medicine, and agricultural products.
Alicia Saville did her degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.
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