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Marijuana: Effects of Weed on Brain and Body

Marijuana is a combination of shredded leaves, stems and flower buds of the Cannabis sativa plant. Marijuana can be smoked, eaten, vaporized, brewed and even taken topically, but most people smoke it.

The intoxicating chemical in marijuana is tetrahydracannabinol, or THC. According to research from the Potency Monitoring Project, the average THC content of marijuana has soared from less than 1 percent in 1972, to 3 to 4 percent in the 1990s, to nearly 13 percent in 2010. Today, some retail marijuana has 30 percent THC or more. The increased potency makes it difficult to determine the short- and long-term effects of marijuana

In a 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 17.4 million people in the United States said they had used marijuana in the past month. Since then, many states have made it legal to use marijuana recreationally or medically. As of early 2017, 26 states and the District of Columbia have made the use of pot legal in one form or another.

A 2016 Gallup poll found that one in eight people smoke marijuana and 43 percent of U.S. adults admit to trying it.

Marijuana is usually smoked, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The Cannabis (called “pot,” “weed,” “grass,” etc.) is typically spread on rolling papers and formed into a cigarette, often referred to as a joint, or a cigar-like blunt. Smoking releases the THC, which is absorbed into the blood stream through the lungs. Glass pipes, bubblers and bongs are other ways to smoke marijuana.

Marijuana can also be ingested in food, often a choice of those who are using medical marijuana. Aside from the popular “pot brownie,” edible marijuana can be added to a number of foods, including candy, ice cream and butter. Some states that have legalized marijuana have issued rules for packaging and labeling “marijuana edibles.”

Cannabis can be taken in liquid form, by brewing it as a tea. It can also be added to other beverages, including soda, milk and alcohol. Hashish is a resin made of the concentrated plant material. Other forms include capsules, oral sprays and topical oils.

A relatively new method of inhaling marijuana is vaporization, a “smokeless” delivery system using devices such as e-cigarettes. By heating the Cannabis at lower temperatures, the plant’s oils or extracts are released. Several studies suggest that “vaping” is better for health than smoking pot. Vaporized marijuana contains little other than cannabinoids, according to a 2004 study in the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics. Users inhaled fewer toxic compounds and carbon monoxide when vaping compared with smoking marijuana, according to a 2007 study in the journal Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, there hasn’t been enough research to conclude how much healthier vaping is than smoking unfiltered marijuana.

How marijuana affects the mind

Marijuana reaches the same pleasure centers in the brain that are targeted by heroin, cocaine and alcohol.

Depending on the quantity, quality and method of consumption, marijuana can produce a feeling of euphoria — or high — by stimulating brain cells to release the chemical dopamine. When smoked or otherwise inhaled, the feeling of euphoria is almost immediate. When ingested in food, it takes much longer, even hours, for the drug to signal the brain to release the dopamine, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Other changes in mood can occur, with relaxation frequently being reported. Some users experience heightened sensory perception, with colors appearing more vivid and noises being louder. For some, marijuana can cause an altered perception of time and increased appetite, known as the “munchies.”

The impact can vary by person, how often they have used the drug, the strength of the drug and how often it has been since they have gotten high, among other factors.

“In some cases, reported side effects of THC include elation, anxiety, tachycardia, short-term memory recall issues, sedation, relaxation, pain-relief and many more,” said A.J. Fabrizio, a marijuana chemistry expert at Terra Tech Corp, a California agricultural company focused on local farming and medical cannabis.

Other effects, according to the NIH, include:

  • Feelings of panic and fear (paranoia)
  • Hallucinations
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Decreased ability to perform tasks that require coordination
  • Decreased interest in completing tasks

When coming down from the high, users may feel depressed or extremely tired. While marijuana use produces a mellow experience (users are sometimes referred to as “stoners”) for some, it can heighten agitation, anxiety, insomnia and irritability, according to the NIH.

Marijuana and teens

When marijuana use begins in the teen years, it can have a significant impact on brain development, including decreased brain activity, fewer neural fibers in certain areas and a smaller than average hippocampus, which controls learning and memory functions.

According to a 2014 Northwestern Medicine study of teen marijuana users, memory-related structures in the brain appeared to shrink, a possible signs of a decrease in neurons. These abnormalities remained two years after the teen stopped using marijuana, indicating that the drug has long-term effects and look similar to brains of schizophrenics. Those who started using marijuana after 21 generally do not experience the same type of brain abnormalities as those who started using the drug earlier.

Long-term users report that they sometimes have trouble thinking clearly, organizing their thoughts, multitasking and remembering things. Sustained marijuana use can also slow reaction times in some individuals.

Another study by the University of Montreal published in the journal Development and Psychopathology in 2016 found similar results after researching almost 300 students. Those that started smoking around age 14 did worse on some cognitive tests than non-smokers. The study found that pot smokers also have a higher school dropout rate. Those that waited to start around age 17 did not seem to have the same impairments.

How marijuana affects the body

Marijuana smoke can cause many of the same respiratory problems experienced by tobacco smokers, such as increased daily cough and phlegm production, more frequent acute chest illnesses such as bronchitis, and a greater instance of lung infections, according to NIDA.

While it had been thought that there was a connection between marijuana smoking and increased risk of lung cancer, even those who are heavy marijuana users do not appear to be at greater risk for lung cancer, according to a 2013 study by Dr. Donald Tashkin, UCLA professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine.

A 2017 study by the Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia found that those who used marijuana were 26 percent more likely to have a stroke than those who did not use marijuana. Those studied were also 10 percent more likely to have developed heart failure.

Marijuana can also raise heart rate by 20 percent to 100 percent shortly after smoking and the effect can last up to three hours, according to NIDA. Marijuana also can reduce sperm production in men and disrupts a woman’s menstrual cycle, according to NIDA.

While it is widely thought that marijuana is not addictive, about 30 percent users may have some degree of marijuana use disorder, according to NIDA. Long-term marijuana users who try to quit experience cravings, irritability, sleeplessness, decreased appetite and anxiety — some of the same physical symptoms of those trying to quit other types of drugs or alcohol.

A 2016 study found a link between certain genetic markers and symptoms of marijuana addiction, suggesting that some people may have a genetic predisposition to marijuana addiction. That same study showed some overlap between the genetic risk factors for marijuana dependence and the genetic risk factors for depression, suggesting a possible reason why these two conditions often occur together, the researchers said.

You might not think marijuana and quizzes go together, but on the assumption that you arrived at this quiz sober, we pose some serious questions that will require your utmost attention and critical thinking skills. Good luck.

Pot Quiz: Test Your Marijuana Knowledge, Dude!

Additional reporting by Alina Bradford, Live Science contributor.

This article is for informational purposes only, and is not meant to offer medical advice.

Marijuana produces a range of psychological and physical effects that can be unpredictable at times.

I Need to Know: ‘My friend is using ice and smoking pot. What do I do?’

Author

Professor at the National Drug Research Institute (Melbourne), Curtin University

Disclosure statement

Nicole Lee works as a paid consultant in the alcohol and other drug sector, and as a psychologist in private practice. She has previously been awarded grants by state and federal governments, NHMRC and other public funding bodies for alcohol and other drug research.

Partners

Curtin University provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.

The Conversation UK receives funding from these organisations

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I Need to Know is an ongoing series for teens in search of reliable, confidential advice about life’s tricky questions.

My friend is using ice and smoking dope. He says it makes him feel good like his medication doesn’t. His parents know but don’t know what to do. I am worried, as he has stopped being chatty and is not going out or doing anything. He is changing, but worse.

Working out what to do when you are worried about a friend who is using drugs can be tricky. Just asking the question shows what a supportive friend you are and that’s a very good start.

There’s not one right way to approach it. There are many ways to help and support your friend.

Remember, they might not see their drug use as a problem (from what you have said it sounds like they view it as a solution rather than a problem).

You can’t force your friend to do anything they don’t want to do. In the end, it needs to be their decision to change, but there’s lots you can do to support and encourage them.

How do you know if it’s a problem?

One thing to remember is that most people who use drugs only use occasionally for a short time in their lives and won’t develop a serious issue.

People take drugs for lots of different reasons, including because it is fun or it makes them feel good, to “escape” from problems, and to make physical (like pain) or emotional (like anxiety) problems go away (sometimes referred to as “self-medicating”).

If your friend is using drugs regularly it’s more likely they’ll be having negative effects. Signs that drug use is becoming a problem include:

  • using weekly or more
  • giving up activities they used to enjoy to use or recover from drugs
  • missing school or work or becoming unreliable
  • needing to use more and more to get the same effect.

Raising the issue

One of the best pieces of advice anyone has given me came from a person who was supporting a family member who was using drugs. She said, “think about what you would do if drugs weren’t involved”. How would you approach your friend if they were doing anything else that worried you?

Also think about what you would like your friends to do or say if you were doing something they were worried about.

Find a time to talk when you’re both clear headed, you’re somewhere private and you have plenty of time. You don’t need to make it formal, just make sure the setting is good for a sensitive chat when you raise the issue.

Just raising the issue and listening is helpful. from www.shutterstock.com

Think about what you want to say beforehand so you are prepared.

It doesn’t usually help to plead, persuade, preach, bribe, guilt-trip or threaten (for example, “if you keep using, I will…”). Try not to speak in a judgemental or critical tone of voice, it usually just creates resistance.

Give them time to talk and don’t cut them off. A rule of thumb I use is they should be talking half the time or more. Ask questions that show your concern rather than telling them what to do. You might say something like:

You don’t seem to want to go out much anymore. We really miss hanging out with you. Is everything ok?

I know drugs make you feel better when your medication doesn’t but I’m really worried about you and want to make sure you are OK.

If your friend doesn’t want to talk about it, it doesn’t help to take it personally or to argue the point with them. It can be a hard thing for people to talk about and they may need some time.

Let them know that you’re there to listen and support if they need it. If they know you’re open, they’re more likely to talk later. Just raising the issue and listening without judgement is helpful.

Other things you can do

How and how much you help is up to you. You might try to help your friend in practical ways, you might decide to just provide support and listen, or you might decide to step back and have less contact with them.

It’s OK if helping them becomes too much for you. You also need to look after yourself. It can be very hard seeing someone you love with problems. At times you might feel frustrated and helpless, like it’s impossible to get through to them. You might need to be patient because it can be hard to give up drugs once they have become a habit.

If you choose to provide a lot of help and support, you might want to talk to someone, such as a psychologist or counsellor, yourself.

Encourage your friend to participate in drug and alcohol-free activities. from www.shutterstock.com

Encourage them to engage in activities with you and your other friends that don’t involve alcohol or other drugs. Staying connected with friends who don’t use drugs can help prevent the problem from getting worse.

Try to keep them as safe as possible. Don’t leave them alone in a potentially dangerous situation (like walking home late at night or at a party) because you’re frustrated or angry at them for using drugs. Call an adult you trust to help if you need to, or an ambulance if they look unwell.

If things are getting worse it’s OK to suggest professional help. If they’re open to getting help, ask them what they want to do. You could say something like, “what do you think would be most helpful to you?”, or “would it help to speak to a trusted adult/school counsellor/doctor?” You could offer to go with them for support.

You could also see if the parents need some professional advice, and give them some of the numbers below. It might be helpful for your friend or their parents to talk to the doctor who prescribed their medication – the dose and effects might need to be reviewed.

Where to get help

There are many options for both you or your friend to talk to someone about your worries. Here are some of the main ones:

CounsellingOnline is a free online chat for concerns about alcohol and other drug. Anyone can use it – people using drugs and people wanting to help friends or family using drugs.

headspace and eheadspace provide face to face and online/telephone support for mental health issues for people aged 12-25.

Kids helpline is a free telephone counselling service on any issue for children and young adults aged between 5 and 25. They can be reached at 1800 55 1800.

YSAS (Youth Support and Advocacy Service) is a youth alcohol and other drugs support organisation in Victoria. They have face to face and telephone services and a good info on their website. Their number is 1800 458 685.

National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline is a free telephone information and counselling service similar to CounselingOnline, but on the phone. They can be reached at 1800 250 015.

Family helplines are telephone counselling services for friends and families of people who use drugs. Alcohol, prescription and other drug family support (APOD) can be reached at (03) 9723 8000, Family Drug Support Australia at 1300 368 186, and Family Drug Help at 1300 660 068.

This article has been updated since publication to correct an incorrect hotline number for the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline.

It can be really tricky to know what to do when someone you care about starts using drugs. Raising the issue and listening without judgement is a good place to start. ]]>