What is cannabis?
Cannabis is a leafy green plant (also known as a hemp plant). It is used illegally in the UK as a recreational drug. It also can be legally prescribed in very limited cases as a medicinal drug. Most of the plant can be used for these purposes – the flowering tops, leaves and stems can be dried, and oil from the seeds can also be used.
As a recreational drug, people use cannabis for its mood altering effects. Medically it can be used for chronic pain relief and for its relaxant effects. People can smoke or vape it, cook it into food such as brownies, brew the leaves as a tea, take it in capsules or supplements or apply it as a topical skin treatment.
The potency of cannabis varies depending on how it is grown and the variety of the plant. It contains at least 120 active ingredients or cannabinoids. The most abundant ingredients are cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Some forms of CBD and THC produce euphoric and psychoactive effects. In the last 30 years people have modified cannabis so that the THC content is higher. For example skunk may have a THC content as high as 15%. Traditional cannabis products (pre-1990s) had a THC content of 4%
Generally, there is no difference between marijuana and cannabis and the two terms are often used to describe the same thing. Cannabis describes cannabis products in general. Marijuana specifically refers to cannabis products that are made from the dried flowers, leaves, stems and seeds of the cannabis plant.
The effects of cannabis will vary, depending on how it is used.
Smoking or inhaling: A sense of elation can start within minutes and peak after 10 minutes up to half an hour. The feeling will typically wear off after about 2 hours.
Ingesting: If cannabis is consumed in foods it usually takes about an hour to feel the effects with the feeling ‘peaking’ after 2.5 – 3.5 hours.
Topical: Patches allow the cannabis to enter the blood stream in a slow and consistent flow. This can be helpful if the cannabis is being used to treat pain or swelling / inflammation.
Why do people try cannabis?
People will often try cannabis due to curiosity as to what the effects are, and / or due to peer pressure. Some (maybe the lucky ones!) will not get much of an effect if they are unable to inhale the ‘joint’ or if they do not get much of the substance into their system. Others may feel the euphoria and relaxant effects, and rather like it, leading to them using it again – and again. This may not be a problem if the use continues as occasional and irregular.
How use can progress to addiction
The THC in cannabis stimulates specific cannabinoid receptors that increase the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that relates to feelings of pleasure. It can also affect the senses, making colours seem brighter, music more moving or exciting and emotions more profound.
Some people like the feelings that cannabis gives them to the extent that they use it more and more frequently. They find that they need greater amounts to get the same effect. They begin to think ever more frequently and obsessively about using cannabis during the day. They begin to depend on it – perhaps to get to sleep at night. It begins to interweave itself into the fabric of their lives and their daily routine.
As cannabis affects the functioning of the brain, signs and symptoms of heavy use / addiction include:
- Memory loss, muddled thinking, poor concentration,
- Poor balance and posture, lack of coordination, affected senses and no perception of time
- Impaired judgement and slower reaction time. People using cannabis – like people drinking alcohol – should not drive or operate dangerous machinery while the drug is in their system nor should they take part in any risky physical activity
- Increased appetite (can be referred to as ‘the munchies’ when cannabis users binge eat)
- Slowed responses / sleepiness
As with any addiction, people who come to depend on a drug will become obsessed with obtaining it and using it. If they do not have free and easy access to their drug of choice they will become more restless, irritable, discontented and angry. They will also become increasingly unreliable.
There is some evidence that cannabis use can also contribute to gum disease and increase the risk of testicular cancer. It may also affect the immune system. In extreme cases of heavy use it can cause severe sickness and digestive pain.
If people start to use cannabis heavily at a young age (mid teens for example) it can affect their brain development, stunting the growth and resulting in their brain never growing to its full maturity. Extreme users may develop paranoia and psychotic symptoms.
Those using cannabis may attempt to justify their use by explaining that there are some medical benefits to cannabis and this is true. There is conclusive evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids can help manage:
• chronic pain in adults
• nausea and vomiting resulting from chemotherapy treatment
• some symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS)
There is also moderate evidence that it can help with sleep problems relating to sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and MS.
Other conditions that it may be helpful for include:
• low appetite
• Tourette’s syndrome
• anxiety, in some individuals
However, due to its highly addictive nature it is not recommended for use with sleep problems, low appetite or for anxiety. It is also a fact that the vast majority of cannabis users are not using it for a medical benefit but rather for its initial pleasurable effects – which may have led to an addiction. Cannabis can also be a gateway drug and, for those with an addictive nature, it can easily lead on to use of other drugs such as ketamine, cocaine and heroin
Cannabis is a class B drug meaning that possession can result in a sentence of up to 5 years’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both. Producing it or dealing it can lead to a 14 year sentence and unlimited fine or both. It was reclassified to class C from 2004 – 2009 but this was not considered a successful move.
If you or someone you love has a cannabis addiction
If you want to stop using cannabis and you are addicted, you should ask for professional help. Most addiction treatment centres like Haynes Clinic can treat the problem. There are also self help groups that may be able to help such as Marijuana Anonymous.
This page is specific to cannabis – please also read our page on general features of drug addictions.