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What Kind of Drug Is It?

Marijuana is the most widely used illegal controlled substance in the world. Although the drug has been illegal in the United States since the 1930s, an estimated 40.6 percent of the U.S. population over twelve years of age (forty out of every one hundred people) has tried it at least once. As recently as 2003, 25.2 million people—basically one in ten Americans—reported using the drug at least once that year, as reported by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Marijuana, or the plant Cannabis sativa, has been used as a medicine, as a part of religious ceremonies, and even as a fiber for making clothing, rope, and paper for many thousands of years. It has also been used recreationally in many cultures, both ancient and modern. Still, its effects on the brain and body are not yet completely understood. Scientists differ on how to classify the drug: Is it a hallucinogen like LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), a narcotic like opium, or does it belong in a class by itself? (Entries on LSD and opium are included in this encyclopedia.) To further confuse matters, some scientists call marijuana a stimulant, or a substance that makes the brain and body more active, and some call it a depressant, or a substance that slows down brain and body processes. Whatever its properties, organic—or plant-derived—marijuana is illegal to possess or sell as a recreational substance.

The controversy over marijuana's role as a medicine for certain illnesses highlights the drug's strange history in American society. A small minority of Americans wants the drug to be made legal and sold under controlled circumstances, similar to the sale of alcohol. The U.S. government has made no move to legalize marijuana possession and, in fact, has tightened laws against it since the 1980s. People who buy, sell, or use marijuana for recreational purposes face many penalties if caught, including a permanent criminal record.

Official Drug Name: Cannabis sativa; hashish; hemp; marijuana

Also Known As: More than 200 street names, including A-bomb, Acapulco gold, ace, African black, Aunt Mary, bhang, blunt, blanche, boo, boom, bush, charas, chronic, dagga, dope, fry (laced with embalming fluid), fry sticks (laced with embalming fluid), gangster, ganja, grass, hash, hash oil, herb, joint, kef, kief, kif, Mary Jane, nickel, oil, old man, pot, reefer, roach, sinsemilla, sensi, skunk, smoke, splif, tar, Thai sticks, weed

Drug Classifications: Schedule I, hallucinogen; Schedule III, prescription synthetic THC, dronabinol (brand name Marinol)


The earliest archeological evidence of marijuana comes from China. Twelve thousand years ago the plant was cultivated there for many uses. Its fibers, known as hemp, could be woven into

sturdy clothing or rope, or even processed as paper. The Chinese also used the plant as a medicine for anxiety and physical pain. From China the use of the plant spread to India, where by 2000 bce it had become part of religious ceremonies. The Vedas, a series of Indian religious writings, credits the god Shiva with introducing cannabis to humankind, to help relieve the soul from suffering. To this day, a mild marijuana preparation called bhang is used during holidays in India, just like Americans might toast in the New Year with champagne.

An Ancient History

In his book Illegal Drugs: A Complete Guide to Their History, Chemistry, Use and Abuse, Paul M. Gahlinger noted that Europeans had discovered and were using cannabis by the fifth century bce. By the time Venetian traveler Marco Polo (c. 1254–1324) made his famous expedition to the Far East in the late thirteenth century, the drug was widespread throughout the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and Africa.

Different cultures used it in varied ways even then. Marco Polo records the legend of the "Old Man of the Mountain," a Muslim Middle Easterner said to have recruited assassins by intoxicating them with hashish, which is the solidified form of the drug. (The very word "assassin" is said to have roots in "hashish," but the story Marco Polo reports has never been verified.) In Europe as early as the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500), hemp was planted for use as clothing and rope, and cannabis was used as medicine for illnesses as varied as menstrual cramps, labor pains, and headaches. Its recreational uses were understood as well, and in 1484 Pope Innocent VIII (1432–1492) said that hashish consumption was linked to Satanic rituals.

Grown on Plantations

As cannabis fell out of favor as a recreational drug, it grew in importance as a plant fiber. The era of exploring the world by sailing ship had dawned, and demand for canvas—another word derived from cannabis—grew rapidly. In 1533, King Henry VIII (1491–1547) commanded all English farmers to set aside part of their holdings to grow hemp. The plant was exported to the Americas, where it was first grown in Canada in 1606 and in Virginia in 1611. In the United States, it was used for making canvas and rope. However, written documents note that George Washington (1732–1799), the first U.S. president, not only grew cannabis but also used it to soothe his toothaches. According to the 1850 U.S. Census, the plant was grown on 8,327 plantations in the nation.

The renewed interest in recreational use of cannabis dates to the 1840s, when Egyptian hashish spread among the artistic communities in France and England as a drug of enlightenment (enhanced intelligence). At the same time, the medical community in Europe renewed its interest in the substance, recommending it for a wide variety of ailments from asthma and depression to epilepsy. Cannabis was also recommended to the mentally ill and to alcoholics and people with opium addiction. In the heyday of "cure-all" medicines during the early 1900s, marijuana extracts could be found in many over-the-counter remedies, sometimes mixed with opiates like morphine. (An entry for morphine is available in this encyclopedia.)

The Tide Turns

In time, the tide of American opinion turned against marijuana. Some historians credit business tycoon William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951) with launching this crusade. Hearst, who owned many major newspapers, also owned many thousands of acres of trees that he planned to turn into paper. As late as the 1880s, almost all American paper was made from hemp, and a great deal of hemp was still grown in the United States. (The U.S. Declaration of Independence was published on hemp paper.) Hearst capitalized on anti-Mexican prejudice and, through his newspapers, linked marijuana use to Mexican immigrants, crime, violent behavior, and poor job performance. It was the Hearst newspaper chain that changed the spelling of marijuana from its older form, marihuana. During this time, use of the word cannabis faded as well.

Marijuana Chronology

2737 bce      The emperor Shen-Nung of China composes an herbal encyclopedia, recommending cannabis as a painkiller.

2000-1400 bce      Indian priests compile the Vedas, a series of writings that detail the use of marijuana in religious ceremonies.

c. 500 bce      A funeral urn of this date, found in Germany by archeologists, contains cannabis seeds.

1307 ce      In The Book of Marco Polo, Venetian traveler Marco Polo describes hashish use among religious sects in the Middle East.

1533      King Henry VIII of England commands his subjects to grow hemp (cannabis) for use in making ropes and canvas.

1611      Cannabis is first cultivated in Virginia.

1776      The U.S. Declaration of Independence is published on paper made from hemp.

1900      Cannabis extracts are available in more than thirty over-the-counter medications, used as painkillers, cough suppressants, and to soothe babies.

1936      The film Reefer Madness is released, showing teenagers becoming violent criminals under the influence of marijuana.

1937      The Marijuana Tax Act effectively ends legal production of hemp in the United States.

1970      The Controlled Substances Act places marijuana, hashish, and hash oil on the Schedule I list of controlled substances.

1985      Chemists create dronabinol, a synthetic version of the most powerful chemical in marijuana. Pill forms of dronabinol are sold as Marinol.

2004      Ten U.S. states have passed "medical marijuana" laws, allowing certain patients to possess small amounts of marijuana for relief of medical symptoms. Use of "medical marijuana" is challenged by the federal government in a case that reaches the U.S. Supreme Court.

2005      The U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Gonzalez v. Raich, rules 6-3 that Congress has the authority to prohibit the possession of medical marijuana.

According to Hugh Downs, in a commentary for ABC News in 1990: "Nobody was afraid of hemp—it had been cultivated and processed into usable goods, and consumed as medicine, and burned in oil lamps, for hundreds of years. But after a campaign to discredit hemp in the Hearst newspapers, Americans became afraid of something called marijuana." Downs also noted that the crusade against hemp "misled the public into thinking that marijuana and hemp were different plants."

Hearst's campaign was one of many waged against marijuana in the 1930s. Another important figure who changed American attitudes toward the drug was Harry Anslinger (1892–1975), head of the Commission of Narcotics during the Great Depression (1929–1941). Bolstered by scientific studies published in credible journals, Anslinger was able to convince state governments that marijuana use caused an increase in crime and violence, that it was addictive, and that its attraction to young people could lead to a lifetime of trouble. Hollywood seemed to support this view, issuing a series of hour-long dramas about marijuana, of which Reefer Madness (1936) is the best known. In Reefer Madness and other similar films, young, innocent people become violent, dishonest—or at least rather hysterical—victims of the "devil weed."

Following a series of congressional hearings, the U.S. government passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. The act did not outlaw marijuana outright, but "created a tax structure around the cultivation, distribution, sale, and purchase of cannabis products, which made it virtually impossible to have anything to do with the drug without breaking some part of the tax law," wrote Cynthia Kuhn and her coauthors in Buzzed: The Straight Facts about the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy. In other words, the 1937 law made it impossible to reap a legal profit from growing cannabis.

Illegal Experimentation

After World War II (1939–1945), a new generation of young people began to frequent urban jazz clubs, where the musicians often used marijuana and other drugs. Interest in recreational marijuana increased. As the teenagers of the 1960s and 1970s began using the drug in record numbers, they showed that many of the "scientific" claims made against marijuana in the 1930s were untrue. Marijuana, it appeared, did not cause violence or hysterical behavior. It was not particularly addictive, and it appeared to have few lasting effects on the user in the days and weeks following a dose. This finding led various people to mistakenly doubt all information they had received about illegal drugs, based on their own experiences with marijuana. This created a climate of illegal drug experimentation that has lasted into the twenty-first century.

Such experimentation led to drugs flooding the black market and being sold illegally on the street.

Federal Government Labels Marijuana a Hazard

In 1970, the U.S. Controlled Substances Act named marijuana and its by-products, hashish and hash oil, as Schedule I controlled substances. This is the highest level of control, indicating a substance with a high probability of abuse and no medical benefit. Even in 1970 some members of the medical and scientific community felt that marijuana should not have been placed in the same category as drugs such as LSD and heroin. (Separate entries on LSD and heroin are available in this encyclopedia.)

By the end of the twentieth century, several medical uses for cannabis had been documented with full research evidence. These include being an appetite-enhancer in cancer and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (aids) patients; a pain reliever in glaucoma patients; and a muscle relaxant for those suffering from multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system.

Chemists developed a synthetic (laboratory-made) tablet, dronabinol (manufactured as Marinol), that contains one of the chemicals found in marijuana. Dronabinol was introduced in 1985 as a Schedule II substance and has since been placed in the Schedule III category, making it as easy to prescribe as codeine. (An entry on codeine is available in this encyclopedia.) Still, some patients found that the dronabinol pills did not work as well as smoking cannabis.

Gonzalez v. Raich

By 2005, ten states had passed "medicinal marijuana" bills, allowing people with certain illnesses to grow or obtain enough marijuana for their own use. But these state laws for medical marijuana conflict with the federal laws against its possession. Late in 2004, two California women brought their petition for medical marijuana to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court case that concerned state laws on medical marijuana use, called Gonzalez v. Raich, was decided on June 6, 2005. The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Congress has the authority to prohibit the local cultivation of marijuana, even if it is used for medical marijuana, under federal interstate commerce laws. Under federal law, people in states that permit medical marijuana use will not be able to buy the plant form of marijuana or to grow it for their own consumption legally.

After the ruling on June 6, Oregon stopped issuing medical marijuana cards, given to patients with a doctor's prescription through the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program. However, the state continued to process applications. On June 17, 2005, Oregon's attorney general, Hardy Myers, stated that the program would begin issuing the medical marijuana cards again because the Supreme Court ruling did not affect the state's program. Myers did make it clear that though people using medical marijuana through Oregon's program will not be violating state laws, users could still be arrested and prosecuted by the federal government. In addition, Myers said that the state cannot protect patients' caregivers and those growing medical marijuana plants should the federal government decide to prosecute them.

What Is It Made Of?

Marijuana comes from two plants that are so closely related they are probably the same species. The plants are Cannabis sativa (marijuana/hemp), and Cannabis indica, a bushier variety grown simply for its psychoactive (brain-altering) qualities. Cannabis produces male and female plants, and both of them contain delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or thc, the main mind-altering chemical in marijuana. Female plants, especially those that are not allowed to pollinate, or fertilize another plant, contain the highest concentrations of THC.

Marijuana smoke contains sixty-one different chemical compounds, called cannabinoids, that are unique to the plant. Scientists are not sure exactly how these compounds interact with THC to produce the effects associated with a marijuana high. They do know that the most important mind-altering compound in cannabis is THC.

The cannabinoid compounds in marijuana can be found throughout the plant—in the leaves and stems, for instance. But the strongest concentrations of THC and other cannabinoids are found in the buds and flowering tops of the female plants. The time of harvest determines the amount of THC in the buds. Female plants that are kept away from male plants will not pollinate and produce seeds. Instead they keep producing flowers that contain a powerful resin—the plant's signal that it wants to pollinate. These resinous buds are the strongest form of marijuana, called sinsemilla (the Spanish term for "without seeds").

Purchased on the street, marijuana and sinsemilla are green or brown buds, leaves, or stems. The leaves and stems do not contain the concentrations of THC found in the buds and flowers, but people smoke them to get high.

Hashish is another product of the cannabis plant. It consists of the dried resin from the flower buds and is also very high in THC content. The resin is gathered by hand from the cannabis buds and rolled into gummy balls. Once a quantity of the balls has been collected, they are pressed together into larger cakes or sheets that resemble dark-colored dough. A highly powerful product, hash oil, is produced by boiling hashish or marijuana in a liquid that absorbs THC, such as alcohol, gasoline, or kerosene. The remaining plant material is filtered out, leaving behind thick oil. The color varies from clear to black, with yellows and browns in between. Hash oil contains the highest concentrations of THC. Just a drop or two on an ordinary tobacco cigarette will have an effect similar to smoking a whole dose of marijuana.

Chemicals in Cannabis

Cannabis contains 421 chemical compounds. Sixty-one of these are unique to the cannabis plant. When smoked, these chemicals work together in ways that scientists do not completely understand. The most important compound is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). A marijuana cigarette also contains tar, carbon monoxide, and cyanide—similar to a tobacco cigarette.

Marijuana Growers

Marijuana is grown throughout the United States, even though it is illegal. It is rare to find a state forest or national park anywhere

that has not been put to use by anonymous growers. Still, the bulk of the marijuana bought on America's streets comes from Mexico and—increasingly—Canada, where it is grown indoors under ideal conditions.

Hashish also arrives in the United States from Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. Since it is a federal crime to bring these drugs across U.S. borders, smugglers find many alternative ways to deliver the product into dealers' hands. Most of the Mexican marijuana that arrives in America comes by car or truck, hidden among legal products or even within the upholstery of a vehicle. One group of smugglers got caught trying to bring marijuana into Texas inside coffins.

How Is It Taken?

In order to produce psychoactive effects, marijuana must be heated. People cannot get high just by eating the raw plant material, unless they eat hashish or buds with the highest concentration of THC. Even so, the high produced will be lessened and will establish itself slowly, over a period of hours. Marijuana does not dissolve in water or other room-temperature solvents, so it cannot be injected.

The most common way to use marijuana is to smoke it. Small amounts of marijuana are rolled into cigarette papers and smoked. These are called "spliffs" or "joints." Pipes are also used, both the conventional sort that are made for tobacco and special ones just for marijuana or hashish. More elaborate pipes, called "bongs," pass the smoke through water as the user inhales. Bongs work with tobacco as well as marijuana, but vendors who sell them still run the risk of getting arrested for peddling drug paraphernalia (items used to deliver drugs into the system). Users also hollow out cigars and replace the tobacco with marijuana. These are called "blunts."

Marijuana, or more often hashish, is also baked into food, such as "hash brownies." The cooking process releases the same chemicals that are released while smoking. When eaten, baked hashish products can provide the strongest—and most unpredictable—high. Some users brew marijuana as a tea as well.

Are There Any Medical Reasons for Taking This Substance?

The U.S. government lists marijuana and its by-products as Schedule I substances, indicating that cannabis has no medical value. However, since the 1970s, marijuana has been used as a medicine for several specific conditions, although the legality of this use remains under debate.

Cancer patients who receive chemotherapy, the use of chemicals to prevent or treat the disease, often suffer the side effects of nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. This can cause people who are already sick to lose weight and become more prone to secondary illnesses. Marijuana stimulates the appetite. Chemotherapy patients who use it are more likely to maintain body weight and suffer less from nausea.

The scientific evidence for these claims has led chemists to create a synthetic form of THC, taken as a pill called Marinol. However, the pills seem to have less effect than smoking the drug. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the pills have to be swallowed and digested, and this can be a problem for cancer sufferers. (Some cancer patients take

Marinol pills prior to chemotherapy.) Also, the pills contain THC, but not the other cannabinoids. Most scientists believe that THC alone does not account for the appetite-enhancing qualities of marijuana.

Marijuana—and Marinol—are also used to enhance the appetite in patients suffering from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). People with AIDS sometimes "waste away" from lack of appetite. Maintaining nutrition can help them stay strong to fight infection. Again, doctors can prescribe Marinol, but the Schedule III drug is not as effective as smoked marijuana.

Evidence suggests that marijuana eases the pain and the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, a progressive disease that affects the muscles. It is also used for a disease of the eyes called glaucoma, where it helps to relieve painful pressure in the eye tissue.

Although it is not prescribed or indicated for use in depression or anxiety, marijuana has been used as a medication for those illnesses in the past. It is unlikely to be re-introduced for this use, however, given the number of modern prescription medications that exist for depression and anxiety.

State vs. Federal Government

The several uses for marijuana as medicine have led some states to pass "medical marijuana" laws. Such laws allow patients with proven medical conditions to possess a small amount of marijuana without facing criminal penalties. These state laws openly contradict the federal law that makes possession of marijuana for any use a crime.

In 2005, a case based on this contradiction was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The federal government gained a limited victory in this case on June 6, 2005. The court decided that the federal government could prosecute patients for personal possession and cultivation of marijuana despite state medical marijuana laws. Yet the court did not overturn state medical marijuana laws. This means that although it is a federal crime to possess or grow marijuana, it is not a state crime in those states where medical marijuana has been made legal. According to, "along with California, nine [other] states have passed laws permitting marijuana use by patients with a doctor's approval: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermontand Washington. Arizona also has a similar law, but no formal program in place to administer prescription pot."

Montel Williams on Medical Marijuana

Talk show host Montel Williams spoke on April 11, 2005, about how medical marijuana helps him cope with the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. "Patients struggling for their lives against such illnesses as [multiple sclerosis], cancer and AIDS should not be treated as criminals. We need to get beyond politics. We need more research into marijuana's medicinal effects, and we should heed the research already available." Williams added: "Because of medical marijuana, I am still alive—and leading a far more fruitful life than before." Shortly after making these remarks, Williams testified before Congress on May 5, 2005. One month later, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that medical marijuana use is illegal under federal law.

Chemists and pharmaceutical companies continue to research delivery systems for marijuana that will be considered legal (if covered by a prescription), including inhalers similar to those used by people suffering from asthma.

Usage Trends

Four in ten Americans have used marijuana at least once in their lifetimes. One in ten Americans reports using the drug at least once in the past year, and six in every one hundred Americans report using the drug at least once in the past month. These statistics come from the "2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)." According to the NSDUH report, 96.6 million Americans have tried marijuana at least once.

The 1999 "National Household Survey on Drug Abuse" reported that the age group least likely to have tried marijuana is people over seventy. The group most likely to have tried it is eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds. A Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey conducted in 2001 indicated that 23.9 percent, or just over two in ten people between the ages of ten and twenty-four, had used marijuana in the month before the survey took place. The 2001 survey reported that males were more likely to smoke marijuana than females, but the 2003 NSDUH report said that 53 percent of first-time marijuana users were female. The only large group showing less first-time use of marijuana was Asian Americans. Otherwise the drug is equally popular among African Americans, Caucasians, Native Americans, and Hispanic Americans.

In the 2004 Monitoring the Future study, 16.3 percent of eighth graders, 35.1 percent of tenth graders, and 45.7 percent of twelfth graders reported using marijuana at least once. And despite major efforts to find and punish dealers, 73.3 percent of tenth graders and 85.8 percent of twelfth graders noted that marijuana is "fairly easy" or "very easy" to obtain. Clearly, it is nearly impossible to pass through high school without meeting at least one person who uses or sells marijuana.

Although the U.S. government has maintained a policy of strong opposition to marijuana use, the drug has found an appeal across generations. People attending high school in the early part of the twenty-first century are more likely to have parents who tried marijuana than people who attended high school in the 1950s or 1960s. This translates to a more tolerant attitude among some parents toward marijuana use in their children. Nevertheless, the 2003 NSDUH survey did find that lifetime use of marijuana is declining among teens.

Effects on the Body

The human brain contains receptors, specifically for cannabinoids. The brain also produces its own natural cannabinoids, called anandamide (uh-NANN-duh-myd) and 2-arachidonylglycerol (AH-ruh-kid-ON-uhl-GLISS-uh-rol). These two compounds have been found in the brains of animals as well.

What Happens in the Brain

All of the cannabinoid receptors are located in the brain. There are no cannabinoid receptors in the spinal column, so using marijuana does not affect a person's ability to breathe or the function of other organs in the body.

When marijuana is smoked, THC and the other cannabinoids flow to the brain from the lungs, where the compounds are transferred into the bloodstream. The effects begin within minutes, generally with a feeling of light-headedness and euphoria (intense happiness). The user may become less inhibited, more outgoing, and laugh easily. At the same time, the user can experience a loss of motor control and difficulty concentrating. Since most of the cannabinoid receptors are located in the hippocampus, the center of memory and learning, people high on marijuana have difficulty learning new things or remembering what is happening at the moment. Marijuana does not destroy memories that already exist before the user gets high.

The typical marijuana experience is one of euphoria, heightened sensations of music and light, relaxation, and increased appetite. Sometimes, however, even the most experienced users will react differently. The drug can heighten anxiety and create paranoia—an uncomfortable feeling of danger or distress. When that happens, the user can do little but ride out the unpleasant experience, which usually happens within two to three hours.

The marijuana high gradually changes to a period of diminished physical activity and communication. The term "stoned" was coined to describe this period. In two to six hours the cannabinoid overload begins to exit the brain, usually causing a spike in appetite along the way. When users get hungry, they are said to have "the munchies."

It is not possible to smoke a fatal dose of marijuana. It is possible to consume too much THC by eating baked goods with hashish in them. Still this does not lead to death, but rather to a possibly unpleasant "trip" with paranoid or psychotic (extremely frightening) episodes. Again, no antidote to cannabis exists except trying to get the victim to vomit the undigested portion of the baked goods.

Effects on Judgment, Memory, and Learning

There is no such thing as a safe recreational drug. A person high on marijuana has the same lack of judgment, poor coordination, and diminished sense of fear as a person drunk on whiskey. The leading cause of death for young people is automobile crashes—and sometimes those fatal crashes are caused by marijuana, or a combination of marijuana and other drugs or alcohol. Marijuana impairs the ability to drive, operate machinery, or judge dangerous situations. As such, it can be deadly.

Because marijuana affects memory and learning, daily use can undermine a student's ability in school or a worker's capability on the job. Although scientists have debunked the old caution that marijuana affects motivation, the drug does affect short-term memory and the brain's ability to process new material. People who smoke marijuana regularly almost always experience declines in grades and difficulties in the classroom related to the drug use.

THC, the most active component of marijuana, remains in the body long after the psychoactive effects have worn off. The body stores THC in its fat cells. After one use, a person will test positive for THC for as many as three days. With regular use, a person can test positive for THC even after abstaining from marijuana for four weeks. The drug tests available at the turn of the twenty-first century were sophisticated enough that they do not yield a positive result for "passive" marijuana smoking (just being around other people who

are using the drug). Thus, law enforcement officers will not accept that as a defense. As Paul M. Gahlinger stated in his book, "If the drug test is positive for marijuana, the only legitimate excuse is either the use of dronabinol or, if allowed, the use of medically prescribed marijuana."

What Happens in the Lungs

Marijuana smoke contains the same cancer-causing compounds as tobacco, including tar, benzanthrene (ben-ZANN-threen), and benzpyrene (benz-PIE-reen). Since marijuana smokers inhale more deeply—and because joints, pipes, and blunts do not contain filters—the user exposes the lungs to more of the cancer-causing agents. Smoking marijuana daily or even occasionally for a period of years increases the risk of lung cancer. Smoking both marijuana and tobacco greatly increases that risk.

Link to Mental Illness?

A study released in 2005 by the Office of National Drug Control Policy found that people who begin smoking marijuana at a young age—between ten and fourteen—run a high risk of mental problems later in life. The study found that between 8 and 9 percent of the general population develop serious mental illnesses in adulthood. For people who begin using marijuana before the age of twelve, the chances of developing mental illness leap to 21 percent. Two reasons could account for this. First, marijuana could have a bad effect on the developing brain. Second, someone tempted to use marijuana at such a young age might already be predisposed to have emotional or psychological problems. Also, a significant percentage of heavy marijuana users may be "self-medicating" to treat a variety of mental conditions. These conditions include anxiety, phobias, or depression.

Withdrawal from marijuana is not terribly difficult, even after heavy use. The symptoms of marijuana withdrawal include insomnia, anxiety, decreased appetite, and irritability. Usually these symptoms go away within a few weeks if the user does not return to the drug.

A "Gateway Drug"?

For several decades marijuana has been described as a "gateway drug"—one that leads users to experiment with more dangerous, more addictive substances. That theory has been dismissed, however. Most people use marijuana and then stop taking any illegal drugs. Far fewer progress to other substances. So it could just as easily be said that marijuana is an "end stage" drug. Again, the individual person's mental makeup determines whether or not marijuana use will lead to harder drugs. People with family histories of mental problems, alcoholism, anxiety, or depression should try to avoid every psychoactive substance, including legal ones like alcohol and nicotine. (Entries for alcohol and nicotine are available in this encyclopedia.) For anxious or depressed people, better treatments exist than marijuana use.

Reactions with Other Drugs or Substances

One of the biggest problems with any illegal substance is the variation in quality. Some sources say that marijuana produced in the twenty-first century is far stronger than that smoked in previous decades. Others say the doses are about the same. Whatever the case, each purchase of illegal marijuana carries dangers related to the strength of the product, the possible by-products, and the methods of preparation. Outdoor-grown marijuana might have been sprayed with pesticides that still linger on the leaves and buds. The plants might also have fungus or even bacteria from the unclean hands that picked or packed them.

Dealers sell marijuana joints containing PCP, a hallucinogen, or crack cocaine. fry sticks are joints dipped in formaldehyde, a chemical compound used as a preservative and disinfectant. All of these combinations have proven fatal in users. In November of 2004, the Newark Star-Ledger reported the death of a seventeen-year-old who ran naked across a busy highway and hurled himself through a glass window after smoking a fry stick. The young man died of the injuries he sustained from crashing through the glass.

Mixing marijuana and alcohol heightens the effects of each substance and can lead to reckless behavior. Mixing marijuana with amphetamines or even tobacco can increase the heart rate, possibly causing heart damage or stroke.

Treatment for Habitual Users

More people are treated in rehabilitation programs for marijuana use than for any other drug. This is partly because more people are arrested for marijuana possession and ordered into treatment by the courts. Whatever the case, marijuana users—even heavy marijuana users—can usually free themselves of the drug fairly easily if they have no history of other drug or alcohol abuse. The situation becomes more complicated when marijuana has been combined with other powerful drugs such as cocaine or an opiate, like heroin or morphine.

Some people do become physically addicted to marijuana and experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop using it. For most people, use is a psychological habit and is sometimes a form of self-treatment for anxiety, depression, phobias, panic attacks, or other serious mental illnesses. When people find themselves spending more time buying, smoking, and becoming stoned on the drug than they do studying, socializing with friends and family, or working, they should seriously consider getting professional help to stop their marijuana use. Such help includes examination by a medical doctor and therapy with a psychologist or psychiatrist who can help find the root causes and proper treatment for the drug abuse. Self-help twelve-step programs such as Narcotics Anonymous also provide opportunities to beat the drug with the help of others who have experienced similar addiction problems.


Buying, selling, and using recreational marijuana is illegal. Penalties for marijuana possession vary from state to state and from country to country. The penalties are often based on the amount of marijuana found; whether the person intended to sell the marijuana; and whether the person was intoxicated at the time of the arrest. However, even first-time marijuana convictions can wreck a life. For instance, someone convicted of marijuana possession will lose any federal financial aid they might be receiving to attend college. (In contrast, theft conviction—perhaps of a laptop—does not automatically result in loss of financial aid.) In some states, employers are notified when someone is caught with marijuana. Almost half the states in the nation suspend the driver's license of anyone convicted of marijuana possession, though the length of the suspension varies from state to state and depends on the circumstances and number of offenses.

Judges usually sentence marijuana users to high fines, community service, and drug tests for up to a year, just with a first conviction. Second convictions, or possession with intent to sell, can land a person in jail. Judges can also order marijuana users into treatment programs. Whatever the penalties, the marijuana user has earned a criminal record that will impact future job opportunities, the ability to drive legally, and educational choices.

Legal consequences aside, long-term users of marijuana will find that it affects their ability to learn, remember, and concentrate. THC stays in the body long after the high has worn off, and it can continue to impact the brain. Additionally, some of the ingredients in a marijuana cigarette are known carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents. People who smoke marijuana run a higher risk of lung cancer than those who do not.

Habitual use of marijuana can either mask or aggravate symptoms of mental illness. People prone to psychosis, a severe mental disorder, can have bad reactions to a marijuana high. People who are depressed or anxious may lean on the drug to ease their symptoms, rather than find the professional help they need for their illnesses.

The Law

By the end of 2004, ten American states had passed "medical marijuana" laws. The details of these laws vary from state to state, but they usually require a doctor's written prescription for marijuana use and documentation of the illness for which the marijuana is recommended. In some states, patients carry cards that identify them as medical marijuana users. These users must either grow their own plants or find a state-sanctioned grower who can prove that the marijuana is only grown for medical use, and only distributed within the boundaries of that state. Doctors who misidentify patients and permit medical marijuana use where it does not apply face criminal penalties.

On June 6, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that under federal law, even in states where "medical marijuana" laws existed, all use of medical marijuana was illegal. Yet later that month, Hardy Myers, Oregon's attorney general, said that under Oregon state law, medical marijuana cultivation and medical use was still legal. This meant that the state would not prosecute growers and users of medical marijuana, but that the federal government could, and the state could not offer protection against the federal laws.

In the News: Marijuana Lollipops and a Secret Tunnel

In the summer of 2005, two marijuana-related stories made the headlines. The first involved manufacturers of marijuana-flavored lollipops. Sold under names such as Chronic Candy, Pot Suckers, and Purple Haze, these lollipops are flavored with hemp oil. The oil makes the candies taste like pot, but it does not bring on a high when consumed. Even though the products are considered legal, some convenience stores throughout the United States reportedly agreed to stop selling them. This action came after the city of Chicago banned them in mid-July.

Around the same time, a 360-foot-long tunnel used for transporting marijuana between Canada and the United States was shut down. The secret tunnel led from a hut on Canadian land to an opening underneath a house in Lynden, Washington, a town very close to the border separating the two countries. Canadian authorities knew about the tunnel's construction for several months and tipped off U.S. officials, who monitored activity in the area throughout the spring and early summer.

U.S. agents moved in and sealed off the tunnel after capturing evidence on tape of its use as a drug-smuggling passageway. Three men from British Columbia were arrested for importing marijuana into the United States. Two other individuals in the state of Washington were also arrested after being caught with approximately 100 pounds of marijuana from the tunnel in their vehicles.

All other use of marijuana in all states is considered a crime. Some states have very stiff penalties even for first-time users. Other states allow first-time users to pay fines and undergo drug testing and counseling. In New Jersey, for instance, the 2003 penalty for a first arrest on marijuana possession was $1,000 and a year of drug testing. Students caught with marijuana lose any federal financial aid they might be receiving for college. If still in high school, the student will not qualify for federal financial aid.

Because marijuana is such a popular recreational drug, federal and state prisons are full of people who have been caught dealing it. Sometimes these dealers face longer jail terms than people convicted of armed robbery or manslaughter. Repeat offenders can be sent to jail for life.

For More Information


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Hugh Downs Commentary on Marijuana. ABC News, broadcast November 1990.

See also: Nicotine

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