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Cannabis is a psychoactive drug derived from the cannabis plant that is commonly smoked, although it can be taken in numerous other ways. The compound in cannabis that causes users to feel high is known as tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the cultivation, trafficking and use of cannabis far outweigh that of any other illicit drug across the globe. Cannabis also accounts for more than half of all drug seizures worldwide.
According to respondents of a 2019 survey by the UK Government, cannabis was by far the most commonly used drug with 7.6% of adults aged 16-59 admitting to having used it in the previous year. For respondents aged 16-24, this figure jumped up to 17.3% – this equates to over 1 million young adults.
Over in America, currently 21 states have legalised the recreational use of cannabis with 37 states plus the District of Columbia allowing the medical use of marijuana.
The prevalence of cannabis use, in addition to the fact that it is derived from a natural source, means that people sometimes underestimate the risks that regular use of the drug can pose.
What is cannabis?
Cannabis is a commonly used drug that comes from the cannabis plant.
It is known by various street names, including:
- Mary Jane.
- Herb (‘erb).
The drug is usually smoked in joints (rolled into something resembling a fat cigarette), pipes or bongs (a contraption that features a bowl and metal pipe that you pour water in to cool the smoke). Less common ways to take the drug include vaping, eating it or swallowing it in its cannabis oil form.
Traditionally associated with students and hippies, the use of cannabis seems to be becoming more socially acceptable, with the majority of the states in America now legalising the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
As societal attitudes relax towards cannabis use, coupled with the fact that it is a naturally occurring plant in nature, people may start to assume that cannabis use is safe and without risks to health or wellbeing, although this is not always the case.
Can cannabis be addictive?
Cannabis is not physically addictive although heavy users can develop a strong psychological addiction that can actually manifest physical symptoms when they are craving the drug. Mixing it with tobacco also puts users at risk of becoming addicted to nicotine.
Cannabis cravings may include instances of:
- Feeling depressed or anxious.
- Sweating or shaking.
- Loss of appetite.
- Mood swings and irritability.
Cannabis users may claim to be simply using the drug recreationally, but if changes in their behaviour are noticeable when they are not able to get the drug or they feel unable to face the real world when sober, these are indicators that they may have a problem.
What is cannabis used for?
People may use cannabis recreationally, either alone or with friends to relax and chill out, in a similar way to how some people may enjoy a glass of wine after a long day.
Others believe that cannabis has health benefits for them and may use it to deal with pain and chronic pain (as an alternative to painkillers such as opioids which come with their own side effects and addiction risks).
People might use cannabis to get relief from pain caused by conditions such as:
- Menstrual cramps.
Sometimes, people may also use cannabis to improve or maintain long-term health conditions.
Some ways people believe that medical cannabis can help them include:
- As an appetite stimulant for patients undergoing chemotherapy.
- To help with muscle spasms associated with conditions like multiple sclerosis (MS).
- To help with seizures such as those from severe epilepsy.
Currently, research into the benefits of medical cannabis is ongoing and it is not routinely prescribed on the NHS.
People suffering from depression or anxiety will sometimes turn to cannabis to make them forget their problems or to help them to feel numb. Although using cannabis may appear to help in the short term, some evidence suggests that using the drug long term can actually make mental health issues worse.
People with a family history of mental health problems such as schizophrenia should use cannabis with extreme caution as it may put you at a higher risk of developing symptoms of mental illness, especially if you use stronger strains that are very high in THC.
How is cannabis abused?
Heavy use of cannabis can have significant effects on the body, causing both physical and mental damage.
Occasional, social use of the drug does not equate to drug abuse; however, it still comes with health implications (particularly if smoked). Possession of the substance is also currently illegal in the UK.
Heavy or chronic use of the drug, or drug use that is having a negative impact on a person’s health, wellbeing or daily life, indicates that they are abusing the drug.
If you are experiencing the negative effects of cannabis use, such as paranoia, mood swings or a persistent cough, these will often, though not always, go away if you take a break or stop entirely.
If you have any concerns about your mental or physical health you should see a doctor.
How does cannabis affect the body?
When cannabis is smoked or otherwise ingested, chemicals called cannabinoids get into the body. The main cannabinoid is called THC. As the cannabinoids move through the body and to the brain, the THC binds with certain receptors in the brain, producing a feeling of euphoria or a high.
This can result in a number of effects that many cannabis users find enjoyable including feeling relaxed, happy and giggly.
Using cannabis can also lower a person’s inhibitions and affect their judgement, possibly making them do or say things they would not if they were not under the influence.
Smoking cannabis in particular can result in users getting a dry mouth (dubbed cotton mouth) and feeling intense hunger, meaning that users may also drink or eat more than usual whilst feeling the effects of the drug.
Over the long term, some studies suggest that heavy cannabis use can actually change the structure of the brain.
What are the risks of cannabis?
If you are mixing tobacco with your cannabis then you are running the same risks of developing lung and breathing problems, including lung cancer, as other tobacco smokers.
Smoking cannabis can significantly affect a person’s motivation.
This means that using the drug, especially heavy use, can have a negative impact on a person’s:
- Social life.
- Family and relationships.
- Standard of self-care/hygiene.
- Ability to parent or care for others.
When you are under the influence of cannabis your state of mind is altered, your reaction times are slower and your ability to make decisions is impaired. This makes driving under the influence of the drug or operating heavy machinery very dangerous.
You are also putting yourself at risk if you decide to take particularly potent forms of the drug. Traditional cannabis usually has a concentration of around 10–15% THC but more potent forms such as shatter can contain concentrations of up to 80%.
Heavy or chronic use of cannabis can also have a significant impact on a person’s mental health and has been associated with:
Mixing cannabis with other drugs or alcohol can also have a negative effect on your health and wellbeing and is best avoided.
Another risk of using cannabis is being caught by the police. Cannabis is illegal in the UK and is currently labelled a class B drug, upgraded from a class C drug in 2009 after scientific research suggested it was more harmful than previously believed. This means that being caught in possession of cannabis can result in a criminal record.
Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, cannabis is currently classified as a class B controlled substance meaning that being caught with cannabis can result in an unlimited fine or up to five years in prison (or both).
In some circumstances, the police can issue a warning or £90 on-the-spot fine if they catch you will a small amount of cannabis that is for personal use and it is your first drug offence.
A final risk factor to consider is the impact on your finances and personal safety that using drugs can have. Drugs are expensive and procuring them can sometimes mean putting yourself in a dangerous situation and mixing with criminals.
Short-term and long-term effects of cannabis
In the short term, cannabis can make users feel relaxed, happy and giggly. It can also make you feel tired, sleepy and lacking in motivation. When using cannabis, users often feel extremely hungry (dubbed the munchies) and they will often crave unhealthy, convenience foods such as fast food or sweet treats.
The short-term memory can also be affected, meaning that users may forget what it is they just said or thought about only moments before.
The long-term effects that people experience will depend entirely on the frequency of use, the strength of the cannabis that is being used and how it is being taken.
Occasional, recreational users are less likely to experience long-term effects, although smoking any substance poses an increased risk of health issues.
Frequent cannabis use can result in both mental and physical health problems such as:
- Breathing problems/lung damage.
- Depression, anxiety and paranoia.
- Lowered sperm count.
- Higher blood pressure.
- Memory problems.
- Sleep problems and disturbances.
- Psychosis and hallucinations.
What are the different forms of cannabis?
Cannabis is available in different forms.
The most common are:
Popular in the 1990s and early 2000s although less common these days, hash is a solid form of cannabis that is made from resin. It usually has a brown or dark brown colour and comes as a hard block, although occasionally can be soft and dark (known colloquially as squidgy black) or pale and soft (pollen).
Hash is usually heated with a lighter and crumbled then mixed with tobacco and smoked in a joint, pipe or bong. It can also be baked into cakes, brownies etc and eaten.
The most common form of the drug. Weed looks like dried herbs or leaves and is usually green in colour but may contain flecks of other colours such as white or orange. It can be smoked or eaten.
This is an especially strong form of weed that is high in THC. It usually contains a lot of crystals and has a thick, musky aroma that can be smelled even through a plastic bag or container. Its potency means smoking it comes with an increased risk of the bad side effects associated with weed such as paranoia.
This is a sticky, oily form of the drug that is usually amber in colour. It is becoming increasingly popular, especially amongst those who believe in using cannabis for its potential health benefits.
Wax / dab / shatter
This is where the resinous trichomes are extracted using butane or propane to get a type of wax weed. The process can be dangerous and it is not advised that you try it at home.
Dabs are very high in THC and provide a fast-acting, intense high for the user. Cannabis in this form can be vaped or taken using a type of glass bong known as an oil rig.
Is CBD oil cannabis?
CBD and hemp products are becoming increasingly popular and are now routinely sold in health food stores and some pharmacies across the UK.
The most popular form of CBD product is as CBD oil, which is taken orally, by putting drops under the tongue with a pipette or applying as a spray, directly into the mouth.
You can also find other products containing CBD promising results such as health benefits, anti-ageing properties, help with pain management and improved sleep.
Popular CBD products include:
- CBD teas.
- Food supplements containing CBD.
- Oils, creams and other moisturisers containing CBD.
- CBD gummy sweets.
Although CBD is a cannabinoid, the products that you can buy legally, over the counter in the UK contain no, or only trace elements of, THC (the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis that makes users feel high). Using these CBD products may have health benefits, but they are never going to get users stoned, no matter how much they use and these are not the same as the drug cannabis.
If you are concerned about your drug use or someone else’s you should reach out for help as soon as possible. You can contact a charity such as FRANK or make an appointment with your GP to talk about your options, which include trying to detox from drugs.
Both THC and CBD may interact with other medication and should always be used with caution, especially if you are dependent on certain medicines due to a health condition.