This complete guide to the effects of recreational and medical marijuana explores how marijuana makes you feel, how it interacts with the body, and any side effects of which to be aware.
Just over half of Americans have tried marijuana in their lifetime. While that represents a large section of the country, it means that many have not yet experienced marijuana first hand.
Are you among those who have never tried marijuana for yourself? First time users often have a lot of questions, and even experienced users benefit from knowing the long-term effects marijuana use has on the body.
Marijuana can be used either recreationally or medically to take advantage of certain therapeutic qualities. Currently, 29 states have created comprehensive medical marijuana programs, while another 8 have passed recreational marijuana.
If you live in or are traveling to a a legal marijuana state and are curious about marijuana, this complete guide will help you know what to expect. First, we will discuss the way in which marijuana exerts its effects on the body.
How Does Marijuana Provide Its Effects?
The active compounds in marijuana responsible for its effects are called cannabinoids or, more specifically, phytocannabinoids because they are plant-based. There are currently more than 100 identified cannabinoids, including the two most prominent – tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). These phytocannabinoids mimic the roles of the body’s endogenous (naturally-occurring) cannabinoids like anandamide and 2-AG to manipulate the body’s systems.
Endocannabinoids such as anandamide function as neurotransmitters, sending chemical messages between nerve cells (neurons) throughout the nervous system. They directly affect brain areas that influence a wide range of functions, like pleasure, memory, thinking and concentration, movement, coordination, and sensory and time perception.
The neural communication network that uses these cannabinoid neurotransmitters, known as the endocannabinoid system, plays a critical role in the nervous system’s normal functioning.
CBD and THC’s chemical structures are similar to those of 2-AG and anandamide. Because of this similarity, these phytocannabinoids are able to interact with molecules called cannabinoid receptors on neurons in the central and peripheral nervous systems, altering various mental and physical functions and causing the effects we will describe later.
When a person consumes marijuana, cannabinoids like THC and CBD pass into the bloodstream. The blood carries the compounds to the brain and other organs throughout the body, where they interact with cannabinoid receptors.
When smoked, the short-term effects of cannabis manifest within seconds and are fully apparent within a few minutes. These effects will typically last for 1–3 hours, depending on the person and the strength of the product consumed.
After oral ingestion of cannabis, the onset of effects is delayed by digestion, taking 30 minutes to 2 hours to take effect. However, the duration of effects is prolonged due to continued slow absorption.
Desired Recreational Effects
The focus of recreational marijuana is the cannabinoid THC. THC stimulates neurons in the brain’s reward system to release the signaling chemical dopamine at levels higher than typically observed.
This flood of dopamine contributes to the pleasurable “high” that those who use recreational marijuana seek. For that reason, marijuana has been carefully bred for decades to maximize THC production at the expense of other cannabinoids like CBD.
Some of the effects that marijuana users report are the following:
- altered physical senses (for example, seeing brighter colors)
- altered perception of time
- changes in mood (euphoria)
- feelings of creativity
- impaired body movement
The euphoric feelings generated by marijuana, coupled with its minimal side effects, has led to demand in the U.S. and around the world to legalize access to recreational cannabis.
Desired Medical Effects
While recreational marijuana use is most prominent, many users around the world benefit from the medical effects of marijuana.
Medical cannabis products were widespread in the decades leading up to the 1900’s, when marijuana use would ultimately become prohibited, even for medical use, after the rise of Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and his Reefer Madness-like campaign against marijuana.
It wouldn’t be until 1985 that pharmaceutical companies received approval to begin developing synthetic cannabinoid preparations – dronabinol and nabilone – for therapeutic use. As a result, cannabinoids were reintroduced into the American pharmacopoeia.
Then in 1996, California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use. This would open the door to other states following suit. Now, more than half the states in the U.S. have passed comprehensive medical marijuana programs.
Typically, patients in a legal state looking to access medical marijuana will need to gain a doctor’s recommendation for their condition. Some states limit access to marijuana to a specific list of medical indications.
Research hints that marijuana can produce the following beneficial effects for therapeutic use:
- nausea and vomiting
- improving sleep
- pain-relieving effects
- stimulating appetite
- encouraging bone growth
- reducing inflammation
- inhibiting the growth of tumors
- resisting bacteria
- and more.
If you are interested in learning more about medical marijuana, start here.
Side Effects of Marijuana
The side effects of marijuana are minimal in comparison with many other recreational and pharmaceutical drugs. In fact, one study revealed that medical marijuana produces fewer and less severe side effects than pharmaceuticals. Due to this low severity of side effects, many users are turning to medical marijuana as an alternative or adjunct to harsh prescription medications.
Common side effects of marijuana use include
- dry mouth
- increased appetite
- increased heart rate
- slowed reaction time
- red eyes
Many of these side effects are minor and can be addressed by sitting down with a glass of water or a snack for a moment and taking a break. It is advised not to use marijuana before or when handling heavy equipment, driving, or tasked with something important.
Long-term Health Effects
Unlike with many other recreational and medical drugs, there has never been an overdose death linked to marijuana. Since there are no cannabinoid receptors found in the brainstem, which is responsible for critical functions like breathing, marijuana use will not cause an overdose death.
However, evaluating the long-term health effects of marijuana has been difficult, as there have been few comprehensive studies with a long enough duration to effectively judge possible long-term effects, especially when compared to similar drugs.
One longitudinal study shows that people who smoke cannabis for extended periods of their lives showed no serious negative health effects, especially when compared with cigarette smokers. Many of the effects listed in this study, such as diminished lung function and impaired cardiovascular health, though minimal in marijuana users, can be averted by choosing a cannabis consumption method other than smoking.
Another study looked at marijuana and alcohol users aged 14-55. Researchers found alcohol consumption to be associated with lower gray matter volume and poorer white matter integrity in the brain. Gray matter is home to neuronal cell bodies, axon terminals, and dendrites, as well as all nerve synapses. The white matter of your brain and spinal cord is composed of bundles of axons and controls communication between the brain’s gray matter and the rest of the body. White matter’s job is to conduct, process, and send nerve signals up and down the spinal cord. Issues with either type of brain matter inhibits the body’s ability to process sensory and motor information.
These negative structural changes in the brain, however, were not observed in the adults and adolescents that had used cannabis within the past 30 days, demonstrating that marijuana doesn’t carry the same long-term effects on the brain as other recreational drugs, like alcohol.
Researchers from Arizona State University tracked the marijuana use of over 1,000 New Zealanders from birth to middle age to see what effect those habits have on some common measures of physical health, including lung function, inflammation, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, body weight, blood sugar, and dental health.
With the exception for dental health, marijuana use had no negative effect on any measure of health. People who consumed more marijuana had a higher incidence of gum disease.
Marijuana use has been linked to better health in some areas. According to the study, “Findings showed that cannabis use was associated with slightly better metabolic health (smaller waist circumference, lower body mass index, better lipid profiles, and improved glucose control).”
Analysis by Dr. Thomas M. Clark, a researcher at Indiana University South Bend, found that cannabis use significantly reduces premature deaths from conditions like diabetes, cancer, and traumatic brain injury (TBI). The study also concluded that death’s from these conditions would be much lower if there were legal access to medical marijuana nationwide.
As more research becomes available on the potential long-term effects of marijuana, Medical Marijuana, Inc. will continue to share those results with readers like you.