One problem in sorting out fact
from fiction about marijuana is that the "facts" keep
changing into fictions.
Need some examples? Try these:
- In the 1930's, a "fact"
everyone knew (or thought they did) was that pot was the
dreaded "assassin of youth," a one-way ticket to a
life of crime, madness, and despair.
- By the '60s, that "fact"
morphed into a brand-new, mirror-image "fact." Now
pot was seen only as a "harmless giggle," maybe not
actually good for you, but at least it didn't do any real
harm -- like such legal drugs as alcohol and tobacco.
- In the '80s, things started
changing again. Conservatism was cool again (to some), and a
whole new set of "facts" was produced to justify a
nationwide campaign against a born-again "assassin of youth."
Today, the facts about marijuana
are changing again.
It's not that there aren't still
a lot of opinions out there, masquerading as facts. It's just
that a growing body of scientific research is out there, too,
and it's gradually starting to squeeze out all the fake little
"facts" that have confused the issue for so long.
It's a good thing, too. Because
a lot of the new facts really are facts, this time around. And
they're worth thinking about if you're thinking about -- or on
..What's new about marijuana today?
A lot. But quite a bit has stayed
Because even though people have
been using the marijuana (or hemp) plant, Cannabis sativa,
in medicine and manufacturing for at least 5,000 years, it's
better known for its recreational drug uses. Nothing new about
Not much new in another fact,
either: Pot is still the most-used illegal drug in America. More
than 106 million Americans have tried it, according to a recent
national survey, and some 16.7 million smoke it regularly.
What they keep coming back to
is a swirl of sensation and fog of intoxication that the drug
sets in motion.
When it's smoked or eaten, marijuana
triggers a mild euphoria and increased sensitivity to bodily
sensations, along with a range of other perceptual distortions
that are usually experienced as pleasant -- but not always, and
not by all users.
Effects usually peak within an
hour or two and fade altogether in 3-4 hours. After-effects can
include a slight hangover and impaired concentration.
..How does pot work in the body?
Good question -- but it's not
an easy one to answer. Because the simple fact is that pot is
a complicated drug.
For one thing, marijuana isn't
a single drug molecule, like alcohol or cocaine, but a mix of
more than 400 different chemical components.They're so different,
in fact, that 85 of them (called cannabinoids) are unique
Since we're talking numbers,
we'll point out that the main mind-altering cannabinoid is a
little number called delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or
THC, for short. It's the chemical that trigger marijuana's main
drug actions and effects in the body and brain.
THC is like a feel-good chemical
bomb that explodes on contact, then breaks up into at least 80
different byproducts (or metabolites) before it's eliminated
from the body. And that can take a while.
The process starts as soon as
THC enters the bloodstream, and begins zeroing in on cannabinoid
receptors (called anandamides) in the brain and central
Once it checks into the brain,
THC takes its own sweet time in checking out. Unlike many other
drugs, which are excreted from the body within hours, THC metabolites
stick around -- stored in fatty tissue, mostly -- for 3-5 days,
even weeks, in heavy users.
What THC metabolites do, if anything,
during this time is still mostly unknown. But it's this buildup
of metabolites, and the duration of their hangtime in the body,
that raises the most concern about possible long-term risks.
..What risks are linked to pot?
We'll start with the heart, because pot
can get things pumping faster there than a tricked-up drum machine
at a techno music festival.
In fact, rapid heartbeat -- which,
for some users, can speed up by as much as 50 percent--is one
of the few universal physical effects of marijuana. (Another
is increased appetite -- AKA "the munchies.")
Even though increased heart rate
only lasts minutes and isn't a threat to most people, it could
add strain for users with heart disorders or high blood pressure.
A bigger threat to more users
is irritation to the lungs and respiratory airways, since users
tend to inhale pot deeply and hold it in the lungs for as long
Even though a direct link with
lung cancer is unproven, pot smoke does contain cancer-causing
chemicals (known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons),
so it's not that farfetched, either.
..Are other body systems affected?
They sure seem to be. Take the
endocrine system, for example. It produces body hormones, the
internal chemicals that control how and when we develop. Here's
what pot does there:
- Triggers a short-term drop in
the hormones that direct growth and development.
- Lowers sperm production in males,
resulting in fewer normal sperm cells.
- Tinkers with the balance of
hormones that control the menstrual cycles of girls and women.
In adults, these changes are
temporary. But researchers suspect that young people risk possible
long-range developmental problems. As a precaution, they warn
kids to avoid pot to reduce the risk.
..How does pot affect the brain?
That's the trickiest question
of all -- because nobody knows all the intricacies of how the
brain works in the first place. And we know even less about how
it works with a bongload of marijuana inside it.
Still, we're closer to real answers
than ever before.
What we know for sure is that
pot changes more than just the way people feel. It also triggers
a number of changes in brain function and behavior.
Let's consider just a couple
of the main ones:
- Pot tilts the balance of chemicals
in the brain that regulate mood, energy, appetite, and attention.
- It affects learning and memory
processes, and can cause forgetfulness and reduced concentration.
- Pot also reduces logical thinking
and calculation skills, and can impair a user's ability to perform
complex tasks, including driving a car.
Uncovering the actual machinery
of most of pot's effects in the brain is still probably years
But this much is known right
now: Heavy smokers in general and longtime users in particular
are more likely to experience ongoing problems than occasional
smokers and nonsmokers.
And that's something else to
think about if you're thinking about pot: Smoke enough of it
and it could end up smoking you -- or, at least, part
of the future you.
..Can marijuana cause birth defects?
It doesn't cause full-blown birth
defects, but that doesn't mean it's okay to smoke if you're pregnant.
Because the fact is that pregnancy and unnecessary drug use just
don't go together at all.
Not only that, but with pot,
there's some evidence that use during pregnancy could lead to
unnecessary problems for a developing fetus, even raising levels
of miscarriage and stillbirth.
That's because THC metabolites
(remember them?) freely cross the placenta, where they
interact with developing body systems.
Possible effects include lowered
birth weight, nervous system changes, and delayed learning.
And if you're pregnant (or you're
planning to be), risks like those are too real to disregard --
and too important to ignore.
We still have a long way to go
if we're ever going to round up all the facts about marijuana.
For that matter, we'll probably
never have every answer to every possible question about its
effects on the body and brain.
Still, you don't need to be a
brain surgeon to know that pot poses far more serious risks for
some people (particularly teens, pregnant women, and heavy users)
than for others. And each is a risk that can be easily avoided.
And while pot's potential for
causing problems in occasional users has been exaggerated in
the past, a final, indisputable fact about marijuana is simply
this: The only foolproof way to safeguard yourself against possible
problems is to pass on it altogether.
Because of all the facts in a
shifting mountain of facts (and pseudo-facts and fictions) about
pot that has accumulated over the years, one that hasn't changed
is that marijuana is a drug -- and a pretty complex one, at that.
And like every other drug that's
ever been used and abused, it can cause real problems for real
And that's a fact that's likely
to always be true.
..Sidebar | Final
For most people, getting off
pot isn't that big a deal. All they need to do is stop -- and
stay stopped. Quitting may not be fun, but it doesn't take much
more than a little time and a lot of willpower.
For others, it can get more complicated
-- usually, because they let THC & Company become a regular
thing, like coffee in the morning or brushing their teeth at
For them, quitting is just the
first step in a longer process of rebalancing their lives --
and finding alternatives to fill the spaces that leaving pot
can leave behind. Places to start:
Any serious physical
activity can boost your spirits and clear your head. Running,
cycling, or just shooting hoops can turn on the same feel-good
brain chemicals that pot does, without the risks--or the expense.
Undo the Dew! A junk-food-free diet can turn down
any blues that can come from giving up pot. Taking a break from
caffeine and sugar can't hurt, either.
Relax! Take it easy. Turn on to a new activity
or a skill that you've let slide for a while. Now is as good
a time as any to be experimental with who you're going to be
from here on out.
If you think you need help, get
it. And if you've thought about it before, be different and do
it now. Now happens to be the only time there ever is for doing
anything -- including getting your life back together.
And come to think of it, another
installment of it is scheduled to begin again any second now.