Marijuana is the fourth most popular recreational drug in the United States, behind caffeine, alcohol and tobacco; but, it is the most popular illegal drug. It is the dried mixture of leaves, flowers and sometimes stems and seeds of the female variety of hemp plant Cannabis sativa. The plant has leaves that spread from a central common stalk and can grow up to 18 feet in height. Its flowers bloom in late summer through mid-fall (The NORML Foundation, 2013).
Administration of the drug can be accomplished through ingestion, but it is most commonly smoked in a number of ways: as a cigarette, or “joint,” or mixed with tobacco in a cigar wrapper, known as a “blunt;” in a tobacco pipe, known as “smoking a bowl;” or through a water pipe, known as a “bong.” There are hundreds of slang terms for marijuana. Some common street names are pot, bud, ganja, weed and herb (Donatelle, 2012). Marijuana is readily available throughout the United States, owing to its relatively low cost and the ease of its cultivation. The plant can be grown in backyards, indoors in greenhouses or hydroponically, which makes it easy to grow in rural and urban areas. While prices can range from $400 to $9000 per pound depending on potency, marijuana is commonly sold by the quarter-ounce for as little as $5 or $10 (The NORML Foundation, 2013).
The low cost makes the drug easy to acquire by almost everyone. In 2011, 18.1 million Americans aged 12 and older reported using the drug within the past month (Office of National Drug Control Policy, 2012). This figure is an increase from previous years, owing partially to the legalization of marijuana for medical use. Currently eighteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use; Washington and Colorado legalized its recreational use in 2012 (ProCon.org, 2013). On a Federal level, marijuana use was banned as a result of passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, and reaffirmed when Congress classified marijuana as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (Bonsor, 2013).
Although the plant contains more than 400 chemicals, the main psychoactive chemical is tetrahydrocannabinol or THC; THC and other cannabinoids are responsible for the “high” associated with smoking marijuana (The NORML Foundation, 2013). When marijuana is smoked, THC enters the bloodstream directly through the lungs. The blood carries the drug to the brain where it reacts with cannabinoid receptors in the hippocampus, cerebellum and basal ganglia; as a result, the use of marijuana can be associated with short term memory loss, controlled by the hippocampus, and loss of motor coordination, controlled by the cerebellum and basal ganglia (Bonsor, 2013). The specific effects of marijuana vary from user to user, depending on the potency of the THC in any given plant. Common effects include an initial sense of relaxation, followed by a haziness or light-headedness. These effects can wear off after a few hours (Bonsor, 2013). More serious effects can include manic behavior, paranoia, tachycardia and panic attacks (The NORML Foundation, 2013). When marijuana is ingested, the THC enters the bloodstream through digestion in the stomach; while the levels of THC are lower through administration by this method, the effects can last much longer (Bonsor, 2013).
Marijuana addiction is a much debated topic. Research into marijuana addiction trails behind other more potent drugs, so there is currently no decisive diagnosis. However, some heavy users do exhibit symptoms of dependency such as increased tolerance, long-term memory problems, apathy, and chronic breathing problems (Columbia University, 2009). Because there is a lack of research, there is no standard therapy for users who wish to quit using marijuana; however, individuals may seek treatment with behavioral therapy centers on