SUU Health and Wellness Program

Understanding Marijuana

What is marijuana?

Marijuana (aka weed, pot, grass, herb) is the dried flowers, leaves and stems of the Cannabis sativa plant. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the main active ingredient and is responsible for the mind-altering effects of marijuana. Marijuana can range from 1% to 8% in THC, while hash can range from 7% to 14% in THC levels.

Smoking marijuana releases THC, which travels through the lungs, into the bloodstream and into the brain where it binds to cannabinoid receptors located on your nerve cells. These receptors are concentrated in areas of the brain which effect memory, concentration, pleasure, coordination, sensory as well as time perception all of which are associated with the “high” feeling.

Marijuana is usually smoked, using a pipe, bong, rolling a joint or forming a blunt. Marijuana can also be eaten in food (“brownies”), which can delay the onset of the effects, but tend to last longer. General effects of smoking marijuana include relaxation, drowsiness, heightened sensory awareness, euphoria, altered perceptions and feeling hungry or the “munchies”. Higher levels of THC may result in a more hallucinogenic reaction.

How long does marijuana stay in your body?

Even after users stop feeling the effects of marijuana, detectable traces can linger in the body. After smoking marijuana, the THC is stored in the fatty tissue of the body until it can be broken down during metabolism and cleared from the body. The time this takes can vary from person to person and depends significantly on:

  • The amount of pot used
  • The method and frequency of use
  • The user's rate of metabolism
  • The concentration of THC in the marijuana plant

There are two essential components to remember in regards to testing: THC and 9-carboxy-THC. The 9-carboxy-THC is a product of the body’s metabolism of the main active ingredient, THC, and can be detected for much longer periods of time than just THC. This is why drug tests, specifically urine tests, are aiming to detect 9-carboxy-THC. If you are concerned about drug testing, be sure to weigh the pros and cons of using marijuana or other substances against the consequences of testing positive. Students can also seek further information and assistance in discussing their options or explore their personal use of marijuana at the Counseling Center.

What is the difference between smoking marijuana vs. smoking tobacco?

Marijuana smokers who refrain from tobacco sometimes boast that their drug of choice is safer than using cigarettes. The reality is that both tobacco and marijuana smoke contain harmful chemicals which are absorbed when inhaled.

Research from the National Institute of Drug Abuse indicates that users from both sides of the debate experience exposure to carcinogenic smoke. Even so, compared to tobacco cigarette smokers, people who smoke marijuana usually:

  • Inhale more smoke (two-thirds larger puff volume);
  • Inhale the smoke deeper into the lungs (one-third greater depth of inhalation);
  • Hold the smoke in the lungs for longer time periods (up to four times longer).

Bottom line: Individuals who smoke marijuana, tobacco or both, are exposing their lungs’ to smoke that contains carcinogens, which can result in respiratory problems, such as daily cough and phlegm production, more frequent acute chest illness, and a heightened risk of lung infections.

What are the short-term effects of marijuana use?

Short-term problems associated with the use of marijuana include extreme paranoia, anxiety and panic attacks. These symptoms can occur after users smoke or eat too much marijuana.

Although occasional marijuana smokers are less likely to experience ongoing problems as a result of marijuana compared with heavy and longtime users, short-term and long-term health risks can include:

  • Impaired thinking, problem-solving, memory
  • Decreased sperm counts in some males
  • Erectile dysfunction in some males
  • Irregular menstrual cycles in some females
  • Poor coordination and balance
  • Elevated risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Ongoing cough
  • More frequent respiratory infections
  • Hallucinations
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Gynecomastia (development of breast tissue in males) after long term use

What are the long-term effects of marijuana use?

Recent studies reveal that smoking marijuana has been associated with respiratory (lungs), brain (memory), psychiatric (mental health) as well as additional health effects.

Respiratory problems

Smoking one joint is equal to smoking five cigarettes — smoking four joints is like smoking an entire pack. Because marijuana smokers tend to take longer, deeper drags and hold smoke in their lungs for longer, they end up with three to five times more tar and carbon monoxide in their bodies. Marijuana is usually smoked unfiltered (in joints, blunts, bongs, and pipes) and burns at a higher temperature, which is more damaging to the lungs. The smoke contains numerous chemicals that are similar to tobacco products but with 50 to 70 percent more carcinogens (cancer-causing) than tobacco. Therefore, frequent marijuana users are just as likely to experience chronic cough and heightened risk of respiratory illness and infection as their tobacco smokers’ counterpart.

Memory and Learning problems

Smoking marijuana causes changes in your brain’s chemistry, inhibiting the function of neurotransmitters that transfer information from one nerve cell to another. This phenomenon explains what happens when a person is high—they lose their short-term memory and can have impaired coordination.

Regular use of marijuana compromises the ability to learn, focus and remember information as well as decrease motivation to accomplish tasks, even after the high is over. This can cause poor academic performance. You might think you’re doing well in school – but you’ll never know if smoking pot is inhibiting your true academic potential.

Mental Health

The long term use of marijuana has been linked to increased prevalence of depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and suicidal ideation. It is important to note that it is not clear whether use of marijuana triggers the onset of these conditions, makes present conditions worse, or is a means of self-medicating the symptoms.

If you are an SUU student and want to stop smoking pot, but can't seem to shake the habit, check out the Counseling Center to talk with someone about your options. All services are free for SUU students.

Is marijuana addictive?

In short, no one would argue that marijuana is as addictive as heroin or alcohol. However, it's wrong to say that it is not at all addictive. There is no clear-cut diagnosis for marijuana addiction, but research points to physical and psychological dependence from marijuana use.

Research published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, confirmed that many regular marijuana users experience negative effects upon stopping use of the drug. Because THC is stored in the fatty tissue and can linger in the body, symptoms of withdrawal may not be felt immediately.

Emotional/behavioral withdrawal symptoms:

  • irritability
  • restlessness or trouble sleeping
  • fatigue and yawning
  • depressed mood
  • anger and aggression
  • strange dreams

Physical withdrawal symptoms:

  • appetite change
  • nausea or stomach pain
  • weight loss
  • shakiness
  • sweating

Believe it or not, each year, more young adults enter drug treatment with a primary diagnosis of marijuana dependency than for all other illicit drugs combined. Currently, 62% of teens in drug treatment are dependent on marijuana.

Bottom line: More research is needed to determine how and why some individuals just get high while others get hooked. Meanwhile, those who do engage in smoking marijuana should take care not to underestimate its addictive power.

How do I recognize a problem with marijuana?

Some warning signs are:

  • More frequent use
  • Needing more and more to get the same effect
  • Spending time thinking about using marijuana
  • Spending more money than you have on it
  • Missing class or failing to finish assignments because of marijuana
  • Making new friends who do it and neglecting old friends who don't
  • Finding it's hard to be happy without it

Because THC is fat soluble and remains in the body for up to 3 weeks, it's important to remember that withdrawal symptoms might not be felt immediately.

If you find that you cannot stop using marijuana, than remember, there's help on campus at the Counseling Center.

Is marijuana illegal?

Currently marijuana is decriminalized in the District of Columbia, and legislation to legalize personal use (Initiative 71) is pending Congressional approval. However, the possession and/or use of any controlled substance (including medical marijuana) on campus is still a violation of the SUU Student Code of Conduct. Please see the SUU Alcohol & Drug Policy for more information.

Which is safer alcohol or marijuana?

The direct impact of any drug, whether its marijuana or alcohol, is dependent on the factors of how it’s used, who’s using it, how much, and under what circumstances. Then again, people who use marijuana or alcohol with the intention of getting high or drunk are more likely to experience the negative consequences of these drugs. The following is a list of short and long-term consequences which can occur.

Alcohol Use

  • Memory loss
  • Impaired judgment
  • Academic, relationship or work problems
  • Liver disease
  • Heart Disease
  • Physical Dependency
  • Depression/Anxiety

Marijuana Use

  • Memory loss
  • Problems thinking clearly
  • Academic, relationship or work problems
  • Dependency
  • Smoking-related health problems
  • Throat/Lung Cancer
  • Depression/Anxiety

An important difference to remember is that it is not possible to ingest a fatal dose of THC from smoking or eating marijuana. While drinking large amounts of alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning, an emergency situation or can be fatal. For more details on alcohol emergencies, refer to How to Help a Friend.

Marijuana and alcohol both prove to significantly reduce reaction ability and motor coordination, skills that are needed to participate in everyday activities (i.e. driving, walking, and going to class). Generally, being drunk or high can compromise judgment and lead to risky decisions that you may not consider when sober.

In short, used responsibly (in the case of alcohol) and/or under the direction of a physician (in places where medical marijuana is legal), these substances can be used safely. But as is often the case, heavy use can lead to unintended consequences.