Marijuana is a drug made from the buds and leaves of the cannabis plant. These parts of the plant are dried and then either smoked as cigarettes or consumed in other ways.
People consume marijuana in order to alter their state of consciousness or achieve a state of relaxation. This experience is called a high, and it can be achieved through many different means, including smoking, vaporizing, or eating food with marijuana cooked in as an ingredient.
Because marijuana may help treat chronic pain and other conditions, the drug is also consumed for medicinal purposes.
Marijuana also goes by the names pot, weed, grass, and ganja.
Cannabis is the botanical name of the plant, and marijuana is the name for the drug derived from the plant. You can grow cannabis, but what you smoke is marijuana.
While it does not lead to addiction in the way heroin or cocaine does, and many argue that its highs are no more intense or damaging than those given by alcohol, marijuana is considered illegal under United States federal law.
But certain states, such as California, have made it legal for their residents to consume marijuana either medicinally, or medicinally and recreationally.
How Does Marijuana Make You High? THC vs. CBD
The active ingredients in marijuana are chemicals known as cannabinoids.
Marijuana contains more than 100 cannabinoids, naturally occurring compounds found in plants and animals — they even occur in humans. The cannabinoids present in your brain and throughout your body are called endocannabinoids. These chemicals play an important role in thinking, memory, and sensory perception, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)). (1)
The cannabinoids that produce marijuana’s effects are tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and cannabidiol, or CBD. THC and CBD act on different neurological pathways and create different physical and mental reactions.
THC, for instance, is much more psychoactive, which means it can affect the way your brain perceives the world around it. It acts on the body’s endocannabinoid system and is the cannabinoid responsible for making people feel intoxicated or euphoric.
THC is what makes people “high.”
CBD doesn’t act on the same neurological pathways. Researchers believe that CBD acts instead on the brain’s serotonin system, which regulates mood, sleep, appetite, and desire. It may calm and relax you rather than alter your perception. It also doesn’t affect physical reactions as much.
The amount of THC and CBD in each cannabis plant is variable and depends on how it was grown, prepared, and stored. The more THC a plant has, the stronger its effects.
Marijuana also contains hundreds of other chemicals, the amounts varying from plant to plant.
There are two main types of cannabis plants used for marijuana: sativa and indica. Each produces slightly different effects. There are also hybrid plants grown to combine the two strains.
Hemp plants, which are another type of cannabis plant, do not produce the high (or anywhere near the high) that sativa and indica plants do.
Marijuana’s capacity for relieving stress, relaxing the body, and changing your perception has made it a popular recreational drug for thousands of years.
According to a 2016 report from the United Nations, it’s the most widely used drug in the world. (2) An estimated 182.5 million people partake of it globally. (2)
Not only is it the world’s most consumed drug, but in the United States, there’s been an estimated six or seven-fold increase in its potency since the 1970s. (3) According to a study published in September 2017 in Clinical Dialogues in Neurology, potency has been increasing in similar ways in Europe as well. (4)
From 1995 to 2014, the average amount of THC in marijuana has increased from 4 to 12 percent, says Staci Gruber, PhD, the director of the Cognitive and Clinical Neuroimaging Core program at McLean Hospital, and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston. She adds that when her lab has analyzed the THC content of the products used by individuals participating in her research over the last few years, they’ve found an average 16 to 18 percent increase. “People want more of a high for their money,” she adds, “and growers have responded accordingly.”
Why Is Marijuana Used as Medicine, and What Conditions Can It Help Treat?
The use of marijuana for medical purposes dates back possibly as far as 5,000 years. (5)
In the United States, over the last few decades, there has been an increase in the acceptability of using marijuana to treat a wide variety of medical conditions.
Because cannabinoids affect physical and mental processes, and it’s thought that they may not produce the adverse effects of prescription drugs, people have found marijuana useful in treating pain, nausea, and loss of appetite related to cancer, AIDS, and other illnesses.
Marijuana has proved so beneficial in those cases that there are now a handful of FDA-approved prescription drugs that contain cannabis or synthetic cannabis. These were designed for and are used to treat AIDS- and cancer-related anorexia. And the FDA has approved a cannabis-based drug to treat seizures in children with rare and severe forms of epilepsy. (6)
According to the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL), it’s now legal to use some form of marijuana for medicinal purposes in 46 states and the District of Columbia. (7)
Studies suggest that medical use of marijuana may help treat a number of conditions or their symptoms, including anxiety, sleep disorders, chronic pain, MS-related spasticity, arthritis inflammation, and Crohn’s disease. In addition, some people have used marijuana instead of prescription painkillers. (8,9,10)
There are many forms of medical marijuana. It can be smoked, but it can also be consumed as an edible, as a vapor, as a tincture, and in capsules.
Researchers are currently investigating its properties, its potential uses, and what the possible long-term effects of using it medicinally might be.
Since long-term effects aren’t yet known, you should talk to a doctor before incorporating marijuana into any treatment plan.
There’s a perception that because this drug comes from a plant, it’s natural and free of harmful toxins or adverse effects. But the increase in potency and lack of regulation of its production means that not all marijuana is safe.