What to Know About Marijuana Use

Marijuana refers to the dried leaves, stems, flowers, and seeds from the hemp plant Cannabis. The main active ingredient in marijuana is the mind-altering chemical delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Marijuana is the most common illegal drug used in the United States. According to a national survey on drug use and health from 2018, about 43.5 million Americans over the age of 12 used marijuana in the last year.

As of the 2018 midterm elections, 10 states and Washington, DC had legalized marijuana for recreational use for adults over the age of 21. Over 30 states have laws on the books legalizing marijuana for medical use only, while several others have only legalized oils with low-THC content. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

Also Known As: There are over 200 slang terms for marijuana, including pot, herb, weed, grass, widow, boom, ganja, hash, Mary Jane, cannabis, bubble gum, northern lights, fruity juice, gangster, Afghani #1, skunk, and chronic.

Drug Class: Marijuana is often classified as a depressant, although it also has stimulant and hallucinogenic properties.

Common Side Effects: Side effects of marijuana use include altered senses, mood changes, difficulty thinking, and impaired memory. In high doses, it can lead to hallucinations, psychosis, and delusions.

How to Recognize Marijuana

Marijuana looks like a shredded, green-brown mix of plant material. But it can look different depending on how it is prepared or packaged.

What Does Marijuana Do?

The membranes of certain nerve cells in the brain contain receptors that bind to THC, kicking off a series of cellular reactions that ultimately lead to the high people experience when they use marijuana. People use the drug because it elevates their mood and relaxes them. Depending on the level of THC, users may also experience euphoria, hallucinations, and paranoia.2

The most common way to use marijuana is to smoke it. It is often rolled into a cigarette “joint,” added to an emptied cigar casing to create a “blunt,” or smoked in a pipe or a water pipe “bong.”

A newly popular method of use is smoking or eating different forms of THC-rich resins extracted from the marijuana plant. It can also be baked into food (called edibles) such as brownies, cookies, or candy, or brewed as a tea.

What the Experts Say

Marijuana use can be particularly problematic among teens because it may have a long-term impact on mental abilities including memory, learning, and thinking. One 2012 study found that participants who had begun smoking marijuana in their teens lost an average of eight IQ points.3

Because the most common method of use is smoking, marijuana use also poses respiratory risks and other smoking-related dangers. Smoking marijuana may increase the risk of wheezing, shortness of breath, and chronic coughing.4 According to a review published in 2015, research is mixed on whether or not smoking marijuana increases the risk of cancer. Some studies have suggested that there may be an increased risk, while others have found that marijuana use may actually have a protective effect.5

There is some evidence that exposure to marijuana may make it easier to use “harder” drugs. However, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) suggests that most people who use marijuana do not go on to become addicted to other substances.6

Despite these risks, there are reasons why people choose to continue to use marijuana. One study published in 2016 found people report using marijuana to:7

  • Relieve stress or tension
  • Escape life’s problems
  • Ease boredom
  • Feel good or euphoric
  • Fit in socially

Off-Label or Recently Approved Uses

In addition to its use as a recreational drug, marijuana has a long history of use for medicinal purposes. While it has not been approved by the FDA, many states in the U.S. have legalized marijuana for at least some medical purposes.

Medical marijuana is utilized to treat the symptoms of conditions rather than as a treatment for the condition itself. Research through 2017 suggests that marijuana is most effective in the treatment of muscles spasms, chronic pain, and nausea, making it helpful in relieving the symptoms of conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and epilepsy.8

Some of the conditions that medical marijuana has been approved to treat in many states include: