THC: The science behind why marijuana is extremely addictive (and toxic) for you

Last Updated December 20th, 2021

Medical marijuana: The controversies

Medical Marijuana or cannabis legalization for medicinal purposes has been the subject of major controversy. Even though marijuana use for medical purposes is legalized in many U.S states and others are considering this step very seriously, the FDA has given the nod for using marijuana only for two rare medical conditions-related to epilepsy-Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and  Dravet syndrome.

There have been several insights that have delved into the health benefits of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the prominent chemical compound of the marijuana plant. The supporters for the legalization of medical marijuana strongly feel that if cannabis use is decriminalized, it will help regulate the illicit cannabis market, to protect the health of the population.

Understanding the safety and effective use of marijuana, its compounds and properties will help appreciate the use of this plant for medicinal purposes.

Understanding THC

THC or Tetrahydrocannabinol is the main chemical compound present in the resin secreted by glands of the marijuana plant. This chemical is the key psychoactive element in Cannabis.

As many as 480 diverse compounds naturally occur in the Cannabis sativa plant. Nearly  66 of these compounds are called phytocannabinoids. Among these compounds, one stands out for its potent psychoactive property and is popularly called the delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC).

Cannabinoids also occur naturally in the human body, termed as Endocannabinoids. When these cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system (ECS) it can result in several physiological actions.

Focussed research for several years by scientists to study the effects of marijuana on the brain led them to understand the workings of the Endocannabinoid system. The EC system significantly influences how communication occurs in the brain and body which impacts other crucial functions such as human thinking, response, and movement.

Cannabinoid receptors present throughout the human body and also in certain regions of the brain are linked to activities and emotions such as – thinking, pleasure, memory, movements, concentration, coordination, time perception, and sensory processing.

How THC influences behavior?

Marijuana is consumed by smoking the drug as hand-rolled cigarettes or in pipes. To avoid smoking, some employ vaporizers. It can also be consumed as marijuana cookies, which are more potent.

Facts about THC

  • Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the US
  • A study by the University of Montreal published in the journal,‘Development, and Psychopathology’ in 2016 stated that early use of marijuana can affect teens both physiologically and psychologically
  • The school dropout rate among teens using marijuana is high and their cognitive functions are not up to the mark.
  • 10 states in The United States have legalized the use of marijuana for recreational use
  • 33 states have passed laws legalizing the medical use of marijuana
  • A 2016 review on cannabis and cannabinoid showed that CBD is very effective in treating irritable bowel syndrome
  • The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) shows that in 2013 almost 115 million Americans between the age of 12 or older had used marijuana at some point in their life
  • According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), between 2006 and 2010 there was a 59% increase in hospital emergencies in relation to marijuana use
  • Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) found that marijuana-related drug rehabilitation increased by around 14%
  • According to the study conducted by Washington State University, only a section of teenagers used marijuana more often after legalizing the drug in the state.
  • When medical cannabis laws are enacted, there is a noticeable reduction in opiate use. Researchers noticed a 14.4% reduction in the use of prescription opioids
  • Traffic fatalities have been high after cannabis legalization
  • Breath test to detect marijuana use is not accurate. It is, therefore, challenging to determine the level of impairment.
  • After legalization, the use of marijuana is on the rise in North America. The Canadian Journal of Cardiology reported the story of a patient who consumed an edible form of THC. He developed acute chest pain and myocardial ischemia. Edible form of marijuana is highly potent and poses more danger to the heart.

What happens inside the human body after smoking marijuana?

As soon as marijuana enters the body, THC takes over the EC system and attaches itself to cannabinoid receptors throughout the brain and body. Once this happens, the innate capacity of natural cannabinoids of enabling communication between neurons gets disturbed. The entire communication system goes out of balance.

Since the cannabinoid receptors are spread across thebody and brain, the effects are serious. It affects judgment, slows reaction, memory and can increase anxiety.

THC also intoxicates and enables a feeling of ‘high’ or ‘feel good’. THC in the system for prolonged periods due to abuse of marijuana can exert long-lasting effects on mental health, memory,and judgment.

Marijuana Extracts and Properties – THC and CBD

THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD(cannabidiol) are the two main extracts from marijuana. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the popular compound due to its psychoactive qualities, while Cannabidiol (CBD)is known for its medicinal benefits.

Israeli scientist, Rafael Mechoulam, synthesized THC in 1965 to provide a good understanding of this cannabinoid. Few important points about THC and CBD are as follows:

  • THC and CBD are the most prevalent compounds in the marijuana plant, found around the reproductive organs of the plant.
  • These cannabinoids interact with our bodies in unique ways. According to the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, CBD is non-psychoactive and blocks the ‘high’ or euphoric feeling associated with THC. While THC enables intoxication, CBD does not contribute to this effect. While THC activates the CB1 receptor, CBD inhibits it, balancing euphoria.
  • CBD is the second most abundant cannabinoid found in the marijuana plant. Research has shown that the use of CBD is beneficial. It is non-psychoactive and endowed with powerful anti-seizure and anti-anxiety properties. It helps in treating acne, management of Alzheimer’s disease, and works well to treat epilepsy and anxiety.
  • The presence of both cannabinoids balances the effect.

Why is consumption of THC risky?

The intoxicating effects of marijuana make it a popular drug. It happens to be one of the widely used drugs in the world. Abuse of Marijuana is dangerous and can have deleterious effects on the human body.

  • According to NIDA, consumption of THC can lead to an overreaction of brain cell receptors. This can completely damage emotional and physical health when consumed over a prolonged period.
  • THC stimulates brain cells to release dopamine, which induces hallucinations and delusions. This hallucinatory effect kicks in within 10 to 30 minutes after ingestion of marijuana and lasts for about two hours.
  • Psychomotor impairment continues even after the intoxication reduces. This can be damaging to the body in the end.
  • The side effects of THC include short-term memory loss, sedation, and anxiety. Consumers do experience relief from pain.
  • THC can trigger a relapse in schizophrenic symptoms.
  • THC also causes temporary impairment of motor skills in the 3 to 4 hours after use of this drug. This means it is dangerous to drive if you are under the influence of marijuana.
  • THC can also cause difficulty in thinking and trigger extreme mood swings.
  • THC causes a decrease in IQ, memory, and cognition, especially in younger people.
  • THC affects fertility in men and women.
  • Cookies containing THC are highly potent and can result in an overdose. It can affect the gastrointestinal tract much sooner and have long-lasting
  • THC can increase the risk of motor vehicle crashes.
  • Risk of schizophrenia or other psychoses goes up with the use of THC.
  • Marijuana smoking causes lung hyperinflation leading to infections of lung-like pneumonia and chronic bronchitis.
  • Marijuana smoke raises the risk of lung cancer.
  • THC disrupts the function of the cerebellum and basal ganglia, the areas of the brain which regulate balance, posture, coordination, and It is due to this reason that driving under the influence of marijuana is a complete NO.
  • New research aided by Duke University shows THC affects epigenetic leading to structural and regulatory changes in the DNA of users’sperm. Studies are on to find out if these changes are conveyed to the next generation.

How THC affects special population

  • Pregnant women expose themselves to a higher risk of delivering babies with health problems or birth effects with the consumption of THC.
  • It is advisable to stop using cannabis at least six months prior to conceiving.
  • Research on humans shows that babies born to women who consumed marijuana during their pregnancy portrayed autistic tendencies.
  • Use of marijuana in nursing mothers has shown decreased motor development in children at one year of age.
  • Children exposed to marijuana have low problem-solving skills and suffer attention deficit.

Symptoms of Marijuana Abuse

Medical intervention is required when you notice the following symptoms of marijuana abuse.

  • Frequent craving for the drug in a day
  • Increasing the doses of Marijuana due to drug tolerance
  • Using up money meant for household expenses on drugs
  • Taking unnecessary risks under its influence
  • Struggling to lead an active social life, avoiding family and friends and almost becoming a recluse
  • Disruption in occupational and psychosocial functioning
  • Anyone that has smoked marijuana even weekly for six months requires intervention

Treatment for THC addicts

A comprehensive treatment with medications and behavioral therapy can help Marijuana addicts et over the addiction. Rehab victims need to attend one-on-one sessions with a therapist, as well as family therapy sessions.  It is crucial to help them realize their self-worth through counseling sessions. This improves their mental condition. Some of the behavioral therapies that help with Marijuana addiction are:

Cognitive behavioral therapy: helps addicts identify and correct problematic behavior to improve self-esteem and address other associated issues

Contingency management therapy: This is a therapeutic approach to correct target behavior with rewards.

Motivational enhancement therapy: This is systematically designed to motivate the addict by making use of internal abilities.

  • First and foremost it is to recognize the person needs help and encourage taking up treatment
  • Family support plays a crucial role as it can enhance self-confidence and motivate them to get over their addiction
  • A combination of exercise, massage and art therapy sessions
  • Ensure a packed daily routine with activities chock a block in order to get into a routine, leaving no scope to think about drugs
  • It is important to keep in mind that the addicts are not bad or wrong but they can get into the mainstream with help and support
  • A most important part of the treatment is to stay in touch with aftercare support groups. This helps to keep a check on temptation and chances of relapse

Medicinal treatment for THC addicts

Some of the medicines prescribed by the doctors for marijuana addiction are:

  • Baclofen: inhibits the release of various neurotransmitters.
  • Vistaril: An antihistamine that treats nausea and vomiting. This reduces the intensity of the withdrawal symptoms.

Most people undergoing rehabilitation for marijuana addiction complain of sleeplessness. Doctors may prescribe sleeping pills depending upon the degree of insomnia.

Marijuana Withdrawal Symptoms

Some of the withdrawal symptoms of marijuana use are:

  • Sleeplessness
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • A strong urge to start using again
  • Flu-like symptoms

Role of Family and Friends in De-addiction

  • Family and friends have to pitch in at this time to help addicts overcome addiction
  • A sustained well-balanced effort will help when addicts show signs of irritability, restlessness, and sleeplessness during the rehabilitation phase
  • Encouragement and support to combat negative feelings is crucial

Medicinal benefits of  THC

Marijuana as medicine has been in use for more than 3,000 years. More than half of the United States has legalized the use of marijuana for both recreational and medicinal purposes. Studies have revealed that THC has additional benefits when used in the right doses as prescribed by the doctor.

  • Dronabinol is the synthesized form of THC extracted from marijuana. This is recommended for cancer patients to prevent nausea and vomiting associated with cancer drugs
  • Dronabinol is also used to increase appetite among AIDS victims
  • This drug can also improve memory when taken in small doses, according to a 2016 study done on mice.
  • Chronic pain in some patients can be effectively treated with marijuana.
  • Patients with multiple sclerosis experience improvement in symptoms with oral cannabinoids.
  • Medical marijuana brings immense relief to older people suffering from sleep disorders.
  • Marijuana can treat certain chronic conditions like spinal cord damage.

Preventing abuse of THC

  • Create awareness about the damaging effects of THC intake in schools, colleges, and offices.
  • workplaces. Since most marijuana use begins at school, awareness drive at school to caution students against marijuana use will help reduce the incidence of abuse
  • Parents and school authorities must keep a check on children
  • Regular urine examination can detect marijuana use to initiate timely action.
  • Print media and electronic media must actively participate in awareness programs to curb drug abuse. The focus should be on providing information about the physiological and psychological impact of abusing THC



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