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Stepaway News Blog

Marijuana - from number to dumber

Marijuana is often referred to as a soft drug and the popular view is that it is harmless and definitely better for you than alcohol and cigarettes.

Marijuana has many names: Dope, Weed, Cannabis, Zol, Dagga, Spliff, Blunt, Ganja and Mary Jane. It is the most widely used illicit drug worldwide and most references use Cannabis to refer to the plant that is smoked or ingested.

Considering the calming and relaxing effect the substance has on its users, it is understandable that many marijuana users believe that the drug is enlightening and even beneficial.

Benefits cited by researchers are that marijuana may inhibit certain epileptic seizures, retard the growth of certain cancers, help with the nausea associated with chemotherapy, and delay the progress of Alzheimer’s to name but a few.

However these benefits, and the reason why medical marijuana has been legalised in some parts of the world, demonstrate that marijuana use creates changes in brain chemistry and in some brain structures to have the effect it does on these life threatening conditions.

These changes to the brain and its functioning are serious and it is important that even casual users be informed about the real risks associated with marijuana use.

After reading this article we hope to have raised a few alarm bells and possibly stirred some questioning about the effects that marijuana smoking has on the body, brain structures and emotional well-being.

At first the use of the substance may be pleasing but recent studies done on the heavy use of Marijuana have brought to light the effects it has on an individual’s dopamine levels.

Dopamine is one of the main ingredients in the brain’s reward system. Pleasurable activities such as eating and sex all release dopamine and in essence this tells the body that it is having a good time.

People who use marijuana on a casual to heavy basis may experience less reward from activities over time than non-users.  Also contrary to popular stereotypes and beliefs, Marijuana users generally feel more irritable, stressed, and just plain lousy on a day to day basis. This is due to Marijuana replacing the normal dopamine delivery system and can literally make you sad.

With ageing, people lose neurons in the hippocampus, decreasing the ability to learn new information and knowledge. Chronic THC exposure may accelerate age-related loss of hippocampal neurons.

Recent studies have highlighted this threat that marijuana poses to the young adolescent, at a critical point in their schooling, where learning may be impaired by regular usage.

A study done by researchers at Northwestern University showed that even casual Marijuana smokers who only smoked once or twice a week showed significant abnormalities in two important brain structures.

The results found were similar to those of past research linking chronic, long-term marijuana use with mental illness and changes in brain development. The interaction of marijuana with brain development could be a significant problem especially for younger users.

The results attained when analysing and studying the effects of chronic use of marijuana indicated that it had adverse effects on an individuals working memory, which is fundamental to everyday activities.

The research used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers then analysed the participants’ brains, focusing on the nucleus accumbens (NAC) and the amygdala. These two key brain regions are responsible for processing emotions, making decisions and motivation. 

Researcher’s then looked at these brain structures in three different ways, measuring their density, volume and shape.

Results showed for the NAC, that all three measures were abnormal with marijuana users, and that the abnormalities were dose-dependent, meaning the changes were larger with the amount of marijuana used.

The amygdala had abnormalities in shape and density, and the volume correlated with the amount used.  Analysing all three types of measures showed that the relationships between them were quite abnormal in the marijuana users, compared to non-users.

Both of these brain regions are central for motivation, the findings from the research done by Northwestern helps to support the theory and observations that marijuana use leads to a condition called amotivation.

Also termed amotivational syndrome, this psychological condition causes people to become less oriented towards their aspirations, goals and purposes in life, as well as less focused in general every day activities.

After this study was conducted, another study was done on the reversal of the effects to which Marijuana had on the participants. Within 28 days, memory problems vanished or were almost non-existent and the participants were no longer distinguishable from their non-user comparison group. However changes and differences in the brain structure remained.

A user’s verbal capacity is often impaired both in speaking and writing, while some users exhibit greater introversion. They become totally involved with the present at the expense of future goals and regularly demonstrate a strong tendency toward regressive, childlike thinking. Another problem with the use of marijuana is the effect it has on an individual’s balance, co-ordination, posture and reaction time.

Also documented is Marijuana’s ability to act as a depressant, young people who have a common genetic predisposition are more vulnerable to depression if they use marijuana.

Studies done by researchers and scientists in the Netherlands on teenagers who smoked marijuana and retained a gene variant linked to the 'happy hormone' serotonin saw an increase in depressive symptoms when they regularly smoked the substance.

Marijuana can also affect different part of the body such as an individual’s reproductive cycle. It changes the structure of sperm cells and therefore deforms them. Thus even small amounts of marijuana can cause temporary sterility in men. Marijuana use can also upset a woman’s menstrual cycle and lead to irregular cycles.

Marijuana consumption in pregnancy is associated with restrictions in growth of the fetus, miscarriage, and cognitive deficits in offspring.

In addition, far from being an innocent herbal puff, Marijuana smoke contains 50% to 70% more cancer-causing substances than tobacco smoke. One major research study reported that a single cannabis joint could cause as much damage to the lungs as up to five regular cigarettes smoked one after another. Long-time joint smokers often suffer from bronchitis, an inflammation of the respiratory tract.

Marijuana dependence develops in between 9-10% of users. Marijuana use is associated with comorbid mental health problems, such as mood and anxiety disorders, and discontinuing marijuana use is difficult for some users.

From the above you will gather that Marijuana is far from being the innocent harmless drug it is often made out to be. Very often it is sustained peer pressure, from adolescence extending well into adulthood, that allow these myths to endure. Our media also tend to make the drug into a ‘safe’ form of rebellion for many young people.

But knowing the harmful effects of a drug should give you cause to consider your health and the choices you are making.

Substance abuse does not have to control you, at Step Away drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre we help to guide our patients through their recovery in the most comfortable and assistive way possible.

We help to prepare them to integrate back into society once their rehabilitation treatment is complete; and we help in the development of coping mechanisms and techniques which aids in everyday life post treatment. 

It’s never too late to stop; your choice of a new life is just a step away.

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