How Pot Affects Your Mind and Body

Marijuana, weed, pot, dope, grass. They’re different names for the same drug that comes from the cannabis plant. You can smoke it, vape it, drink it, or eat it. Most folks use marijuana for pleasure and recreation. But a growing number of doctors prescribe it for specific medical conditions and symptoms.

Marijuana has mind-altering compounds that affect both your brain and body. It can be addictive, and it may be harmful to some people’s health. Here’s what can happen when you use marijuana:

Video Transcript

American Cancer Society: “Marijuana and Cancer.”; Mayo Clinic: “Medical marijuana,” “Is medical marijuana legal?”; American Lung Association: “Marijuana and Lung Health.”

AREFA CASSOOBHOY: Medical marijuana. It's in the news as more and more states legalize it. But what is it used for? Studies show that marijuana may help several conditions. It's most commonly prescribed for chemotherapy side effects like nausea, vomiting, or weight loss. Muscle spasms and stiffness caused by multiple sclerosis. Various pain syndromes and seizures. It can be taken several ways. Inhaled, either through smoke or vapor, as an edible like in a cookie or an herbal tea, or as a liquid under the tongue. But marijuana is not without side effects. It can cause dizziness, confusion, and drowsiness. It can worsen some mental illnesses like depression. And like cigarettes, when smoked, it can hurt your lungs. So if you live in a legal state, talk to your doctor. Like any treatment, you can weigh the benefits and risks to determine if medical marijuana is right for you. For WebMD, I'm Dr. Arefa Cassoobhoy.

You Can Get “High”

It’s why most people try pot. The main psychoactive ingredient, THC, stimulates the part of your brain that responds to pleasure, like food and sex. That unleashes a chemical called dopamine, which gives you a euphoric, relaxed feeling.

If you vape or smoke weed, the THC could get into your bloodstream quickly enough for you to get your high in seconds or minutes. The THC level usually peaks in about 30 minutes, and its effects may wear off in 1-3 hours. If you drink or eat pot, it make take many hours for you to fully sober up. You may not always know how potent your recreational marijuana might be. That also goes for most medical marijuana.

It May Affect Your Mental Health

Not everyone’s experience with marijuana is pleasant. It often can leave you anxious, afraid, or panicked. Using pot may raise your chances for clinical depression or worsen the symptoms of any mental disorders you already have. Scientists aren’t yet sure exactly why. In high doses, it can make you paranoid or lose touch with reality so you hear or see things that aren’t there.

Your Thinking May Get Distorted

Marijuana can cloud your senses and judgment. The effects can differ depending on things like how potent your pot was, how you took it, and much marijuana you’ve used in the past. It might:

  • Heighten your senses (colors might seem brighter and sounds might seem louder)
  • Distort your sense of time
  • Hurt your motor skills and make driving more dangerous
  • Lower your inhibitions so you may have risky sex or take other chances

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You May Get Hooked

About 1 in 10 people who use pot will become addicted. That means you can’t stop using it even if it harms your relationships, job, health, or finances. The risk is greater the younger you start marijuana and the more heavily you use it. For instance, the odds of addiction are 1 in 6 if you use pot in your teens. It might be as high as 1 in 2 among those who use it every day.

You could also grow physically dependent on marijuana. Your body could go into withdrawal, leaving you irritable, restless, unable to sleep, and uninterested in eating.

It May Impair Your Brain

Marijuana can make it harder for you to focus, learn, and remember things. This seems to be a short-term effect that lasts for 24 hours or longer after you stop smoking.

But using pot heavily, especially in your teen years, may leave more permanent effects. Imaging tests with some -- but not all -- adolescents found that marijuana may physically change their brains. Specifically, they had fewer connections in parts of the brain linked to alertness, learning, and memory, and tests show lower IQ scores in some people.

Your Lungs May Hurt

Pot smoke can inflame and irritate your lungs. If you use it regularly, you could have the same breathing problems as someone who smokes cigarettes. That could mean ongoing cough with colored mucus. Your lungs may more easily pick up infections. That’s partly because THC seems to weaken some users’ immune systems.

It May Ease Your Pain and Other Symptoms

Medical marijuana is legal in some form in a majority of states. And more than 10 states and Washington, DC, have legalized recreational pot. But the federal government’s ban on marijuana has made it hard to study its effects on humans. Limited research shows that medicinal pot might help:

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You May Feel Hungrier

Many people who use weed regularly notice that it boosts their appetite. They call this “the munchies.” Some research suggests that might help people with AIDS, cancer, or other illnesses regain weight. Scientists are studying this and whether it’s safe.

It May Harm Your Heart

Marijuana makes your heart work harder. Normally the heart beats about 50 to 70 times a minute. But that can jump to 70 to 120 beats or more per minute for 3 hours after the effects of pot kick in. The added strain plus tar and other chemicals in pot may raise your chance of heart attack or stroke. The danger is even bigger if you’re older or if you already have heart problems.

It Intensifies Alcohol’s Dangers

More than 1 in 10 drinkers say they have used marijuana in the past year. Combining alcohol and pot at the same time roughly doubled the odds of drunk driving or legal, professional, or personal problems compared to drinking alone.

Your Newborn Might Be Underweight

Mothers who smoke pot while pregnant face a higher risk of giving birth to underweight or premature babies. But researchers don’t know enough to say if those infants are more likely to grow up to struggle in school, use drugs, or have other problems in life.

Connection to Cancer Is Unclear

Researchers haven’t found any links between smoking weed and cancers in the lung, head, or the neck. Limited evidence suggests that heavy marijuana use may lead to one type of testicular cancer. We don’t have enough information whether cannabis may lead to other cancers, including:

What’s CBD?

It’s short for cannabidiol, a substance found in both marijuana and hemp plants. It doesn’t make you high. CBD can be made into CBD oil and sold as pills, gels, creams, and other formulas. Some people use CBD to treat pain, seizures, and other health problems. But scientists aren’t yet sure how well it works or if it’s safe over the long term. Lack of regulation means you can’t always know exactly what you’re buying.

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Ways to Use Marijuana

You can use pot in a variety of ways. Smoking usually offers the quickest way to feel its effects:

  • Rolled cigarettes
  • Small handheld pipes
  • Water pipes, called a bong
  • A cigar that has been hollowed out and refilled with marijuana, called a blunt
  • Sticky resins drawn from the cannabis plant. Resins often are loaded with much higher amounts of THC than regular marijuana

You also can mix pot into brownies, cookies, candy, tea, and other foods. Eating and drinking the drug delay the high because it has to travel through your digestive system before the THC gets into your bloodstream. So it may take 30 minutes to 2 hours before you feel anything. But edibles give you a high that lasts much longer -- up to 8 hours -- than if you smoke or vape weed.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on August 13, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: “Marijuana and Cancer.”

National Health Service (UK): “Cannabis: the facts.”

Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research: “An Update on Safety and Side Effects of Cannabidiol: A Review of Clinical Data and Relevant Animal Studies.”

CBD.org: “The Care By Design product family.”

CDC: “Marijuana and Public Health.”

Colorado Department of Public Health: “FAQ -- Health Effects of Marijuana.”

Consumer Reports: “What Is CBD? What to Know Now About This Cannabis Product.”

Epilepsy Currents: “Cannabidiol: Promise and Pitfalls.”

European Journal of Pain: “Transdermal cannabidiol reduces inflammation and pain-related behaviours in a rat model of arthritis.”

Government of Canada Department of Public Health: “Health effects of cannabis.”

Harm Reduction Journal: “Cannabis and tobacco smoke are not equally carcinogenic.”

Journal of Epilepsy Research: “Cannabinoids in the Treatment of Epilepsy: Hard Evidence at Last?”

Journal of Experimental Medicine: “Cannabinoids suppress inflammatory and neuropathic pain by targeting α3 glycine receptors.”

Mayo Clinic: “Marijuana,” “Medical marijuana.”

National Academies Press: “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research.”

National Cancer Institute: “Cannabis and Cannabinoids (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version.”

National Institute on Drug Abuse: “Marijuana,” “What is marijuana?” “How does marijuana work?” “Secondhand Marijuana Smoke?” “What are marijuana's effects on lung health?” “What are marijuana's long-term effects on the brain?” “Researching Marijuana for Therapeutic Purposes: The Potential Promise of Cannabidiol (CBD).”

Nemours Foundation: “Marijuana.”

New England Journal of Medicine: “Adverse Health Effects of Marijuana Use.”

Michele Baggio, University of Connecticut; Alberto Chong, Georgia State University: “Recreational Marijuana Laws and Junk Food Consumption: Evidence Using Border Analysis and Retail Sales Data.”

University of Mississippi: “Marijuana Research.”

FDA: “FDA approves first drug comprised of an active ingredient derived from marijuana to treat rare, severe forms of epilepsy.”

World Health Organization: “Cannabis.”

Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research: “Simultaneous vs. concurrent use of alcohol and cannabis in the National Alcohol Survey.”

Annual Review of Clinical Psychology: “Medical Marijuana and Marijuana Legalization.”

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