Weed, pot, cannabis… no matter what you call it, marijuana is a hot topic these days, with more and more states legalizing the drug. Many people say marijuana is safer and less addicting than alcohol or tobacco—but is it really safe? We talked to collegiettes and Michael Pierce, M.D., a Connecticut-based psychiatrist, for the lowdown on getting high.
You, on marijuana
You probably knew the kids in high school who smoked behind the school or baked weed into brownies. But in college, many students still turn to weed for a buzz. What about marijuana makes the drug so appealing to college students? According to Dr. Pierce, THC, a chemical found in marijuana, mimics specific neurotransmitters in your brain after it’s inhaled or ingested, which then activate certain neurons that will create side effects in your body. Smoking pot causes several different side effects. “You get giddy and spacey and fascinated by sounds and visuals, then you get the munchies and feel like taking a nap,” Dr. Pierce says.
Marijuana affects people differently, but the most common short-term side effects include distorted perception, loss of coordination, and increased heart rate. Sometimes, anxiety and paranoia can occur, depending on the person.
For Justine, a student at Johns Hopkins University, pot makes her sleepy, hungry, and less anxious. For other girls, like Jane*, a collegiette at Vassar College, marijuana has a relaxing effect. “Weed does have a tendency to make me sleepy. If I get too high and I still have homework to do, I find it hard to concentrate,” she says. “When I smoke… all food tastes incredibly delicious, and I want to eat all of it!”
Long-term side effects
Like any drug, marijuana can be risky. “As with any substance, including food, excess intake is associated with adverse effects,” Dr. Pierce says. “Individuals may be more or less vulnerable to the potential adverse effects, ranging from blunted affect (apathetic mood) to paranoia and memory impairment.” Dr. Pierce doesn’t call marijuana addictive per se but says it can be “habit-forming and self-reinforcing.”
Dr. Pierce also says that “long-term use can lead to accumulation in fat tissue (not unlike many pharmaceuticals), such that it is detectable after chronic use for days to weeks.” In non-medical terms, that means that if you’re a frequent marijuana user, the drug will be stored in your body long-term and will show up if you have to take a drug test. When any drug builds up significantly in your body, there can be negative effects on your memory, information processing, and attention span—even if you’re no longer using marijuana. Smoking every once in a while is unlikely to produce these long-term effects, however.
Marijuana can certainly be abused, even if we don’t hear about it as much as alcohol or tobacco abuse. You’re probably abusing the drug if you’re smoking every day for weeks or months at a time.
However, marijuana overuse won’t kill you, Dr. Pierce says. “There are risks of habitual overuse, as is true of sugar, coffee, video games, and Facebook, though there is no evidence for physical dependence,” he says. “Marijuana is safer than many, if not most modern pharmaceuticals (all medicine). There is no potential for lethal overdose, which has never occurred.”
The bottom line
The argument for medical usage of marijuana has as many proponents as it does critics. Dr. Pierce says marijuana can be used in many therapeutic contexts, including pain relief, nausea relief, and help for AIDS and chemotherapy patients. Many studies have been done on the use of medicinal marijuana. As Dr. Pierce said, while marijuana can be abused, it is not lethal in high doses (like alcohol or prescription drugs are), and it is less likely to cause addiction than other drugs.
However, many critics of marijuana argue that prolonged usage of the drug can predispose the user to mental disorders like schizophrenia. They also claim that marijuana can be a “gateway” to harder drugs, like ecstasy and cocaine. Research is still being conducted on these side effects.
“Some studies claim that [marijuana] leads to psychosis in early-onset schizophrenia, though young people with symptoms of schizophrenia may be more inclined to seek substances to calm their minds, and may become more disorganized when high. So getting high may hasten the onset of psychosis for those who are destined to become psychotic,” Dr. Pierce says. “In contrast, I have known patients with psychotic illnesses who were relieved from their psychotic symptoms when they got high. It's really not simple.” Basically, if you’re predisposed to a certain health condition, such as a mental disorder or an addiction, using marijuana may be the key that “unlocks” that condition that was built into you all along. Unfortunately, Dr. Pierce says it’s incredibly tricky to predict this, so if you’re in any doubt, talk to your doctor.
No matter where you stand on the marijuana topic, there are ways you can enjoy a buzz safely and smartly. Dr. Pierce says occasional marijuana use is generally safe (aside from legal ramifications, if it is illegal in your state). He explains that, especially for college students, the greater risk is alcohol, which, unlike marijuana, can produce intense bodily harm even after one use and can result in death.
If you’re a college student, there are a few things you should know before you pick up a joint:
- Think twice before combining pot and alcohol. Getting drunk and then smoking a lot of weed can be harmful. Jane says combining alcohol and pot makes her vomit and become very dizzy. If you’re going to partake in either activity, stick to one or the other. “I think for a lot of people it is really easy to overdo it when mixing the two and [they] end up feeling sick,” Jane says.
- Be aware of how you’re using it. When you smoke pot, you’ll start to feel the effects quickly. If you ingest it (as tea or baked into foods), it will take longer to feel the effects, but they will last longer. Be aware of how marijuana affects you, so you don’t try to do activities that might be difficult when you’re high. Which leads us to…
- Don’t drive while high. Some college students argue that driving while high is safe, unlike alcohol. However, the truth is that pot does affect coordination and processing skills, two things you definitely need on the road. Wait until the high is out of your system before you get behind the wheel. Or, if your buzzed friend wants to drive, stall until you’re both sober. Better yet, if you plan on smoking pot, keep yourself in a situation where no car is required. You could also consider having a designated driver if you plan on getting high. Have a plan before you use marijuana so you stay safe.
- Be careful of abusing pot. If you’re using marijuana every day or most days of the week, you’re probably abusing it. Talk to a doctor or a counselor at your campus health center if you think you might have a problem with marijuana. They can help you get back on track so that you can avoid any long-term health consequences.
Like all drugs, marijuana can be abused and cause serious side effects. Although some college students may argue that it’s safe, there are side effects you need to be aware of—not to mention legal ramifications if marijuana is illegal in your state. A few hours of fun aren’t worth damaging your health or your record!
*Name has been changed