What is cannabis?
Cannabis is a drug that comes from Indian hemp plants such as Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. The active chemical in cannabis is THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol).
Cannabis is a depressant drug. Depressants do not necessarily make the person feel depressed. Rather, they affect the central nervous system by slowing down the messages going between the brain and the body.
What does it look like?
There are three main forms of cannabis:
- Marijuana is the most common and least powerful form of cannabis. It is the dried leaves and flowers of the plant. Marijuana looks like chopped grass, and ranges in colour from grey-green to greenish-brown. Marijuana is smoked in hand-rolled cigarettes (joints) or in a pipe (a bong).
- Hashish (hash) is dried cannabis resin which comes in small blocks. The blocks range in colour from light brown to nearly black. The concentration of THC in hashish is higher than in marijuana, producing stronger effects. Hash is added to tobacco and smoked, or baked and eaten in foods such as “hash cookies”.
- Hash oil is a thick, oily liquid, golden-brown to black, that can be extracted from hashish. It is usually spread on the tip or paper of cigarettes and then smoked. Hash oil is more powerful than the other forms of cannabis. This form is rarely found in Australia.
A non-potent form of cannabis (Indian hemp) is used to produce fibres for use in paper, textiles and clothing.
THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol) is the chemical in cannabis that makes you feel “high”. This means you experience a change in mood and may see or feel things in a different way. Some parts of the plant contain a higher level of THC. For example, the flowers, or “heads”, have more THC than the stems and leaves.
THC is absorbed into the bloodstream through the walls of the lungs (if cannabis is smoked), or through the walls of the stomach and intestines (if eaten). The bloodstream carries the THC to the brain, producing the “high” effects. Drugs that are inhaled get into the bloodstream quicker than those eaten.
“Grass”, “pot”, “hash”, “weed”, “reefer”, “dope”, “herb”, “mull”, “buddha”, “ganja”, “joint”, “stick”, “buckets”, “cones”, “skunk”, “hydro”, “yarndi“, “smoke”, “hooch”
Effects of cannabis
The effects of any drug (including cannabis) vary from person to person. It depends on many factors, including an individual’s size, weight and health, how the drug is taken, how much is taken, whether the person is used to taking it and whether other drugs are taken.
Small doses of cannabis can have effects that last 2–4 hours after smoking. These effects include:
- relaxation and loss of inhibition
- increased appetite
- affected perception of colour, sound and other sensations
- impaired coordination
- affected thinking and memory.
Other common immediate effects include increased heart rate, low blood pressure and reddened eyes.
In greater quantities
Larger quantities of marijuana make the above effects stronger, and also tend to distort a person’s perceptions.
Very large quantities of marijuana can produce:
- feelings of excitement
- anxiety or panic, or detachment from reality
- decreased reaction time
Research shows evidence of some long-term effects in some regular cannabis users.
- Respiratory illness
The way that cannabis is smoked means that more tar is inhaled and retained in the lungs than tobacco, placing cannabis users at an increased risk of respiratory illness such as lung cancer and chronic bronchitis. Cigarette smokers who also smoke cannabis have an even greater risk of respiratory disease.
- Reduced motivation
Many regular users have reported that they have less energy and motivation, so that performance at work or school suffers.
- Brain function
Concentration, memory and the ability to learn can all be reduced by regular cannabis use. These effects can last for several months after ceasing cannabis use.
Cannabis can affect hormone production. Research shows that some cannabis users have a lower sex drive. Irregular menstrual cycles and lowered sperm counts have also been reported.
- Immune system
There is some concern that cannabis smoking may impair the functioning of the immune system.
Cannabis and psychosis
It is believed that cannabis use—especially if heavy and regular—may be linked to a condition known as a drug-induced psychosis, or “cannabis psychosis”. This can last up to a few days. The episodes are often characterised by hallucinations, delusions, memory loss and confusion.
There is some evidence that regular cannabis use increases the likelihood of psychotic symptoms occurring in an individual who is vulnerable due to a personal or family history of mental illness. Cannabis also appears to make psychotic symptoms worse for those with schizophrenia and lowers the chances of recovery from a psychotic episode.
Tolerance and dependence
With regular use, people can develop a mild tolerance to cannabis. This means they need to take more and more to get the same effect.
Heavy and frequent use of cannabis can cause physical dependence. Physical dependence occurs when a person’s body has adapted to a drug and is used to functioning with the drug present.
It is possible to become psychologically dependent on cannabis. This means that using cannabis becomes far more important than other activities in their life. Some people crave the drug and find it very difficult to stop using it.
Abrupt termination of cannabis use can produce withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms include sleep disturbance, irritability, loss of appetite, nervousness, anxiety, sweating and upset stomach. Sometimes chills, increased body temperature and tremors occur. The withdrawal symptoms usually last for less than a week, although the sleep disturbances may persist for longer.
There are a number of drug treatment options available in Australia. Some treatment options include counselling, withdrawal (detoxification) and medication. Most programs adopt strategies that have an overall aim of reducing the harms and risks related to the person’s drug use.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
If cannabis is used during pregnancy the baby may be born smaller and lighter than other babies. Low birth weight can be associated with infections and breathing problems. There is also some evidence that cannabis use during pregnancy may affect the baby’s behaviour.
Little is known about the effects of cannabis use on breastfeeding. It is believed that some of the drug will pass through the breast milk to the baby, and the baby may become unsettled and demand frequent feeding.