What is Marijuana? Benefits, side effects and more to know

If you still don’t know what 4/20 is, this one’s for you.

The United States has come a long way since the days of “Reefer Madness,” with 10 states legalizing the recreational use of marijuana and several more working toward the same goal — including New York.

While marijuana remains illegal on the federal, state and local levels (despite what your nose may tell you on a walk down many NYC streets), a shift in social consciousness in recent years has resulted in a state-level push to decriminalize the drug.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed in his budget address to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana. It was later dropped from the 2019-20 budget, but lawmakers say marijuana legalization remains a top legislative priority for them this year. Although discourse over how to ensure communities of color, which have been disproportionately targeted by the enforcement of marijuana laws, benefit from legalization could further stall negotiations.

While you wait for lawmakers to hammer out the details, scroll down to learn more about marijuana, its benefits, side effects and more.

What is marijuana?

Weed, pot, reefer, cheeba — marijuana has many nicknames and comes in many forms.

On a basic level, marijuana is made up of the dried leaves and flowers from a cannabis plant, which grows naturally but can also be cultivated in a controlled indoor environment.

Marijuana contains psychoactive compounds like tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly called THC, that have a mind-altering effect on the user. THC, which is found in resin that the leaves and buds produce, is just one of over 500 chemicals that have been identified in marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

But not all marijuana is the same and its effects can vary based on factors such as THC potency and the way it’s ingested into the body, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How is marijuana used?

There are several ways marijuana can be used. Here are some of the most common methods, according to NIDA:

Smoking: Perhaps the most common way of ingesting the drug is by smoking it. There are various ways of smoking marijuana, including through a pipe, a water pipe known as a bong, rolled up in paper like a joint or rolled in a cigar shell, which is commonly called a blunt.

Edibles: Marijuana can also be mixed in with food and eaten (brownies, cookies and candies are common) or brewed in tea.

Vaporizers: This method is similar to smoking marijuana — minus the smoke. There are devices that use electric forms of heat to pull the THC and other compounds out of the marijuana (or a liquid marijuana extract; we’ll get to that next), which forms a vapor that can be inhaled.

Extracts: Remember how THC is found in the resin produced by the plant? There are processes that enable the extraction of concentrated resins with high doses of THC and other psychoactive compounds. These extracts tend to be stronger in potency than other forms of marijuana. Some common extracts include hash oil, waxy budder and shatter, which is hard in consistency. These extracts can be vaporized and inhaled in a process commonly called dabbing.

What are the short-term effects of getting high?

The “high” people feel when they ingest marijuana comes from THC’s effects on various parts of the brain, including areas that control judgment, movement, sensation, vision, memory, reward and coordination, according to NIDA.

Among the short-term effects THC can have are:

  • altered senses;
  • mood changes;
  • impaired movement;
  • altered sense of time;
  • impaired memory;
  • problems with attention or focus;
  • and difficulty with problem-solving.

Someone who has ingested a high dose of THC can experience more severe effects, including hallucinations, delusions and psychosis, per NIDA research. No one has ever overdosed solely from marijuana use.

All of these effects can impact an individual’s relationships as well, the CDC advises.

Are there long-term side effects?

Research is still being conducted on what the long-term effects of marijuana could be, but both the CDC and NIDA suggest it can impact brain development for people who use the drug regularly before the age of 18.

Smoking marijuana regularly as a teen can reduce attention, memory and learning functions, per the CDC and NIDA. It can also have an impact on the way the brain builds connections between those areas.

There are also studies that show a possible link between mothers who use marijuana during pregnancy and issues related to memory, attention, problem-solving and behavior in their children, according to the CDC.

The agency also notes that smoking marijuana can damage the respiratory system.

Overall though, there is still a lot to learn about the possible long-term effects marijuana can have on the brain and body. A branch within NIDA is currently tracking a large sample of young Americans from late childhood to early adulthood as part of a study to help clarify the long-term effects.

Are there medical benefits to marijuana?

There are studies and research that suggest marijuana can help people who suffer from illnesses and conditions ranging from cancer and multiple sclerosis to chronic pain and tremors.

More than a dozen states have enacted medical marijuana programs with varying degrees of strictness on who is eligible and what is available for use.

New York’s Compassionate Care Act, passed in 2014, made medical marijuana legal for those with such illnesses or conditions as cancer, HIV/AIDS, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. The program offers medicinal marijuana in varying forms, including capsules, tinctures and vaporizer pens.

Despite state support, the CDC and NIDA take a more conservative stance on using marijuana as medicine. The agencies suggest that while marijuana may help alleviate some symptoms like nausea in cancer patients or lack of appetite in HIV-positive patients, there is not enough research to prove the plant’s ingredients — both psychoactive and non-psychoactive — effectively treat or cure these conditions.

Is Marijuana addictive?

Long-term use of marijuana can lead to the development of a substance abuse disorder, according to NIDA. People who begin using pot regularly in their teens are more likely to develop marijuana use disorder, research shows.

It’s important to point out, however, that withdrawal symptoms reported by someone with marijuana use disorder are milder compared to other drugs that cause more severe addictions. Those symptoms include sleeplessness, decreased appetite, anxiety and cravings.

Is there a difference between Marijuana and CBD?

CBD (cannabidiol) is a compound within the cannabis plant, which means it is actually part of marijuana itself.

Unlike THC, CBD is not psychoactive and could provide medical benefits to a patient without the “high” feeling. This is because it effects different parts of the nervous system than THC does, according NIDA.

But much like THC (and marijuana in general), CBD’s health benefits are still being researched.

Lauren Cook