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What Is Marijuana and Who Uses It?

Marijuana is the most widely used illegal drug in the United States. It is a dry, shredded green/brown mix of flowers, stems, seeds, and leaves of the plant Cannabis sativa. A stronger form of marijuana called hashish (hash) looks like brown or black cakes or balls. Street names for marijuana include pot, herb, weed, grass, Jane, reefer, dope, and ganja. Marijuana is typically smoked in cigarettes (joints or spliffs), hollowed-out cigars (blunts), pipes (bowls), or water pipes (bongs). Some people mix it into food or brew it as a tea.

What Are the Short-Term Effects of Marijuana?

The main active chemical in marijuana is THC (delta9tetrahydrocannabinol). When smoked, THC passes from the lungs into the bloodstream, which transports it to the brain and other organs. When it reaches the brain, THC connects with a certain type of receptor on nerve cells in areas that affect coordination, thought, memory, concentration, sensory and time perception, and pleasure. This causes the marijuana "high." Marijuana users can experience these short-term effects:
•distorted perception
•difficulty in thinking and problem solving
•problems with memory and learning
•loss of coordination

These changes in perception and coordination make activities like driving dangerous while under the influence of the drug. Approximately 38,000 U.S. high school seniors reported in 2001 that they crashed while driving under the influence of marijuana and 46,000 reported that they crashed while under the influence of alcohol. Smoking marijuana and then driving is similar to driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.07% to 0.10%, which is considered legally drunk in all 50 states.

Are There Any Long-Term Effects?

Research has found some of the side effects of persistent marijuana use are:

•Changes in the brain. Marijuana can affect the areas of the brain that play a part in response to stress, motivation, and reward.

•Fertility implications. Animal studies suggest that heavy users may experience disruptions in ovulation or produce less sperm.
This means that heavy users may have difficulty having children as they get older. Studies also show that babies born to women who use marijuana when they are pregnant may be more likely to have developmental and behavioral problems.

•Respiratory problems and other illnesses. Marijuana smoke has 50% to 70% more carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) than cigarette smoke does. Because users inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer with marijuana than cigarette smokers do, their lungs are exposed to these substances for longer periods of time. This is why people who smoke marijuana have more respiratory problems — such as having more mucus, chronic cough, and bronchitis (irritated breathing passages). They may also have an increased risk for neck, head, and lung cancers, and this risk rises with the amount smoked.

•Changes in blood pressure. Over time, continued use of marijuana can lead to decreased blood pressure, which may cause dizziness. It also seems to impair the body's ability to fight off infections and some other diseases.

•Emotional problems. Heavy users are more likely to report symptoms of depression than nonusers. They can also feel more anxiety, have more personality disturbances, and are at an increased risk of developing schizophrenia, a severe form of mental illness.

In addition to the long-term and short-term side effects, research is finding other potentially problematic aspects to marijuana use. One of these is marijuana's possible connection with other drug use. Although it is not certain that marijuana is the direct cause, people who have used marijuana are eight times more likely to have used cocaine, 15 times more likely to have used heroin, and five times more likely to develop a need for treatment for substance abuse. Finally, there are the legal aspects of marijuana use. Every state has laws against the growth, possession, and sale of marijuana. Penalties vary from state to state, but they usually involve fines and/or jail time for those caught using or distributing marijuana. Users may end up with criminal records that can hurt their future educational plans (such as college) and careers.

Most people think harmful drugs are found on street corners or in local pharmacies, not cleaning cabinets or garages. But sometimes items commonly found in millions of homes aren't used for their intended purposes. Some people inhale the chemical vapors produced by common household substances — known as inhalants — to get high. What many of them don't realize is how dangerous this really is.

Why People Use Inhalants

Inhalants might seem like an alternative to other mood-altering drugs because they are cheap, can be purchased legally, and are easy to obtain. But that doesn't make them safer. Household products are safe for cleaning, painting, and the other things they're meant to do. But as inhalants, they can be deadlier than street drugs.

Different Kinds of Inhalants

There are four main types of inhalants: volatile solvents, gases, aerosols, and nitrites. Volatile solvents, gases, and aerosols can alter moods and create a high. Nitrites are believed to create sexual stimulation and enhancement. Here is what else you need to know about the types of inhalants:

•Volatile solvents are liquids that become a gas at room temperature. Some examples are paint thinners and removers, gasoline, glues, and felt-tip marker fluids.

•Gases include medical gases (ether, nitrous oxide), and household or commercial products (butane lighters, propane tanks, whipped cream dispensers that contain nitrous oxide, and refrigerants).

•Aerosol sprays are some of the most prevalent in the home and they include spray paint, deodorant and hairsprays, vegetable oil cooking sprays, and static cling sprays.

•Nitrites include cyclohexyl nitrite, amyl nitrite, and butyl nitrite. On the street, they're called "poppers" or "snappers." They're found in some room deodorizers and capsules that release vapors when opened.

Effects on the Body

People inhale chemical vapors in several ways, including sniffing, snorting or spraying the inhalant directly into the nose or mouth, putting it into a bag or other container and then inhaling from there, putting the vapor onto a rag, or inhaling nitrous oxide from balloons. Because the high from inhalants only lasts a few minutes, some people may inhale over and over again for long periods of time to maintain the high, increasing the amount of dangerous chemicals entering and damaging the body. Inhalants can cause many changes in the body. Once the vapors enter the system, some are absorbed by parts of the brain and nervous system. All of the inhalants (except nitrites) slow down the body's functions. The effects of getting high are pretty similar to the effects of drinking alcohol — at first someone gets excited, but then gets tired, has trouble speaking clearly or walking well, gets dizzy, loses inhibitions, and may get agitated.

Other short-term effects of inhaling chemicals include:

•increased heart rate
•hallucinations or delusions
•losing feeling or consciousness
•nausea and vomiting
•loss of coordination
•slurred speech
Nitrites work differently. Instead of slowing down the brain and the spinal cord, they increase the size of blood vessels and relax the muscles. Because inhalants are found in most homes, people don't realize they are incredibly addictive. People who become addicted to using inhalants are likely to become long-term users. This puts them at risk for the following health problems:

•brain damage (toxic chemicals may make people become slow or clumsy, have trouble solving problems or planning ahead, suffer from memory loss, or become unable to learn new things)
•muscle weakness
•headaches and nosebleeds
•loss of sense of smell or hearing

How Inhalants Kill

Like most street drugs, inhalants can be deadly. Someone can die from abusing inhalants after trying it only once. Causes of death include:
•"Sudden Sniffing Death" — This is the most common cause of death from inhalant use. The heart beats quickly and irregularly, and then suddenly stops (cardiac arrest).
•Asphyxia — Toxic fumes replace oxygen in the lungs so that a person stops breathing.
•Choking — A user can choke on his or her vomit.
•Suffocation — When vapors are inhaled from a plastic bag placed over the head, the bag can block air.
•Injuries — Since people high on inhalants often make poor decisions, they might try to drive under the influence or do something irrational, such as jump off a roof. They could also get burned or start explosions if a spark ignites flammable inhalants.
•Suicide — Some people become depressed when their high wears off.

Signs of Inhalant Abuse

Inhalants, like other drugs, have noticeable effects on those using them. Someone on inhalants may suffer from a number of different ill effects, including:

•mood swings
•extreme anger, agitation, and irritability
•loss of appetite
•frequent vomiting
•hallucinations and illusions
•facial rashes and blisters
•frequent nose running and coughing
•dilated pupils
•extremely bad breath

Of course, some of these things are signs of other health problems, not necessarily inhalant use. If you're worried about a friend or loved one, talk to a parent, school counselor, or your doctor or school nurse.

Getting Help

If you think you — or a friend — may be addicted to inhalants, talk to your doctor, school counselor, or nurse. They can help you get the help you need. Several kinds of treatment are available for drug addiction; the two main categories are behavioral (helping a person change behaviors) and pharmacological (treating a person with medication). Treatment for inhalant addiction is primarily behavioral. An expert in drug treatment teaches people how to function without drugs — handling cravings, avoiding situations that could lead to inhalant use, and preventing and handling relapses. As with any addiction, it can be difficult to stop without professional help and treatment. Overcoming an addiction is not something that can be done alone; everyone needs support. The experts who help people with addictions are trained to help, not judge. To find a drug treatment center in your area, check out the yellow pages or ask a counselor for advice.

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