Cannabis is a drug that comes from the cannabis sativa plant. The active chemical in cannabis is THC (Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol).
Cannabis is a depressant drug. Depressant drugs do not necessarily make you feel depressed. Rather, they slow down the central nervous system. They slow down the messages going to and from the brain to the body. Cannabis can also have mild hallucinogenic effects.
There are three main forms of cannabis: marijuana, hashish and hash oil.
Forms of cannabis
Marijuana is the most common and least powerful form of cannabis. It is the dried leaves and flowers of the plant. It looks like chopped grass and ranges in colour from grey-green to greenish-brown. Its texture can be fine or coarse. It can contain seeds and twigs from the plant. The flowers or “heads” are the most potent part of the plant and so the potency of marijuana will depend upon the amount of leaf and heads it contains. Marijuana is smoked in hand-rolled cigarettes (joints) or in a pipe (a bong).
Hashish (hash) is small blocks of dried cannabis resin. Blocks range in colour from light brown to nearly black. The concentration of THC in hashish is higher than 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. A very small amount can have a strong effect. This form is rarely used 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 marijuana 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 or 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 inhaled get into the bloodstream quicker than those eaten. This means that the effects of cannabis when smoked (inhaled) happens more rapidly.
Grass, pot, hash, weed, reefer, dope, herb, mull, buddha, ganja, joint, stick, buckets, cones.
According to recent research:
- Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug in Australia.
- In 1998, 39% of the Australian population (44% male and 35% female) reported having ever used cannabis; and 18% had used in the last 12 months.1
- The average age of first time use of cannabis was 18.7 in 1998.1
- Of the recent users in 1998, the highest user group at 37% was the 20-29 year age group. 1
- Cannabis was the most commonly used illicit substance among secondary students with 36% of all secondary students aged between 12 and 17 years reporting the use of cannabis at some time in their life. 2
- Cannabis use (taken at sometime in their life) increased with age, increasing from 13% of 12-year-olds to 55% of 17-year-olds. 2
- Weekly use also increased with age, from 3% of 12-year-olds to 16% of 17-year-olds. 2
- Weekly use was more common among boys than girls. 2
1 1998 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, First results, August 1999, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Canberra.
2 Australian Secondary Students’ use of over-the-counter and illicit substances in 1996, Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer, Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria, November 1998.
Of all the illegal drugs, cannabis is the most regularly used. The claim that cannabis use will lead to the use of “harder” drugs has been a major argument for sustaining the prohibition of cannabis since the mid-1960s. However, there is little evidence to support the notion that cannabis use leads to the use of other drugs. While it is true that most heroin users have also used cannabis (and alcohol and tobacco), it is worth noting that most people who use cannabis do not progress to using heroin, amphetamines or any other illegal drug.
Cannabis has been used medicinally for many centuries. There is evidence to suggest it is useful in providing relief to cancer patients from nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. Researchers now believe cannabis is worthy of further investigation in the treatment of glaucoma, nausea, anorexia nervosa, epilepsy and asthma.
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, what it’s being taken for (for example, stress) and whether other drugs are taken. The effects also depend on the environment in which the drug is used – for example, whether the person is alone, with others, or in a specific social setting.
When people are affected by cannabis they are said to be “stoned”, “bent” or “high”. Traces of THC can remain detectable in urine samples for days, even weeks, after use.
Small quantities of cannabis can have effects that last 2 to 3 hours after smoking.
Relaxation and loss of inhibition: Cannabis can make the user feel happy, relaxed, and comfortable. They may feel less inhibited, friendlier and laugh spontaneously. Sometimes people become quiet and reflective. They may also become sleepy.
Increased appetite: Cannabis often increases the appetite and leads to snacking on junk food, “the munchies.”
Affected perception: Cannabis can increase awareness and the perception of colour, sound and other sensations. It can affect vision and perception of time and space.
Less coordination: Cannabis decreases coordination and balance, making it dangerous to drive or operate machinery.
Thinking and memory: Cannabis can affect memory and the ability to think logically. People can lose track of what they are saying or thinking. When affected by cannabis, some people may think as though they’ve had profound ideas or insights.
Other common immediate effects include increased heart rate, low blood pressure, faintness and reddened eyes. There also can be a “hangover” effect, like drowsiness and poor coordination that lasts for several hours after the initial effects.
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
Occasional use of small quantities
Currently, there is no evidence that occasional use of small quantities of cannabis causes any permanent health damage.
Research in Australia and the USA shows evidence of some long-term effects in some regular cannabis users.
Respiratory illness: Marijuana cigarettes have more tar than tobacco, placing cannabis users at an increased risk of respiratory illness such as lung cancer and chronic bronchitis. This risk is increased because marijuana smokers often inhale deeply, and hold the smoke in the lungs longer, to increase the effects of the drug. Cigarette smokers who also smoke cannabis have an even greater risk of respiratory disease.
Less motivation: Many regular users, especially young people, have reported that they have less energy and motivation so that performance at work or school suffers. Usually these effects disappear gradually when cannabis use stops.
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.
Hormones: 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.
In general, there appears to be three separate circumstances whereby cannabis and psychosis are linked.
- 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.
- Cannabis use may also precipitate a latent psychosis. In other words, it could bring forward an episode of schizophrenia or manic depressive psychosis in a vulnerable or pre-disposed individual.
- It is possible that cannabis use can trigger psychotic episodes in a person who already has a mental illness
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.
Dependence on a drug can be psychological, physical or both.
Psychological dependence: People can become psychologically dependent on any drug, including cannabis. This means that using cannabis becomes far more important than other activities in their life. Cannabis becomes part of their lifestyle (e.g. reducing stress, increasing relaxation) and some come to depend on it. Some people crave the drug and find it very difficult to stop using it.
Physical dependence: Physical dependence occurs when a person’s body adapts to a drug. The body gets used to functioning with the drug present. Heavy and frequent use of cannabis can cause physical dependence.
Abrupt termination of cannabis use can produce a mild withdrawal syndrome. Symptoms include sleep disturbance, irritability, loss of appetite and consequent weight loss, nervousness, anxiety, sweating and upset stomach. Sometimes chills, increased body temperature and tremors occur. The withdrawal syndrome usually lasts for less than a week, although the sleep disturbances may persist for a longer period.
In Australia, there are a number of drug treatment options. Some aim solely for the user to achieve a drug-free lifestyle. Others recognise abstinence as one option, however, due to individual circumstances, may not be possible in certain situations. The overall aim of these programs is to reduce the harm/risks related to a person’s drug use.
Treatment is more effective if tailored to suit a person’s specific situation and usually involves a combination of methods. The different options include individual counselling, group therapy, medication and supervised/home withdrawal.
Combining cannabis with other drugs such as alcohol or prescribed drugs can increase and alter the effects, with unpredictable consequences. It is always dangerous to combine drugs. It is widely believed that using cannabis leads people on to using other illegal drugs. However, there is no evidence to support this. Most users of cannabis do not use other illegal drugs.
Little is known about the effects of cannabis on the unborn child. However, the use of cannabis during pregnancy is not recommended. 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.
Little is known about the effects of cannabis smoking 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.
Check with your doctor, or other health professional, if you are taking or planning to take any substances during pregnancy, including prescribed and over-the-counter medications.
More on pregnancy/breastfeeding
It is illegal to drive a motor vehicle while under the influence of any drug (including cannabis). Breaking this law carries heavy penalties, disqualification from driving, fines, and even imprisonment.
Cannabis, particularly in combination with alcohol, will greatly increase the risk of having an accident. Cannabis and alcohol can significantly reduce the ability to drive safely. Effects, such as reduced coordination, slow reaction time, blurred vision and drowsiness, impact on driving ability. These effects can last several hours and appear to vary according to quantity, quality and content. Research on the effects of cannabis on driving is currently being undertaken.
Cannabis is illegal. Federal and State laws provide penalties for possessing, using, making or selling cannabis. Drug laws in Australia distinguish between those who use drugs and those who supply or traffic drugs.
For example, in Victoria penalties range from fines of $2,000 and/or one year in prison for cultivation (not related to trafficking) to fines of up to $250,000 and/or 25 years in prison for commercial trafficking.
The laws in Australia vary from state to state in relation to the possession and use of cannabis.
In Victoria, the police and courts have recently introduced a number of new schemes in relation to drug offences. Some of these aim to divert people from the criminal justice system, others involve referring people with a drug problem to treatment programs.
For example, first time cannabis users will usually be fomally cautioned at a police station and then referred to drug treatment service. Failure to attend treatment may result in charges being laid.
Family problems and other personal problems may be related to cannabis use. Disagreements over drug use can cause family arguments and affect personal relationships. Heavy cannabis use may also lead to problems at work or school.
Australian drug policy is based on harm minimisation. This is about reducing drug related harm to both the community and individual drug users.
Harm minimisation strategies range from encouraging “non-use” through to providing the means for drug users to use drugs with less risks.
Remember: there is no safe level of drug use.