Hashish, marijuana, grass, weed and ganja are all names that refer to the products made from the dried flowers and leaves of the cannabis plant.
Cannabis contains hundreds of compounds, which can be divided into two main groups:
- Terpenes – flavor and aromatic oils found in many plants
- Cannabinoids – substances that act on the cannabinoid system in the brain
THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is just one of the cannabinoids found in cannabis but is the main one to affect the brain, and is thus considered a consciousness-altering substance – or, in other words, psychoactive. However, it is important to note that information about the activity of other cannabinoids has been discovered in recent years. Cannabis is usually consumed by smoking in a rolled cigarette (joint), pipe or bong, but can also be consumed by eating, inhaling, ingesting droplets or vaping.
Inhaling cannabis, either via smoking or vaping, has the fastest effect on the user. THC is quickly transported from the blood stream to the brain, so that the effect can be felt within seconds or minutes. The amount of THC in the blood usually peaks within about 30 minutes after intake, and gradually dissipates within 1 to 4 hours. However, as noted, there are many cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, each with its own duration of action and metabolism.
In recent years there has been a significant rise in the number of countries that have opted to decriminalize the use of cannabis, while other countries have gone even further, allowing for the legal use of cannabis (legalization). Cannabis is also increasingly being sold legally for medicinal uses, usually by prescription. In fact, the FDA has approved two cannabinoid-containing drugs for medicinal use. Continued research will likely lead to additional drugs being approved.
A bit of history
The first evidence of cannabis cultivation and use was found in China and dates back thousands of years. The Chinese recognized the many possibilities intrinsic to the plant: they used the seeds for food, made fabric from the plant fibers, and also used the plant medicinally. Evidence of medicinal and religious use was also found in Hindu and Persian cultures. The plant acclimated to northern Europe around the 7th century BCE and then spread across the entire continent, and probably also to the Middle East. Evidence of the medicinal use of cannabis dates back to the first century CE in Rome, and is mentioned in the Talmud in the 2nd century CE. In the 12th century, smoking cannabis became an accepted practice in the Middle East, and Egyptian merchants later imported it to Africa. Hashish “returns” to Europe through Constantinople in the 17th century, along with the customs of drinking alcohol and smoking opium. Portuguese merchants later exported it to South America, while France and Great Britain grew cannabis in their colonies in North America. At the beginning of the 20th century, the growth of hemp (the coarse fibers of the cannabis plant) was widespread in the textile and paper industries in the United States, but in 1937 a law forbidding the sale and distribution of cannabis was passed, and the rest of the Western world gradually followed suit. It wasn’t until November 1996 that cannabis was once again permitted for use, but only under very limited circumstances as a medicinal product.
Why use cannabis?
When cannabis is smoked, the THC, along with the other cannabinoids, passes quickly from the lungs to the bloodstream, and then to the brain and other cells in the body. THC is chemically similar to compounds called endocannabinoids, which the body produces naturally and which play a role in brain development and functioning. The effect of the drug is immediate: THC attaches to specific neural receptors, thereby impacting a user’s sense of pleasure, memory, cognition, concentration, movement, coordination, appetite, pain and time. The effects of cannabis can vary depending on the emotional and physical states of the user, including stress, anxiety, hunger or satiety. Smoking cannabis promotes feelings of calm and euphoria, increases sensory activity (visual, taste and smell), alters time perception, and can trigger hallucinations.
What are the adverse health effects of cannabis?
Cannabis consumption can cause both short- and long-term damage. The short-term effects include problems with memory, sleep, coordination and motor skills (including driving skills), as well as increased heart rate, anxiety, paranoia, and psychosis. When considering cannabis for medical use, it is important to consider these drawbacks in the face of its benefits. Long-term cannabis use can induce learning disorders, long-term memory damage, and addiction. It can trigger certain psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, among those who are genetically predisposed, and is also associated with all the known effects of smoking.
Is cannabis addictive?
Long-term use can be addictive. The accepted estimate is that about 9% of cannabis users become addicted, but the risk increases to 50% among daily users, meaning that addiction risk is correlated with frequency of use. Moreover, analyses of cannabis samples obtained by law enforcement agencies in the United States reveal that the concentration of THC in cannabis has increased steadily in recent decades. The greater the concentration of THC, the higher the risk of addiction – although, as mentioned, the most significant factor in addiction is frequency of use. It is also known that cessation of cannabis use among heavy users can trigger withdrawal symptoms similar to those associated with nicotine withdrawal – including irritability, trouble sleeping, anxiety, and decreased appetite — which can lead to recurrent use.