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The problem
What is marijuana?
Extent of use
Why do young people use?
What are the signs of use?
Effects of marijuana
Effects on the lungs

The problem

A drug is defined as addicting if it causes compulsive, often uncontrollable drug craving, seeking, and use, even in the face of negative health and social consequences. Marijuana readily meets this standard criterion.

As the number of young people who use marijuana has increased, the number who view the drug as harmful has decreased. Among high school seniors surveyed in 1997, current marijuana use has increased by about 72 percent since 1991. The proportion of those seniors who believe regular use of marijuana is harmful has dropped by about 26 percent since 1991.

These changes in perception and knowledge may be due to a decrease in anti-drug messages in the media, an increase in pro-drug messages through the pop culture, and a lack of awareness among parents about this resurgence in drug use - most thinking, perhaps, that this threat to their children had diminished.

Because many parents of this generation of teenagers experimented with marijuana when they were in college, they often find it difficult to talk about marijuana use with their children and to set strict ground rules against drug use. But marijuana use today starts at a younger age - and more potent forms of the drug are available to these young children. Parents need to recognize that marijuana use is a very serious threat - and they need to tell their children not to use it. While it is best to talk about drugs when children are young, it is never too late to talk about the dangers of drug use.

What is marijuana?

Marijuana is a green or gray mixture of dried, shredded flowers and leaves of the hemp plant Cannabis sativa. There are over 200 slang terms for marijuana including "pot," "herb," and "weed". It is usually smoked as a cigarette (called a joint) or in a pipe. In recent years, marijuana has appeared in cigars that have been emptied of tobacco and refilled with marijuana, often in combination with another drug, such as crack.

The main active chemical in marijuana is THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). In 1988, it was discovered that the membranes of certain nerve cells contain protein receptors that bind THC. The short-term effects of marijuana use include problems with memory and learning, distorted perception, difficulty in thinking and problem-solving, loss of coordination, increased heart rate, anxiety, and panic attacks.

Extent of use

Marijuana remains the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States. There were an estimated 2.1 million people who started using marijuana in 1998. Reports from hospital emergency rooms indicated marijuana use has increased significantly, particularly among 12 to 17-year olds. According to Health and Human Services Secretary, Dr. Donna E. Shalala, American teenagers are "a generation at risk".

Fact: Research shows that nearly 50 percent of teenagers try marijuana before they graduate from high school.

Why do young people use?

Children and young teens start using marijuana for many reasons. Curiosity and the desire to fit into a social group are common reasons. Certainly, youngsters who have already begun to smoke cigarettes and/or use alcohol are at high risk for marijuana use. Research suggests that the use of alcohol and drugs by other family members plays a strong role in whether children start using drugs. Parents, grandparents and older brothers and sisters in the home are models for children to follow.

Children who become more heavily involved with marijuana can become dependent, which may be a prime reason for using the drug. Others mention psychological coping as a reason for their use - to deal with anxiety, anger, depression and boredom. But marijuana use is not an effective method for coping with life's problems. Staying high can be a way of simply not dealing with the problems and challenges of adolescence.

What are the signs of use?

The following are signs that someone may be using marijuana:

  • Dizziness and trouble walking
  • Very red, bloodshot eyes
  • Silliness and giggling for no reason
  • Difficulty remembering things

Parents should be aware of:

  • Signs of drugs and drug paraphernalia
  • Use of eye drops
  • Odor on clothes and in the bedroom
  • Clothing, posters
  • Signs of drugs
  • Use of eye drops

Look for withdrawal, depression, fatigue, carelessness with grooming, hostility, and deteriorating relationships with family members and friends. Changes in a student's academic performance, increased absenteeism or truancy, lost interest in sports or other favorite activities, and changes in eating or sleeping habits could be related to drug use.

Effects of marijuana

Within a few minutes of inhaling marijuana smoke, the user will likely feel, along with intoxication, a dry mouth, rapid heartbeat, some loss of coordination, poor sense of balance, and slower reaction time. Blood vessels in the eye expand, so the user's eyes look red. As the immediate effects fade, usually after 2 to 3 hours, the user may become sleepy.

People may feel high (intoxicated and/or euphoric). It's common for marijuana users to become engrossed with ordinary sights, sounds, or tastes, and trivial events may seem extremely interesting or funny. Marijuana use by teenagers who have prior social or psychological problems can quickly lead to dependence on the drug.

Marijuana can be harmful in a number of ways, through both immediate effects and damage to health over time. Marijuana hinders the user's short-term memory (memory for recent events), and he or she may have trouble handling complex tasks. Under the influence of marijuana, students may find it hard to study and learn. Drug users also may become involved in risky sexual behavior. There is a strong link between drug use and unsafe sex and the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Fact: Marijuana has adverse effects on many of the skills for driving a car. Driving while high frequently leads to car accidents.

Effects on the Lungs

Someone who smokes marijuana regularly may have many of the same respiratory problems as tobacco smokers. These individuals may have daily cough, symptoms of chronic bronchitis, and more frequent chest colds. Continuing to smoke marijuana can lead to abnormal functioning of lung tissue, injured or destroyed by marijuana smoke. Regardless of the THC content, the amount of tar inhaled by marijuana smokers and the level of carbon monoxide absorbed are three to five times greater than among tobacco smokers.


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