What is marijuana?
Marijuana refers to the dried leaves, flowers, stems, and seeds from the Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica plant. The plant contains the mind-altering chemical THC and other similar compounds. Extracts can also be made from the cannabis plant (see "Marijuana Extracts").
Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States.1 Its use is widespread among young people. In 2015, more than 11 million young adults ages 18 to 25 used marijuana in the past year.1 According to the Monitoring the Future survey, rates of marijuana use among middle and high school students have dropped or leveled off in the past few years after several years of increase. However, the number of young people who believe regular marijuana use is risky is decreasing.2
Legalization of marijuana for medical use or adult recreational use in a growing number of states may affect these views. Read more about marijuana as medicine in our DrugFacts: Marijuana as Medicine.
How do people use marijuana?
People smoke marijuana in hand-rolled cigarettes (joints) or in pipes or water pipes (bongs). They also smoke it in blunts—emptied cigars that have been partly or completely refilled with marijuana. To avoid inhaling smoke, some people are using vaporizers. These devices pull the active ingredients (including THC) from the marijuana and collect their vapor in a storage unit. A person then inhales the vapor, not the smoke. Some vaporizers use a liquid marijuana extract.
People can mix marijuana in food (edibles), such as brownies, cookies, or candy, or brew it as a tea. A newly popular method of use is smoking or eating different forms of THC-rich resins (see "Marijuana Extracts").
Smoking THC-rich resins extracted from the marijuana plant is on the rise. People call this practice dabbing. These extracts come in various forms, such as:
hash oil or honey oil—a gooey liquid
wax or budder&mdsh;a soft solid with a texture like lip balm
shatter—a hard, amber-colored solid
These extracts can deliver extremely large amounts of THC to the body, and their use has sent some people to the emergency room. Another danger is in preparing these extracts, which usually involves butane (lighter fluid). A number of people have caused fires and explosions and have been seriously burned from using butane to make extracts at home.
How does marijuana affect the brain?
Marijuana has both short-and long-term effects on the brain.
When a person smokes marijuana, THC quickly passes from the lungs into the bloodstream. The blood carries the chemical to the brain and other organs throughout the body. The body absorbs THC more slowly when the person eats or drinks it. In that case, they generally feel the effects after 30 minutes to 1 hour.
THC acts on specific brain cell receptors that ordinarily react to natural THC-like chemicals. These natural chemicals play a role in normal brain development and function.
Marijuana overactivates parts of the brain that contain the highest number of these receptors. This causes the "high" that people feel. Other effects include:
altered senses (for example, seeing brighter colors)
altered sense of time
changes in mood
impaired body movement
difficulty with thinking and problem-solving
hallucinations (when taken in high doses)
delusions (when taken in high doses)
psychosis (when taken in high doses)
Marijuana also affects brain development. When people begin using marijuana as teenagers, the drug may impair thinking, memory, and learning functions and affect how the brain builds connections between the areas necessary for these functions. Researchers are still studying how long marijuana's effects last and whether some changes may be permanent.
For example, a study from New Zealand conducted in part by researchers at Duke University showed that people who started smoking marijuana heavily in their teens and had an ongoing marijuana use disorder lost an average of 8 IQ points between ages 13 and 38. The lost mental abilities didn't fully return in those who quit marijuana as adults. Those who started smoking marijuana as adults didn't show notable IQ declines.5
In another recent study on twins, those who used marijuana showed a significant decline in general knowledge and in verbal ability (equivalent to 4 IQ points) between the preteen years and early adulthood, but no predictable difference was found between twins when one used marijuana and the other didn't. This suggests that the IQ decline in marijuana users may be caused by something other than marijuana, such as shared familial factors (e.g., genetics, family environment).6 NIDA’s Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, a major longitudinal study, is tracking a large sample of young Americans from late childhood to early adulthood to help clarify how and to what extent marijuana and other substances, alone and in combination, affect adolescent brain development. Read more about the ABCD study on our Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD Study) webpage.
A Rise in Marijuana’s THC Levels
The amount of THC in marijuana has been increasing steadily over the past few decades.7 For a person who's new to marijuana use, this may mean exposure to higher THC levels with a greater chance of a harmful reaction. Higher THC levels may explain the rise in emergency room visits involving marijuana use.
The popularity of edibles also increases the chance of harmful reactions. Edibles take longer to digest and produce a high. Therefore, people may consume more to feel the effects faster, leading to dangerous results.
Higher THC levels may also mean a greater risk for addiction if people are regularly exposing themselves to high doses.
What are the other health effects of marijuana?
Marijuana use may have a wide range of effects, both physical and mental.
Breathing problems. Marijuana smoke irritates the lungs, and people who smoke marijuana frequently can have the same breathing problems as those who smoke tobacco. These problems include daily cough and phlegm, more frequent lung illness, and a higher risk of lung infections. Researchers so far haven't found a higher risk for lung cancer in people who smoke marijuana.8
Increased heart rate. Marijuana raises heart rate for up to 3 hours after smoking. This effect may increase the chance of heart attack. Older people and those with heart problems may be at higher risk.
Problems with child development during and after pregnancy. One study found that about 20% of pregnant women 24-years-old and younger screened positive for marijuana. However, this study also found that women were about twice as likely to screen positive for marijuana use via a drug test than they state in self-reported measures.9 This suggests that self-reported rates of marijuana use in pregnant females is not an accurate measure of marijuana use and may be underreporting their use. Additionally, in one study of dispensaries, nonmedical personnel at marijuana dispensaries were recommending marijuana to pregnant women for nausea, but medical experts warn against it. This concerns medical experts because marijuana use during pregnancy is linked to lower birth weight10 and increased risk of both brain and behavioral problems in babies. If a pregnant woman uses marijuana, the drug may affect certain developing parts of the fetus's brain. Children exposed to marijuana in the womb have an increased risk of problems with attention,11 memory, and problem-solving compared to unexposed children.12 Some research also suggests that moderate amounts of THC are excreted into the breast milk of nursing mothers.13 With regular use, THC can reach amounts in breast milk that could affect the baby's developing brain. More research is needed. Read our Marijuana Research Report for more information about marijuana and pregnancy.
Intense Nausea and Vomiting. Regular, long-term marijuana use can lead to some people to develop Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome. This causes users to experience regular cycles of severe nausea, vomiting, and dehydration, sometimes requiring emergency medical attention.