Also known as: Weed, Pot, Bud, Grass, Herb, Mary Jane, MJ, Reefer, Skunk, Boom, Gangster, Kif, Chronic, and Ganja
Marijuana is a mixture of the dried and shredded leaves, stems, seeds, and flowers of Cannabis sativa—the hemp plant. The mixture can be green, brown, or gray. Stronger forms of the drug include sinsemilla (sin-seh-me-yah), hashish (hash for short), and extracts including hash oil, shatter, wax, and budder.
Of the more than 500 chemicals in marijuana, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC, is responsible for many of the drug’s psychotropic (mind-altering) effects. It’s this chemical that changes brain activity, distorting how the mind perceives the world.
Currently, Federal and state marijuana laws conflict with each other. It is illegal to grow, buy, sell, or carry marijuana under Federal law. The Federal Government considers marijuana a Schedule I substance—having no medicinal uses and high risk for abuse. However, across the United States, state marijuana laws for adult use are changing. A growing number of states have passed laws allowing the use of marijuana as a treatment for certain medical conditions.
In addition, several states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for adult recreational use. Because of concerns over the possible harm to the developing teen brain, marijuana use by people under age 21 is prohibited in all states (although some states allow children with severe epilepsy to use cannabidiol, a chemical found in marijuana that does not produce a “high”). Read more about marijuana-related state laws
Strength and Potency
The amount of THC in marijuana has increased over the past few decades. In the early 1990s, the average THC content in marijuana was about 3.74 percent. In 2013, it was almost 10 percent, and much higher in some products such as oils and other extracts (see below).1 Scientists do not yet know what this increase in potency means for a person’s health. It may cause users to take in higher amounts of THC – which could lead to greater health risks including increased risk of addiction, or they may adjust how they consume marijuana (by smoking or eating less) to compensate for the greater potency.
Smoking resins of THC from the marijuana plant is on the rise. There are several forms of the extracts, such as hash oil or honey oil, wax, and shatter. These resins have 3 to 5 times more THC than the plant itself. Smoking it (also called dabbing) can deliver dangerous amounts of THC to users, and has led some people to the emergency room. People have, also, been burned in fires and explosions caused by attempts to extract hash oil from marijuana leaves using butane (lighter fluid).
1 ElSohly MA. Potency Monitoring Program quarterly report number 124. Reporting period: 12/16/2013 -03/15/2014. Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse; 2014.
Marijuana is commonly smoked using pipes, water pipes called bongs, or hand-rolled cigarettes called joints or nails. It is sometimes also combined with tobacco in partially hollowed-out cigars, known as “blunts.” Recently vaporizers, often known as e-cigarettes, that use heat from a battery to produce a vapor, have increased in popularity.
Marijuana can also be brewed as tea or mixed with food, sometimes called edibles—such as brownies, cookies, or candy. Read how marijuana edibles make “candy” complicated.
In addition, concentrated resins containing high doses of marijuana’s active ingredients, including honey-like hash oil, waxy budder, and hard amber-like shatter, are increasingly popular among both recreational and medical users. It is common for users to smoke the resins using a water or oil pipe. The resins are sometimes loaded into to e-cigarettes, which when heated, produce vapors that create an instant high. Sometimes a heated piece of metal, such as a nail, is used to quickly vaporize the oil for inhaling.
These concentrated extracts made from the marijuana plant should not be confused with “synthetic marijuana,” sometimes called “K2,” “Spice,” or “herbal incense.” These synthetic drugs are man-made chemicals related to THC but often much stronger and often very dangerous. (Unlike marijuana, their use sometimes directly results in overdose deaths.) Learn more about “synthetic marijuana”.
The main chemical in marijuana that affects the brain is THC. When marijuana is smoked, THC quickly passes from the lungs into the bloodstream, which carries it to organs throughout the body, including the brain. As it enters the brain, THC attaches to cells, or neurons, with specific kinds of receptors called cannabinoid receptors. Normally, these receptors are activated by chemicals similar to THC that occur naturally in the body. They are part of a communication network in the brain called the endocannabinoid system. This system is important in normal brain development and function.
Most of the cannabinoid receptors are found in parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thinking, concentration, sensory and time perception, and coordinated movement. Marijuana triggers an increase in the activity of the endocannabinoid system, which causes the release of dopamine in the brain's reward centers, creating the pleasurable feelings or “high.” Other effects include changes in perceptions and mood, lack of coordination, difficulty with thinking and problem solving, and disrupted learning and memory.
Certain parts of the brain have a lot of cannabinoid receptors. These areas are the hippocampus, the cerebellum, the basal ganglia, and the cerebral cortex. (Learn more about these areas and how THC affects them.) The functions that these brain areas control are the ones most affected by marijuana:
- Learning and memory. The hippocampus plays a critical role in certain types of learning. Disrupting its normal functioning can lead to problems studying, learning new things, and recalling recent events. A recent study followed people from age 13 to 38 and found that those who used marijuana a lot in their teens had up to an 8 point drop in IQ, even if they quit in adulthood.3,4
- Coordination. THC affects the cerebellum, the area of our brain that controls balance and coordination, and the basal ganglia, another part of the brain that helps control movement. These effects can influence performance in such activities as sports, driving, and video games.
- Judgment. Since THC affects areas of the frontal cortex involved in decision making, using it can cause you to do things you might not do when you are not under the influence of drugs—such as engaging in risky sexual behavior, which can lead to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like HIV, the virus that causes AIDS—or getting in a car with someone who’s been drinking or is high on marijuana.
When marijuana is smoked or vaporized, its effects begin almost immediately and can last from 1 to 3 hours. Decision making, concentration, and memory can suffer for days after use, especially in regular users.2 If marijuana is consumed in foods or beverages, the effects of THC appear later—usually in 30 minutes to 1 hour—but may last for many hours.
Long-term, regular use of marijuana—starting in the teen years—may impair brain development and lower IQ, meaning the brain may not reach its full potential.3,4
Learn more about how the brain works and what happens when a person uses drugs. And, check out how the brain responds to marijuana.
2 Crean RD, Crane NA, Mason BJ. An evidence based review of acute and long-term effects of cannabis use on executive cognitive functions. Journal of Addiction Medicine 2011;5:1-8.
3 Meier MH, Caspi A, Ambler A, et al. Persistent cannabis users show neuropsychological decline from childhood to midlife. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U S A 2012;109:E2657-64.
4 Meier MH, Caspi A, Ambler A, et al. Persistent cannabis users show neuropsychological decline from childhood to midlife. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U S A 2012;109:E2657-64.
The changes that take place in the brain when a person uses marijuana can cause serious health problems and affect a person’s daily life.
Effects on Health
Within a few minutes after inhaling marijuana smoke, a person’s heart rate speeds up, the bronchial passages (the pipes that let air in and out of your lungs) relax and become enlarged, and blood vessels in the eyes expand, making the eyes look red. While these and other effects seem harmless, they can take a toll on the body.
- Increased heart rate. When someone uses marijuana, heart rate—normally 70 to 80 beats per minute—may increase by 20 to 50 beats per minute or, in some cases, even double. This effect can be greater if other drugs are taken with marijuana. The increased heart rate forces the heart to work extra hard to keep up.
- Respiratory (lung and breathing) problems. Smoke from marijuana irritates the lungs, causing breathing and lung problems among regular users similar to those experienced by people who smoke tobacco—like a daily cough and a greater risk for lung infections such as pneumonia. While research has not found a strong association between marijuana and lung cancer, many people who smoke marijuana also smoke cigarettes, which do cause cancer. And, some studies have suggested that smoking marijuana could make it harder to quit cigarette smoking.5
- Increased risk for mental health problems. Marijuana use has been linked with depression and anxiety, as well as suicidal thoughts among adolescents. In addition, research has suggested that in people with a genetic risk for developing schizophrenia, smoking marijuana during adolescence may increase the risk for developing psychosis and for it developing at an earlier age. Researchers are still learning exactly what the relationship is between these mental health problems and marijuana use.
- Increased risk of problems for an unborn baby. Pregnant women who use marijuana may risk changing the developing brain of the unborn baby. These changes could contribute to problems with attention, memory, and problem solving.
Effects on School and Social LifeThe effects of marijuana on the brain and body can have a serious impact on a person’s life.
Reduced school performance. Students who smoke marijuana tend to get lower grades and are more likely to drop out of high school than their peers who do not use. The effects of marijuana on attention, memory, and learning can last for days or weeks. These effects have a negative impact on learning and motivation. In fact, people who use marijuana regularly for a long time are less satisfied with their lives and have more problems with friends and family compared to people who do not use marijuana.
Impaired driving. It is unsafe to drive while under the influence of marijuana. Marijuana affects a number of skills required for safe driving—alertness, concentration, coordination, and reaction time—so it’s not safe to drive high or to ride with someone who’s been smoking. Marijuana makes it hard to judge distances and react to signals and sounds on the road. High school seniors who smoke marijuana are 2 times more likely to receive a traffic ticket and 65% more likely to get into an accident than those who don’t smoke.6 In 2011, among 12th graders, 12.5% reported that within the past 2 weeks they had driven after using marijuana.7 And combining marijuana with drinking even a small amount of alcohol greatly increases driving danger, more than either drug alone. Learn more about what happens when you mix marijuana and driving
- Potential gateway to other drugs. Most young people who use marijuana do not go on to use other drugs. However, those who use marijuana, alcohol, or tobacco during their teen years are more likely to use other illegal drugs. It isn’t clear why some people go on to try other drugs, but researchers have a few theories. The human brain continues to develop into the early 20s. Exposure to addictive substances, including marijuana, may cause changes to the developing brain that make other drugs more appealing. Animal research supports this possibility—for example, study findings have shown that early exposure to marijuana makes opioid drugs (like Vicodin or heroin) more pleasurable. In addition, someone who uses marijuana is more likely to be in contact with people who use and sell other drugs, increasing the risk for being encouraged or tempted to try them. Finally, people at high risk for using drugs may use marijuana first because it is easy to get (like cigarettes and alcohol).
For more information on the effects of marijuana, see NIDA’s Marijuana Research Report.
5 Panlilio, LV, et al. Prior exposure to THC increases the addictive effects of nicotine in rats. Neuropsychopharmacology (2013) 38, 1198–1208.
6 U.S. Department of Transportation. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Traffic Safety Facts. Drug Involvement of Fatally Injured Drivers. Washington, DC, November 2010. Available at: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811415.pdf.
7 O’Malley, P.M.; Johnston, L.D. Driving after drug or alcohol use by U.S. high school seniors, 2001–2011. American Journal of Public Health 103(11):2027-2034, 2013.
Yes, marijuana can be addictive. A user may feel the urge to smoke marijuana again and again to re-create the “high.” Repeated use could lead to addiction—which means the person has trouble controlling their drug use and often cannot stop even though they want to.
An estimated 30 percent of users may develop some degree of problem use—use that causes problems with a person’s health, school, or other aspects of life, also known as a marijuana use disorder. Such a disorder is called an addiction when the person can’t stop using marijuana even though it gets in the way of daily life.8 People who begin using marijuana before the age of 18 are 4–7 times more likely than adults to develop a marijuana use disorder.9
What causes one person to become addicted to marijuana and another not to depends on many factors—including their family history (genetics), the age they start using, whether they also use other drugs, their family and friend relationships, and whether they take part in positive activities like school or sports. (environment). More research needs to be done to determine whether people who use marijuana for medical reasons are at the same risk as those who use it recreationally.
Watch the Swiss Cheese Model of Drug Addiction and learn why some people become who use drugs get addicted and others do not.
People who use marijuana may feel withdrawal when they stop using the drug. Withdrawal symptoms may include:
- lack of appetite, which can lead to weight loss
- drug cravings
These effects can last for several days to a few weeks after drug use is stopped. Relapse (returning to the drug after you’ve quit) is common during this period because people also crave the drug to relieve these symptoms.
8 Hasin DS, Saha TD, Kerridge BT, et al. Prevalence of Marijuana Use Disorders in the United States Between 2001-2002 and 2012-2013. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015;72(12):1235-1242. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.1858.
9 Winters KC, Lee C-YS. Likelihood of developing an alcohol and cannabis use disorder during youth: association with recent use and age. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2008;92(1-3):239-247. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2007.08.005.
It is very unlikely for a person to overdose and die from marijuana use. However, people can and do injure themselves and die because of marijuana's effects on judgment, perception, and coordination, for example, when driving under the influence of the drug. Also, people can experience extreme anxiety (panic attacks) or psychotic reactions (where they lose touch with reality and may become paranoid).
Marijuana is the most common illicit drug used in the United States by teens as well as adults. The growing belief by young people that marijuana is a safe drug may be the result of recent public discussions about medical marijuana and the public debate over the drug’s legal status. In addition, some teens believe marijuana cannot be harmful because it is “natural.” But not all natural plant substances are good for you—tobacco, cocaine, and heroin also come from plants.
See the most recent statistics on teen drug use from NIDA’s Monitoring the Future study below:
Swipe left or right to scroll.
|Drug||Time Period||8th Graders||10th Graders||12th Graders|
For more statistics on teen drug use, see NIDA’s Monitoring the Future study.
The marijuana plant contains chemicals that may be useful for treating a range of illnesses or symptoms. A growing number of states have legalized the plant’s use for certain medical conditions. Read more about marijuana-related state laws.
Although it is not legal or considered medicine by the Federal Government a few medications made from active chemicals in the plant called cannabinoids have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). One of these cannabinoids, THC, has some medicinal properties in addition to its mind-altering effects. Pill versions of THC have been approved to treat nausea (feeling sick) in cancer patients and to increase appetite in some patients with AIDS.
Another cannabinoid chemical called cannabidiol, which doesn’t have mind-altering effects, is also being studied for its possible uses as medicine. A new medication with a combination of THC and cannabidiol is available in several countries outside the United States as a mouth spray for treating symptoms of multiple sclerosis. There is some early evidence that cannabidiol may be useful in treating seizures in children with severe epilepsy, so a cannabidiol-based drug for that is also now being studied.
It is important to remember that because marijuana is often smoked, it can hurt lung health; these health risks as well as the way it impairs mental functioning may outweigh its value as a medical treatment, especially for people that are not very sick with cancer or other life-threatening diseases. Another problem with smoking or eating marijuana plant material is the ingredients vary a lot from plant to plant, so there is no way to get a precise dose every time or even know what dose you are getting. This is why scientists are busy studying safe ways that THC, cannabidiol, and other chemicals can be extracted from the marijuana plant to create safe medicines.
For more information, see Drug Facts—Is Marijuana Medicine?
If you, or a friend, are in crisis and need to speak with someone now, please call:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (they don't just talk about suicide—they cover a lot of issues and will help put you in touch with someone close by).
If you need information on treatment and where you can find it, you can call:
- Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator at 1-800-662-HELP or visit www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov.
For more information on how to help a friend or loved one, visit our Have a Drug Problem, Need Help? page.
- Commonly Abused Drugs Chart
- DrugFacts: Marijuana
- Marijuana: Facts for Teens
- Marijuana: Facts Parents Need to Know
- Mind Over Matter Teaching Guide and Series: Marijuana
- NIDA Notes Articles: Marijuana
- Research Report Series: Marijuana
Statistics and Trends
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Monitoring the Future (University of Michigan):
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: