Thoughts and opinions about the safety and permissibility of marijuana use vary greatly, even among college students. Given the current debates regarding the legalization of both recreational and medicinal use of marijuana, and the possibility that it could soon become another ballot issue for California voters, people should consider all sides of the discussion. Although for many, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks of marijuana, it is important to keep in mind that every substance or thing you put in your body involves some risk and the more informed we are, the more we are able to make an educated personal choice. In an effort to provide insight and some concrete clinical information, I consulted with Edwin Feliciano, MD, psychiatrist at UCSB Student Health and UCSB’s Behavioral Health Director, about some of the more misunderstood and controversial aspects of marijuana use from both a recreational and medicinal standpoint.
There are many studies claiming that marijuana is safer than alcohol, tobacco and many other legal substances. With this in mind, it might be easy to ignore some of the health professional views on the risks of marijuana. I asked Dr. Feliciano about one of the most debated claims in favor of the legalization and recreational use of marijuana — that marjuana is not addictive. He explains that anyone using marijuana can potentially fall into the nine percent of users that become addicted. He goes on to say that the chance of young users becoming addicted doubles to 17 percent and that daily use can increase the potential of becoming addicted to 50 percent. People report that ceasing use of marijuana can cause withdrawal symptoms such as poor sleep, loss of appetite and anxiety. According to Dr. Feliciano, the presence of withdrawal symptoms, and just “feeling off” can be evidence of addiction, so the argument that marijuana is not addictive may be considered invalid to some people.
So it may be addictive, but it’s safe, right? Dr. Feliciano tells us that there has been a rise in marijuana-related emergency room visits recently for issues involving anxiety, psychosis and even burns. These ER visits may be a result of the potency of THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana, which has drastically increased over the years. As Dr. Feliciano explains, in the 1980s the THC concentration was around four percent, with current THC concentrations at around 15 percent. New trends such as dabbing and vaporizing can increase the concentration of THC up to 90 percent and add to the unpredictability of the drug. There are close to 100 cannabinoids in the plant that affect one’s mindset, and a total of over 200 compounds, thereby making it one of the most complex drugs in the world. Dr. Feliciano explains that the use of marijuana concentrates may increase the risk of unexpected and severe responses for people who may have a family history of psychosis or unknown, or undetected, susceptibility. Additionally, new trends such as dabbing require blowtorches and extreme heat which can lead to ER visits for treatment of burns and other physical injuries.
A trend that has long been popular in Europe, and is now on the rise in America, is the combination of marijuana and tobacco. I asked Dr. Feliciano about this trend and he offered that “people that I talk to say that it softens the high and it decreases the effect of the marijuana… some people say it extends their high.” However, Dr. Feliciano says “This is not to say that the combination is in some way healthier … putting smoke into one’s lungs is dangerous, no matter what the substance”. When I asked Dr. Feliciano about the use of vaporizers as an alternative to smoking and a more pure way to ingest marijuana, he acknowledged that using a vaporizer can be a safer way to use marijuana, though the increased potency and the resulting unpredictable effects remain big concerns.
The two issues most correlated with immediate and long-term effects of marijuana use seem to be how early one starts using and how frequently one uses. If someone starts at age 30, there are likely to be fewer consequences than if someone begins smoking in high school. Research shows that early use of marijuana can affect the development of the brain. A study from New Zealand (as referenced in a NIDA Director’s Message March 2013) demonstrates an actual decrease in intelligence measured by IQ tests by an average of eight points in frequent users. Even more startling is that after quitting marijuana, IQ scores did not return to normal. Research indicates that there is a connection between the immediate effects, such as alterations in the experiences of pleasure, memory and sensory perception and the potential for long term damage. Since the brain is developing rapidly between the ages of 16 and 25 and the cannabinoid preceptors are affecting those same areas in the brain, it appears that young people are putting themselves at risk by starting to use marijuana early and using frequently.
Dr. Feliciano also emphasizes that marijuana use may expose people to the risk of damaging their sleep architecture. “Sleep experts continue to say the best way to have good sleep is to have it naturally … I will say that based on my knowledge and the sleep expert research that I’ve read, effective sleep allows you to be better at anything that you do … you work better and you socialize better.“ He goes on to state that “marijuana can deprive a person of good sleep by shortening the much needed REM phase, and after prolonged use, may decrease the amount of deep sleep a person is able to experience.” He adds that “alcohol and some sleep medications can also have these effects, so consultation with a medical provider or specialist about sleep issues is always recommended.”
If you believe yourself to be a user adversely affected by marijuana, or are just interested in exploring how the use of marijuana is working for you, please contact the Alcohol and Drug Program (805-893-5013) or online at alcohol.sa.ucsb.edu/Services/AdditionalSupport.aspx
Kianna Bowers is a second-year linguistics major and a Life of the Party intern at the UCSB Alcohol and Drug Program.
Edwin Feliciano, MD, is a psychiatrist at UCSB Student Health and the UCSB Behavioral Health Director.