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What is Cannabis? Health Effects, Risks and Use

Also known as: Mull | Pot | Dope | Weed | Gunja | Marijuana

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What is cannabis?

Cannabis is difficult to classify pharmacologically because it has a variety of effects. It is primarily a depressant drug. However, it can have hallucinogenic and some stimulant properties. 

Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. This chemical affects a person’s mood and perception. Marijuana, hashish and hashish oil come from the cannabis plant.

  • Marijuana is made from the dried leaves and flowers and looks like herbs or tea. Its colour ranges from greyish-green to greenish-brown. It can be smoked as a rolled cigarette, inhaled through a water pipe (bong), eaten in foods or inhaled using a vapouriser.
  • Hashish (hash) is the dried, compressed resin extract from the flowering tops of the female plant. Hashish ranges in colour from light brown to nearly black. It is more potent than cannabis. It can also be smoked as a rolled cigarette or eaten.
  • Hashish oil is a thick and oily liquid extract from the cannabis plant. It is reddish-brown in colour. The THC is very concentrated and a small amount will produce marked effects.

Where does cannabis come from?

Cannabis is the short name for the hemp plant Cannabis Sativa. It is thought to have originated in Asia and reached Europe more than a thousand years ago.

How is cannabis used?

Cannabis is usually smoked or cooked in foods and eaten. When smoked, the effects are felt within minutes, however when eaten it can take 1 to 3 hours to feel the effects. This means it can be easy to have too much. The effects can last up to 5 hours. 

What is Synthetic Cannabis?

Synthetic Cannabis is generally the name given to plant materials that have been sprayed with ‘synthetic cannabinoids’. Synthetic cannabinoids have similar physical and psychoactive effects to THC the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. These products are commonly sold as incense and are labelled as ‘not for human consumption’. 

Extensive testing by ChemCentre has found that the contents of Kronic found in Western Australia (WA) varies even though the packaging may look the same.  Further testing has shown that these products in WA can contain psychoactive substances other than synthetic cannabinoids, such as synthetic stimulants.  These mixtures of different new psychoactive substances can have unpredictable results when taken.

How many people use cannabis?

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016 reported that 11.6% of Western Australians aged 14 years and older had used cannabis in the previous 12 months.

Health effects and risks

Cannabis and Respiratory Problems

Regular cannabis use may increase the risk of respiratory disorders such as asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, respiratory tract infections, emphysema and lung cancer.

Reports from Cannabis Information and Support suggest that that there is concern around smoking cannabis compared to smoking tobacco which is due to cannabis being generally smoked with a prolonged and deeper inhalation than tobacco. People also tend to smoke cannabis with a shorter butt length and at a higher combustion temperature. This results in approximately a five times greater carboxyhaemoglobin concentration, a threefold greater amount of tar inhaled and retention of a third more tar in the respiratory tract.

Cannabis, Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Cannabis is the most frequently used illicit drug in women of child bearing age. Only a limited amount is known about the effects of cannabis on the unborn child although the use of cannabis whilst pregnant has been associated with premature birth and lower birth weight babies. Low birth weight can be associated with infections and breathing problems.

Cannabis and the Brain

Memory, cognition and IQ:

Long–term cannabis use can affect short-term memory, attention and control of emotion. It also increases the risk of injury by impairing motor skills, reaction time and skilled activities.

Frequent use of cannabis can affect the brain by decreasing the ability to concentrate and remember things and can also impact learning ability.

Regular cannabis use can lead to a decline in IQ and a decrease in cognitive functioning which worsens depending on the frequency and amount of cannabis used.

Adolescents who regularly use cannabis commonly show delays in brain functioning compared to adolescents who have never or rarely use cannabis.

A study using MRI to test using cognitive tasks found that regular cannabis users has reduced brain activity, even after 28 days without using.

Short-term effects

  • Reduced coordination, balance and reflexes and increased risk of injury
  • Loss of concentration
  • Reddened/ bloodshot eyes
  • Increased appetite
  • Increased heart rate
  • Talkativeness, loss of inhibitions and feeling of wellbeing

Short-term effects of high-doses

  • Excitement
  • Respiratory problems

Long-term effects

  • Decreased concentration
  • Decreased memory and learning abilities
  • Interference with sexual drive and hormone production
  • Dependence
  • Respiratory problems

The effects of cannabis will vary depending on the:

  • the person – mood, physical size, health, gender, previous experience with cannabis, expectations of the drug, personality, whether the person has had food and whether other drugs have been taken.
  • the drug – the amount used, its purity, how often it is used, and how it is used.
  • the place – whether the person is using with friends, on his/her own, in a social setting or at home, at work or before driving.

Cannabis and mental health

Cannabis use can increase the risk of mental health issues including anxiety, depression, paranoia and psychosis, especially in young people and those with a vulnerability to mental health problems. 

In those with existing psychosis, cannabis use can trigger and worsen psychotic episodes, leading to hallucinations, delusions, and mood swings.  This risk also increases with the frequency and amount of cannabis use.

People who begin using cannabis in their teens may also have an increased risk of developing schizophrenia. This risk also increases with the frequency and amount of cannabis use. Additionally, a longitudinal study found that cannabis use doubled the risk of schizophrenia compared to non-use. 

Short-term effects

  • Confusion
  • Tunnel awareness - where a person focuses their awareness solely on one thing

Short-term effects of high-doses

  • Detachment from reality
  • Hallucinations
  • Anxiety and panic attacks

Long-term effects

  • Depression
  • Psychosis
  • Schizophrenia

 Cannabis use is associated with a range of mental health issues. The effects will vary depending on:

  • the person – mood, physical size, health, gender, previous experience with cannabis, expectations of the drug, personality, whether the person has had food and whether other drugs have been taken.
  • the drug – the amount used, its purity, how often it is used, and whether it is smoked, swallowed, snorted or injected.
  • the place – whether the person is using with friends, on his/her own, in a social setting or at home, at work or before driving.

Impact on your life

Cannabis use can impact on your life in many ways. It can lead to relationship, financial and legal problems. 

Cannabis and relationship problems

Drug use can lead to social and emotional problems and affect relationships with partners, family and friends. For example, one of the effects of cannabis can be loss of inhibitions. This may lead to a person saying or doing something that they would not normally do. This in turn may lead to embarrassing or regrettable situations.

Cannabis and school performance

Cannabis use has been associated with lower grades, poor school performance, negative attitudes and lower satisfaction towards school. Rates of cannabis and other drug use is higher among adolescents who are no longer going to school or who are absent from school on any given day. This risk also increases with frequency and amount of cannabis use.

Cannabis and financial problems

The street price of cannabis varies depending on availability, how it is grown and market trends. The cost of purchasing cannabis can lead to financial problems for both occasional and regular users.

Maintaining a job whilst using cannabis is also difficult and may put extra strain on a relationship if the individual has to move back in with relatives due to lack of employment. This can also put added financial strain on relatives or friends to help support the individual.

Cannabis and the law

Misuse of Drugs Act

In Western Australia, under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1981, it is illegal to use, possess, manufacture or supply cannabis. Offences under this Act carry heavy fines and/or prison sentences.

Penalties vary depending on the offence:

  • Possession offences: up to $2,000 in fines and/or two years in prison.
  • Supply offences: up to $100,000 in fines and/or 25 years in prison.

A person convicted of a drug offence can receive a criminal record, which can lead to difficulties in getting a job, health insurance, credit or visas for overseas travel.

What is a Cannabis Intervention Requirement

Under the Cannabis Intervention Requirement (CIR) scheme, police may issue a CIR notice to eligible people found in possession or use of small amounts of cannabis, and/or possession of a smoking implement containing traces of cannabis.

However, a person found in possession of a small amount of cannabis may still be charged with the more serious offence of possession of cannabis with intent to sell or supply, if police have relevant evidence.

The CIR scheme does not apply to offences involving the possession or cultivation of cannabis plants, or possession of any quantities of cannabis resin (hash), hash oil, or other cannabis derivatives. These offences will be prosecuted through the courts.

A person who has been given a CIR will be required to book and complete a Cannabis Intervention Session (CIS) within 28 days or elect to have the matter heard in court. If you book and complete a CIS you will not be required to appear in court. No further action will be taken against you for the alleged offence and you will not receive a criminal conviction

For more information on the CIR scheme visit the WA Diversion Program.

Cannabis & Driving

In Western Australia, it is against the law for anyone to drive with the presence of an illicit drug prescribed within the Road Traffic Act 1974, or impaired by a drug.

Using cannabis affects a person’s driving ability by:

  • Slowing the driver’s reaction time.
  • Distorting the driver’s perceptions.
  • Decreasing the ability to coordinate appropriate reactions when driving.

Driving while under the influence of cannabis is dangerous and greatly increases risk to the user and others on the road. When combined with alcohol use, the risk increases significantly. In Western Australia, it is against the law for anyone to drive under the influence of drugs, including cannabis.

Cannabis and other drugs

Using cannabis with other drugs increases risks. If cannabis is used in conjunction with other depressant drugs the depressant action generally increases. When cannabis is combined with alcohol it can frequently lead to behaviour which causes injuries. For example, because cannabis interferes with a person’s motor and coordination skills, vision and perceptions of time and space, the ability to drive safely and complete tasks that require concentration can be impaired, resulting in an accident. This impairment increases substantially when cannabis is used with alcohol.

Quitting Options

People decide to quit using cannabis for a lot of reasons including it is harming their physical and/or mental health and wellbeing, their relationships with friends and others they care about, or because they are starting new employment and may be drug tested.

Thinking about quitting your cannabis use? Worried you may struggle? You are not alone. Help is only a phone call away.

You can call a qualified alcohol and other drug counsellor at the Alcohol and Drug Support Line. The counsellors can assist in planning your quit attempt, and talk with you about the options available to assist you. You can call them 24/7 on (08) 9442 5000 or 1800 198 024 (country callers).

Tips for Quitting Cannabis

Some helpful tips for cutting down or quitting your cannabis use:

  • Make a list of the advantages quitting cannabis will have on you. Whether it’s saving money, better health or having more energy and motivation or having fewer arguments with your family - keeping these advantages as reminders can help keep you on track!
  • Delay having your first smoke of the day for a few hours and gradually increase this delay.
  • Do something else so you are not concentrating on using cannabis – go for a walk, or to the gym. Delaying use by doing something else when you are craving cannabis, allows time for the urge to pass.
  • Set limits to what times, days and amounts you can use.
  • Distance yourself from cannabis and the triggers associated with using cannabis.  
  • Stop buying cannabis and decrease or minimise contact with your friends who are still using cannabis.  
  • Clean out all your smoking paraphernalia. e.g pipes, bongs
  • If you are using other drugs, re-consider this and whether this will increase or decrease your likelihood of relapsing.  
  • Set a date, get support from family members or friends. Make sure they are aware you are trying to quit so they can be there to help and support you.
  • Consider seeing your GP or psychologist – some people may benefit from this especially if the withdrawal symptoms are making it difficult for them to continue to not use. Some people may need some level of medication if this occurs. Often once someone has quit for a while, say 6 to 8 weeks, some of the symptoms of anxiety and depression can lift because the anxiety or depression were being made worse by the cannabis use.

Sometimes it can help to speak to someone, whether a family member, or a friend, or even a qualified drug counsellor – they are there to support you. There are lots of resources and support to assist you in quitting.

Getting through withdrawal can be easier if you take it one day at a time and focus on activities that help you cope with the effects of withdrawal. Knowing the symptoms to expect can help you get through. Following are some tips on how to cope with the various withdrawal symptoms you may experience:

  • Cravings to use – These can be quite strong and if you feel anxious then this can intensify your cravings. Sometimes hunger will also be confused with having a craving. Make sure you eat regularly and ensure you are properly hydrated.
  • Irritability – It is very common to get agitated and irritable during withdrawal, so it will be important for you to do things that will help you relax.
  • Sleep disturbance – This can occur if you are used to falling asleep being stoned and so when you stop smoking cannabis you may find it hard to fall asleep. It is about getting used to “sleeping without cannabis”. You may also find that when you stop smoking you often tend to dream more or at least remember your dreams more. Learning meditation and relaxation techniques can be very handy here.
  • Feeling nauseous or losing your appetite – This may be related to the fact that cannabis can increase your appetite. So it would make sense that you may feel a bit sick because you are used to the way cannabis affects your appetite.
  • Feelings and reactions of anger, depression and/or grief – These emotions can occur as they are due to the interrelated physical and psychological dependence on the effects of the drug.

Some people may become very dependent on the way that cannabis makes them feel, so when they stop using it, it can be very difficult.

Don’t be afraid to ask for support or help to plan your quit attempt. Don’t give up if you slip up - a slip up is not a relapse! Consult with your GP or other qualified health professional if you have any concerns about your withdrawal. The Alcohol and Drug Support Line can also assist in planning your quit attempt, and talk with you about the options available to assist you (08) 9442 5000 or 1800 198 024 (country callers).

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