Chronic pot use may have serious effects on the brain, experts say
As marijuana legalization builds momentum across the United States — with Michigan becoming the latest state to allow recreational use by adults — researchers are warning that more studies are needed on the long-term effects of chronic pot smoking on the human brain.
Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States, but little is known about its effect on health or how addictive it is.
According to a 2017 poll conducted by Marist College and Yahoo News, more than half of American adults have tried marijuana at least once in their lives, and nearly 55 million of them, or 22 percent, say they use it currently. Close to 35 million are what the survey calls “regular users,” people who say they use marijuana at least once or twice a month.
“Surprisingly, many people freely admit to using marijuana, but underreporting remains an issue,” said Jonathan Caulkins, a drug policy researcher and professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “To correct for that one should fudge upwards by a factor of 20 to 40 percent.”
With Michigan’s Election Day ballot measure, 10 states and the District of Columbia now allow the drug’s open use; 33 states plus D.C. allow medical use, leaving many to wonder if the U.S. will follow Canada’s lead in legalizing marijuana nationwide.
Consequences of chronic marijuana use
Nathaniel Warner, 31, a data analyst at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, first tried marijuana when he was 19, during his freshman year of college. Warner was having a hard time adjusting to campus life at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.
“It was a tough transition for me and I was dealing with social anxiety,” Warner told NBC News.
At first he just smoked on school breaks, three or four times during the school year. “But before I knew it, it was summer and I was smoking daily,” he said. “It just gave me a feeling I had never experienced before.”
After four years of heavy use, Warner noticed that his short-term memory was starting to fray. He avoided talking to people, and festering feelings of anxiety and depression grew. He tried to mask them with weed, deepening his dependency. In 2010 Warner upended his life, breaking up with his girlfriend and seeking recovery.
“I was hopeless. I realized that this lifestyle of being miserable and getting high was never going to change. I didn’t want to go through a 30- to 40-year cycle of going to work and coming home and getting high. I didn’t see an escape from that. That kind of shook me,” Warner said.
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Unfortunately, Warner’s story is not uncommon.
While alcohol is more dangerous in terms of acute overdose risk, and also in terms of promoting violence and chronic organ failure, “marijuana — at least as now used in the United States — creates higher rates of behavioral problems, including dependence, among all its users,” said Caulkins.
Is marijuana addictive?
The research leans towards yes.
Studies have shown that chronic marijuana use affects the same brain structures that are involved with addiction.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that 30 percent of those who use marijuana may have some degree of “marijuana use disorder.”
Marijuana use disorders are often associated with dependence — in which a person feels withdrawal symptoms when not taking the drug. Frequent users report irritability, mood and sleep difficulties, decreased appetite, cravings, restlessness and physical discomfort that peak within the first week after quitting and last up to two weeks. Marijuana dependence occurs when the brain adapts to large amounts of the drug, requiring more and more to create the desired euphoric effect.
Marijuana use disorder becomes addiction when the smoker cannot stop using the drug even though it interferes with many aspects of his or her life. Estimates of the number of people addicted to marijuana are controversial, in part because studies of substance use often use dependence as a measure of addiction even though it is possible to be dependent without being addicted.
In Warner’s case, he developed both a dependence and an addiction. The first time he seriously decided to quit he gave his stash to his girlfriend to keep it away from him. Later that day, he came home and sweet-talked her into giving it back.
“Even though I was serious at the time about getting clean, I relapsed,” he said. “The thing about addiction is that you can wake up and be 100 percent convinced that you won’t use again. You could take a lie detector test and you’d pass with flying colors, but 12 hours later a trigger may cause you to change your mind and you might get high again.”
Signs of marijuana addiction
- Inability to cut down or stop use
- Using more than intended
- Not fulfilling daily responsibilities like going to school or work
- Choosing relationships and activities based on whether you will be able to get high.
Researchers estimate that 4 million people in the United States met the criteria for marijuana use disorder in 2015, but only 138,000 of them voluntarily sought treatment.
How bad is chronic marijuana use?
Most experts agree that more research needs to be done to accurately answer this question. First, there is no universal definition of what constitutes “chronic” use.
A Canadian study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in 2017 showed a substantial increase in “psychotic-like experiences” in teenage users. The study also reported adverse effects on cognitive development and increased symptoms of depression.
Other studies show that chronic use may even interfere with normal development of the adolescent brain.
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Patricia Conrad, professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal, believes that more research needs to be done to see the effects of chronic marijuana use on the brain.
“Potency has increased over time,” said Conrad. “More sophisticated technology is being used to extract CBD oil from the product, resulting in more and more products with potent levels,” said Conrad.
One study that received a tremendous amount of publicity looked at 38,600 samples of cannabis confiscated from 1995 to 2014.
Analysis of these samples found that the average amount of THC, the psychoactive portion of the drug, rose from 4 percent in 1995 to over 12 percent in 2014. During that same time, cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive component of marijuana, fell from 0.28 percent to 0.15 percent. This shift in the ratio of THC to CBD has a pronounced effect on the drug’s perceived potency.
The average potency of the flower product sold in Washington’s state-licensed markets is over 20 percent, and the average potency of extract-based products — like oils for vaping pens, dabs and the like — is in the neighborhood of 70 percent, said Caulkins. He believes more research needs to be done to see how this difference in potency affects the body, compared with the weaker product studied in the past.
As more is learned about the the effects of marijuana on the brain and body, experts hope to figure out if marijuana is a drug that can be managed like alcohol or if it is a highly addictive drug that needs to be highly regulated, like tobacco.
Experts believe that more research needs to be done to assess the long-term effects on the brain, body and our behavior.
Can a Heavy Weed Smoker Pass a Drug Test?
The time that marijuana remains in the body varies from person to person. One of the factors determining it is the amount and frequency of smoking: the more you smoke, the longer you have toxins in your system. How does this affect a drug test? Can a heavy weed smoker pass it?
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How Long THC Stays in the Body
THC can remain detectable for 90 days in hair. However, experts argue that this method may not be the best to test casual users of marijuana. In urine, it is detectable for 3 days to a month. This also depends on the usage. In saliva, THC lasts for 24 hours while blood tests can detect marijuana within 36 hours. So a heavy weed smoker may have to wait for a while before getting a clean result.
A study at Harvard University sought to answer the question of how long weed stays in the body system. It involved only heavy weed smokers who had smoked weed every day before participation in the study. Some of the participants abstained from marijuana for 28 days. Within one week, five of them were non-detectable. Another four passed the urine test by the second week. In the third week, two passed the drug test. About six participants still had detectable levels of cannabinoids by the fourth week.
This proves that there is no one size fits all approach to determine if a heavy smoker will pass a drug test within a specific time. However, most serious potheads are non-detectable when they stay off weed for a month.
How a Heavy Weed Smoker Can Pass a Drug Test
THC enters different organs and body tissues or can be metabolized by the liver. These metabolites are excreted through urine. Stoners can pass a drug test with some help from natural and artificial vices. They include:
- Synthetic urine: this method is one of the oldest in the world. It involves using synthetic urine and heating it properly before the test and submitting the sample instead of actual urine.
- Detox pills: a heavy weed smoker can be clean in 5 – 10 days with detox pills. These pills clean the bloodstream, urine, and saliva for a drug test. Some detox kits come with drug test kits so you can verify that it is effective before the big day. However, you need at least 7 days to be 100% sure that you are clean.
- Detox drinks: some detox drinks may help heavy stoners to pass a drug test. A casual user of marijuana will test positive 10 days after occasional use. Daily users may have traces of THC for a month or more. Detox drinks can flush the system for a quick drug test. It takes effect in 90 minutes and produces a clean result for 6 hours. Note that detox drinks do not work miraculously. You need to stop smoking weed before the drug test. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines.
- Detox mouthwash: use this product to pass a saliva drug test. All you need to do is rinse your mouth with a detoxifying mouthwash 15 minutes before the sample collection.
- Detox shampoo: heavy weed smokers can pass a hair test for drugs with a detox shampoo. Conventional shampoos cannot scrub chemical residues of the metabolites from the hair shaft. This is why detox shampoo is necessary.
There are some natural ways to detox from THC. They include:
- Diet: A lean fat diet and weight loss help reduce the THC levels in the body. THC is usually stored in fat cells, so when a person is fatter, traces of THC stay longer in the body.
- Exercise: THC can be flushed out from the body through sweating. Exercise is one way to sweat, but it could have an opposite effect if it is done just before the test. It is safer to exercise a few weeks before the test.
- Water: drinking water is another good way to detox for a urine test. However, it will take some time to work. Increasing water intake can flush it faster, but it may not get it all out.
- Lemon juice: lemon juice is a natural detox drink due to its alkaline state. It has been proven to flush metabolites of THC in small quantities. The juice is usually mixed with ½ liter of water and stoners may require several mixes daily for a few weeks before the drug test.
- Coffee: Coffee is a known stimulant in the cannabis industry. It is effective in removing THC metabolites from the body. The coffee triggers dehydration and reduces the number of metabolites in the body. However, this drink shouldn’t be taken without isotonic drinks or water to flush the body.
- Cranberry juice: this natural antioxidant is known for flushing toxins out of the kidneys. It can also be used to reduce THC metabolites in a week. Cranberry juice works like coffee and requires some water or electrolyte-rich drinks.
Reminder for Heavy Smokers
All the natural methods listed above can help, but you need to test yourself to ensure that your system is clean. Home drug testing device allows you to confirm if your urine is clean. These kits can be gotten at local drug stores or online. If you choose to detox naturally, you can get these drug testing kits to see if your urine is clean.
As time passes, the body tissues release the THC stored in them to the bloodstream. Here the liver metabolizes it. The case is different for heavy weed smokers. THC builds up in your fatty tissues and cannot be eliminated easily. This is why heavy marijuana users may still test positive for THC days after quitting.
Can a heavy weed smoker pass a drug test? Yes, he/she can. However, the person may have to give it some time before going in for the test. Naturally, the weed may clear up on its own in a month or more. If you cannot wait that long, you can opt for the artificial or natural methods of detoxification. Whichever method you choose to use, it is important to remember that they are not magical. You will need to quit for the time being and follow all the guidelines of the manufacturers if you want to test negative for weed.
How does the amount and frequency of smoking affect a drug test? Can a heavy weed smoker pass it?