What is cannabis?
Cannabis is taken from the leaves and buds of the cannabis plant (Cannabis sativa). Cannabis is usually smoked in hand-rolled cigarettes known as ‘joints’, or in special water pipes called ‘bongs’. Pipes or bongs can be bought or made from things such as orange juice containers, soft drink cans or even a garden hose.
The main active ingredient in cannabis is called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly known as THC, which is the chemical that gives the sensation of feeling ‘high’. Some parts of the cannabis plant contain a higher level of THC than others (e.g., flowers and buds have more than the leaves).
The THC potency of cannabis varies across its three main products: Marijuana, hashish and hash oil.
Marijuana is made from the dried flowers and leaves of the cannabis plant, meaning it is the least potent of all the cannabis products and is usually smoked.
Hashish is made from the resin (a secreted gum) of the cannabis plant, and is dried and pressed into small blocks.
Hash oil, the most potent cannabis product, is a thick oil obtained from hashish and is often added to food products, spotted or inhaled.
Other terms for cannabis: Marijuana, grass, pot, dope, Mary Jane, hooch, weed, hash, joints, brew, reefers, cones, smoke, mull, buddha, ganja, hydro, bush.
How do you know if cannabis is becoming a problem?
It can be hard to recognise when cannabis is becoming a problem for you, or someone you know. You may feel that you are functioning in your day-to-day activities as normal and may be unaware of the warning signs that are affecting you and the people around you.
Cannabis affects everyone differently based on the individual, the amount taken, how frequently it is consumed, its potency, method of consumption (e.g., joint, food or bong) and whether it is used in combination with other drugs.
Because some people appear to function relatively normally in society whilst using cannabis regularly, often the warning signs go unnoticed. However, heavy use can result in dependency – the feeling of needing to get ‘high’ just to function. If you feel as though you cannot face everyday situations like work, school, university or social events without cannabis, this may be a sign that your use is becoming problematic.
The following signs can be associated with a dependency on cannabis:
- Avoiding responsibilities to use cannabis.
- Experiencing cravings or urges to use cannabis that are so strong they overtake other thoughts.
- An inability to stop using, or reduce your cannabis use.
- Spending money on cannabis that was intended for other things such as food, rent, entertainment or transport.
- Owing people money for cannabis.
- Only doing things and seeing people where it’s acceptable to use cannabis, such as at parties/events etc.
How does cannabis make you feel?
Most young people who use cannabis want to experience a sense of mild euphoria and relaxation, which can last for several hours. Cannabis causes changes in your mood and also affects how you think and perceive your environment. For example, everyday activities such as watching television or listening to music can become altered and seem more intense, vibrant or interesting.
The short-term effects of using cannabis may include:
- A feeling of wellbeing.
- Heightened sensory responses (e.g., hearing, sight, touch).
- Drowsiness and a loss of co-ordination.
- Loss of inhibitions.
- Increased appetite.
- Bloodshot eyes.
- Dryness of the eyes, mouth and/or throat.
- Anxiety and paranoia.
- Increased heart rate.
- Decreased sex drive.
- Risk taking and inappropriate behaviour.
- Temporary memory loss ('black out').
- Nausea, vomiting and cold sweats (‘green out’).
- Psychosis in vulnerable people.
There is limited research on the long-term effects of cannabis. However, based on the available evidence, some of the major likely adverse effects include:
- Higher risk of respiratory diseases associated with smoking, including cancer.
- Decreased memory and learning abilities.
- Decreased motivation in areas such as study or work.
- Difficulty concentrating.
There is also a concern about the link between cannabis use and mental health problems and the risk of dependence.
What should you do in the case of harmful cannabis use or an overdose?
If you have smoked or ingested a high dose of cannabis and experience negative side effects...
Although most people assume that they cannot ‘overdose’ on cannabis, there can still be serious unpleasant effects from sustained or increased usage. In some cases, cannabis can induce or exacerbate underlying psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia. There is also evidence to suggest that some heavy cannabis users may suffer psychosis-like symptoms, such as unusual beliefs and sensations without having a diagnosis of schizophrenia. These symptoms might include dissociation (feeling separate from reality or your body), hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that others cannot see or hear) or delusions (unusual beliefs that others find difficult to reason with, such as believing people are out to get you or that you have special powers or abilities). These symptoms may increase the chances of being involved in accidents, violence, or self-harm. If you find yourself in this situation or you start feeling uneasy, please call a friend or family member immediately, so that they can best support you.
If the situation is unable to be managed, or if the effects are worsened or an injury has been sustained from a drug-related incident, phone Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance immediately and tell the operator that there has been an overdose. If you are calling about your own use, do not try and hide the fact that you have used cannabis – be completely honest about the amount and how recently it was used. Whilst waiting for emergency services to arrive, immediately inform a friend or family member who can support you during this time.
If someone you know has smoked or ingested a high dose of cannabis and experiences negative side effects...
If you suspect someone is having serious negative effects from using cannabis, try to calm them down and ask them exactly what they are experiencing. If they appear to be detached from reality, communicating with people (or voices) that are not present, or seem unable to organise their thoughts and speech normally, they may need medical care. Try to find out if the person has taken other drugs (including alcohol) as this can increase the risk of serious complications. The more quickly and accurately the information is passed on, the easier it will be to help someone experiencing adverse effects of cannabis. Stay with the person and call a friend or family member for assistance immediately. If the person is vomiting, never leave them on their own – they could suffocate on their own vomit. Usually the police will not be informed and will not attend unless ambulance officers feel their safety or the safety of others or a child is at risk, or if the person cannot be resuscitated or a crime has been committed (e.g., theft or violence). The priority is making sure the person gets the right help immediately in an emergency.
How can you reduce the risks associated with cannabis use?
The best way to reduce problems with cannabis dependence is to ask for help. If you or a friend think that that your cannabis use might be problematic, it is a good idea to make sure that someone you trust is nearby when you are asking for help. Common effects of the drug can be perceived as mild, which contributes to initial and extended use or relapse.
Drug dependence of any kind can make people feel anxious or scared about giving up the drug, which is a normal response to have but often results in the cycle continuing. Giving up cannabis can be challenging because the body becomes ‘tolerant’ or used to functioning with the drug. The best way to overcome cannabis dependence is to seek help.
Stopping cannabis use can result in ‘withdrawal’ symptoms, as the body is working out how to function without cannabis. These symptoms can be unpleasant, differing from person to person and ranging from mild to severe. Some withdrawal symptoms include:
- Cravings for cannabis.
- Irritability/mood swings.
- Stomach issues (e.g., diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting).
- Physical tension.
- Strange dreams or disrupted sleep patterns.
- Reduced appetite.
- Sweating, fever or chills.
- Depression and anxiety.
- Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
It is illegal to possess and supply cannabis, however some medicinal forms of cannabis can be prescribed by medical professionals.
Driving under the influence of cannabis is also illegal and roadside tests can be administered by police to test drivers. If you are caught with cannabis in your system, you may receive heavy fines and face loss of licence.
If you are involved in an accident whilst driving under the influence of cannabis, even if you are not directly at fault, you may face legal consequences.
Where can you get help for your cannabis use?
If cannabis is a problem for you or someone you know and you would like to speak with a real person to have your questions answered or to get advice on what to do next, call the Alcohol & Drug Foundation Information Line on 1300 858 584.