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What is Cannabis?

Cannabis (also known as marijuana or marihuana) is a common name for the Cannabis plant. There are two major types of Cannabis plant, Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. The chemical substances that provide the effects of cannabis are known as cannabinoids. There are hundreds of cannabinoids in the plant. Two of the most common and best-studied cannabinoids are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), which are responsible for the majority of effects that cannabis has on the body. THC is known for producing the “high” effect people associate with cannabis use. CBD, on the other hand, does not produce the “high” or euphoria that THC does. There are many factors that affect the ratio of THC to CBD in a particular plant, including the strain and the growing conditions.

 

What is the difference between cannabis and marijuana?

The term “cannabis” comes from plant taxonomy and botanical names for plants. Cannabis sativa is the name of a species of plant within the plant genus called Cannabis. Hemp and marijuana plants are cultivars (or strains) of the species Cannabis sativa.

Marijuana plants are much shorter and bushier. Unlike hemp plants, marijuana plants contain high amounts of THC, the psycho-active ingredient that makes people high. Because the flowers of the marijuana plant contain most of the THC, plants are often grown indoors in hot and humid conditions to maximize flower production.

Cannabis usually means marijuana, hemp has low THC and doesn’t produce a high, and marijuana has high THC and does produce a high.

 

What are the medical uses of cannabis?

The effects of cannabis in the body are regulated through the endocannabinoid system. This system is involved in many processes in our body such as pain sensation, mood, sleep, energy balance, and memory. Medical cannabis has been studied for several uses, including:

  • improving quality of life in a palliative care setting (for people with terminal diseases)
  • chronic pain involving cancer
  • nausea and vomiting during chemotherapy
  • loss of appetite by cancer patients
  • neurological problems including multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and spinal cord injury
  • epilepsy and other seizure disorders
  • HIV/AIDS-related weight loss
  • anorexia nervosa
  • musculoskeletal disorders including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia
  • sleep disorders
  • headache and migraine
  • movement disorders including Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Tourette’s syndrome
  • glaucoma
  • neuropathic pain
  • psychiatric disorders including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia
  • asthma
  • high blood pressure
  • alcohol and opioid withdrawal symptoms
  • inflammatory skin disease such as dermatitis and psoriasis
  • irritable bowel syndrome

However, the evidence supporting its effectiveness for these uses are limited – many studies showed conflicting results and most studies were done with a small number of participants. This makes it difficult to draw any definitive conclusions on its effectiveness. Another issue is that the dosage used in these studies varied, making it hard to determine the proper dosage for medical use. Currently, there are many ongoing trials to try and understand more about cannabis and its possible medical uses.

Commercially available prescription products that use or closely imitate THC include nabilone (Cesamet®) and THC-cannabidiol (Sativex®).

What are the short-term health risks of cannabis?

Because the endocannabinoid system plays a role in many processes in our body, there are lots of potential side effects of cannabis use. Some of the short-term health risks of cannabis include:

  • breathing problems
  • change in mood
  • disorientation and confusion
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • dry mouth
  • hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia
  • impaired decision making ability
  • increased heart rate
  • loss of physical coordination
  • loss of short-term memory
  • low blood pressure
  • poor reaction time
  • red eyes

How is eating and drinking foods that contain marijuana (edibles) different from smoking marijuana?

Because marijuana contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), there are health risks associated with using marijuana regardless of the how it is used. Some of these negative effects include having difficulty thinking and problem-solving, having problems with memory, learning and maintaining attention and demonstrating impaired coordination. Additionally, frequent use can lead to becoming addicted to marijuana. However, some risks may differ by the way it is used.

Smoke from marijuana contains many of the same toxins, irritants, and carcinogens as tobacco smoke. Smoking marijuana can lead to a greater risk of bronchitis, cough, and phlegm production. Whereas, edibles, which take longer to digest, take longer to produce an effect. Therefore, people may consume more to feel the effects faster. This may lead to people consuming very high doses and result in negative effects like anxiety, paranoia and, in rare cases, an extreme psychotic reaction (e.g. delusions, hallucinations, talking incoherently, and agitation).

Is it safe for a breastfeeding mom to use marijuana?

We do not yet know. Chemicals from marijuana can be passed to your baby through breast milk. THC is stored in fat and is slowly released over time, meaning that your baby could still be exposed even after you stop using marijuana. However, data on the effects of marijuana exposure to the infant or baby through breastfeeding are limited and conflicting. To limit potential risk to the infant, breastfeeding mothers should reduce or avoid marijuana use.
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