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Medicine LibreTexts

8.2: Types of Drugs

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    11744
  • Drug abuse is a serious public health problem that affects almost every community and family in some way. Each year drug abuse results in around 40 million serious illnesses or injuries among people in the United States. Abused drugs include:

    • Club drugs
    • Amphetamines
    • Anabolic steroids
    • Cocaine
    • Heroin
    • Inhalants
    • Marijuana
    • Prescription drugs

    Drug abuse also plays a role in many major social problems, such as drugged driving, violence, stress, and child abuse. Drug abuse can lead to homelessness, crime and missed work or problems with keeping a job. There are different types of treatment for drug abuse. But the best is to prevent drug abuse in the first place.

    Club Drugs

    The term club drug refers to a wide variety of dangerous drugs. These drugs are often used by young adults at all-night dance parties, dance clubs and bars. They include

    • Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), also known as Ecstasy XTC, X, Adam, Clarity and Lover's Speed
    • Gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), also known as Grievous Bodily Harm, G, Liquid Ecstasy and Georgia Home Boy
    • Ketamine, also known as Special K, K, Vitamin K, Cat Valium
    • Rohypnol, also known as Roofies, Rophies, Roche, Forget-me Pill
    • Methamphetamine, also known as Speed, Ice, Chalk, Meth, Crystal, Crank, Fire, Glass
    • Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), also known as or Acid, Boomers, Yellow Sunshines

    Club drugs have become more common in recent years. Sometimes people use them to commit sexual assaults. Club drugs can cause serious health problems and sometimes death. They are even more dangerous if you use them with alcohol.

    What Type of Drugs are Club Drugs?

    Club drugs are a pharmacologically heterogeneous group of psychoactive drugs that tend to be abused by teens and young adults at bars, nightclubs, concerts, and parties. Gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), Rohypnol, ketamine, as well as MDMA (ecstasy) and methamphetamine are some of the drugs included in this group.

    • GHB (Xyrem) is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant that was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2002 for use in the treatment of narcolepsy (a sleep disorder). This approval came with severe restrictions, including its use only for the treatment of narcolepsy, and the requirement for a patient registry monitored by the FDA. GHB is also a metabolite of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). It exists naturally in the brain, but at much lower concentrations than those found when GHB is abused.
    • Rohypnol (flunitrazepam) use began gaining popularity in the United States in the early 1990s. It is a benzodiazepine (chemically similar to sedative-hypnotic drugs such as Valium or Xanax), but it is not approved for medical use in this country, and its importation is banned.
    • Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic, mostly used in veterinary practice.

    How Are Club Drugs Abused?

    GHB and Rohypnol are available in odorless, colorless, and tasteless forms that are frequently combined with alcohol and other beverages. Both drugs have been used to commit sexual assaults (also known as “date rape,” “drug rape,” “acquaintance rape,” or “drug-assisted” assault) due to their ability to sedate and incapacitate unsuspecting victims, preventing them from resisting sexual assault.

    • GHB is usually ingested orally, either in liquid or powder form, while Rohypnol is typically taken orally in pill form. Recent reports, however, have shown that Rohypnol is being ground up and snorted.
    • Both GHB and Rohypnol are also abused for their intoxicating effects, similar to other CNS depressants.
    • GHB also has anabolic effects (it stimulates protein synthesis) and has been used by bodybuilders to aid in fat reduction and muscle building.
    • Ketamine is usually snorted or injected intramuscularly.

    How Do Club Drugs Affect the Brain?

    • At high doses, GHB’s sedative effects may result in sleep, coma, or death.
    • Rohypnol can produce anterograde amnesia, in which individuals may not remember events they experienced while under the influence of the drug.
    • Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic, so called because it distorts perceptions of sight and sound and produces feelings of detachment from the environment and self. Low-dose intoxication results in impaired attention, learning ability, and memory. At higher doses, ketamine can cause dreamlike states and hallucinations; and at higher doses still, ketamine can cause delirium and amnesia.

    Addictive Potential

    Repeated use of GHB may lead to withdrawal effects, including insomnia, anxiety, tremors, and sweating. Severe withdrawal reactions have been reported among patients presenting from an overdose of GHB or related compounds, especially if other drugs or alcohol are involved.

    • Like other benzodiazepines, chronic use of Rohypnol can produce tolerance, physical dependence, and addiction.
    • There have been reports of people binging on ketamine, a behavior that is similar to that seen in some cocaine- or amphetamine-dependent individuals. Ketamine users can develop signs of tolerance and cravings for the drug.

    What Other Adverse Effects Do Club Drugs Have on Health?

    Uncertainties about the sources, chemicals, and possible contaminants used to manufacture many club drugs make it extremely difficult to determine toxicity and associated medical consequences. Nonetheless, we do know that:

    • Coma and seizures can occur following use of GHB. Combined use with other drugs such as alcohol can result in nausea and breathing difficulties. GHB has been involved in poisonings, overdoses, date rapes, and deaths.
    • Rohypnol may be lethal when mixed with alcohol and/or other CNS depressants.
    • Ketamine, in high doses, can cause impaired motor function, high blood pressure, and potentially fatal respiratory problems.

    Methamphetamine

    Methamphetamine is a very addictive stimulant drug. It can be smoked, injected, inhaled or taken by mouth. It has many street names, such as speed, meth, and chalk.

    Methamphetamine hydrochloride, the crystal form inhaled by smoking, is referred to as ice, crystal, glass and tina.

    Methamphetamine affects the brain and can create feelings of pleasure, increase energy and elevate mood. Abusers may become addicted quickly, needing higher doses more often. Adverse health effects include irregular heartbeat, increased blood pressure and a variety of psychological problems. Long-term effects may include severe mental disorders, memory loss and severe dental problems.

    What Type of Drug is Methamphetamine?

    Methamphetamine is a central nervous system stimulant drug that is similar in structure to amphetamine. Due to its high potential for abuse, methamphetamine is classified as a Schedule II drug and is available only through a prescription that cannot be refilled. Although methamphetamine can be prescribed by a doctor, its medical uses are limited, and the doses that are prescribed are much lower than those typically abused. Most of the methamphetamine abused in this country comes from foreign or domestic superlabs, although it can also be made in small, illegal laboratories, where its production endangers the people in the labs, neighbors, and the environment.

    How Is Methamphetamine Abused?

    Methamphetamine is a white, odorless, bitter-tasting crystalline powder that easily dissolves in water or alcohol and is taken orally, intranasally (snorting the powder), by needle injection, or by smoking.

    How Does Methamphetamine Affect the Brain?

    Methamphetamine increases the release and blocks the reuptake of the brain chemical (or neurotransmitter) dopamine, leading to high levels of the chemical in the brain—a common mechanism of action for most drugs of abuse. Dopamine is involved in reward, motivation, the experience of pleasure, and motor function. Methamphetamine’s ability to release dopamine rapidly in reward regions of the brain produces the intense euphoria, or “rush,” that many users feel after snorting, smoking, or injecting the drug.

    Chronic methamphetamine abuse significantly changes how the brain functions. Noninvasive human brain imaging studies have shown alterations in the activity of the dopamine system that are associated with reduced motor skills and impaired verbal learning. Recent studies in chronic methamphetamine abusers have also revealed severe structural and functional changes in areas of the brain associated with emotion and memory, which may account for many of the emotional and cognitive problems observed in chronic methamphetamine abusers.

    Repeated methamphetamine abuse can also lead to addiction—a chronic, relapsing disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, which is accompanied by chemical and molecular changes in the brain. Some of these changes persist long after methamphetamine abuse is stopped. Reversal of some of the changes, however, may be observed after sustained periods of abstinence (e.g., more than 1 year).

    What Other Adverse Effects Does Methamphetamine Have on Health?

    Taking even small amounts of methamphetamine can result in many of the same physical effects as those of other stimulants, such as cocaine or amphetamines, including increased wakefulness, increased physical activity, decreased appetite, increased respiration, rapid heart rate, irregular heartbeat, increased blood pressure, and hyperthermia.

    Long-term methamphetamine abuse has many negative health consequences, including extreme weight loss, severe dental problems (“meth mouth”), anxiety, confusion, insomnia, mood disturbances, and violent behavior. Chronic methamphetamine abusers can also display a number of psychotic features, including paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations, and delusions (for example, the sensation of insects crawling under the skin).

    Transmission of HIV and hepatitis B and C can be consequences of methamphetamine abuse. The intoxicating effects of methamphetamine, regardless of how it is taken, can also alter judgment and inhibition and can lead people to engage in unsafe behaviors, including risky sexual behavior. Among abusers who inject the drug, HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases can be spread through contaminated needles, syringes, and other injection equipment that is used by more than one person. Methamphetamine abuse may also worsen the progression of HIV/AIDS and its consequences. Studies of methamphetamine abusers who are HIV-positive indicate that HIV causes greater neuronal injury and cognitive impairment for individuals in this group compared with HIV-positive people who do not use the drug.

    Anabolic Steroids

    Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) are synthetically produced variants of the naturally occurring male sex hormone testosterone. “Anabolic” refers to muscle-building, and “androgenic” refers to increased male sexual characteristics. “Steroids” refers to the class of drugs. These drugs can be legally prescribed to treat conditions resulting from steroid hormone deficiency, such as delayed puberty, as well as diseases that result in loss of lean muscle mass, such as cancer and AIDS.

    How Are AAS Abused?

    Some people, both athletes and non-athletes, abuse AAS in an attempt to enhance performance and/or improve physical appearance. AAS are taken orally or injected, typically in cycles rather than continuously. “Cycling” refers to a pattern of use in which steroids are taken for periods of weeks or months, after which use is stopped for a period of time and then restarted. In addition, users often combine several different types of steroids in an attempt to maximize their effectiveness, a practice referred to as “stacking.”

    How Do AAS Affect the Brain?

    The acute effects of AAS in the brain are substantially different from those of other drugs of abuse. The most important difference is that AAS are not euphorigenic, meaning they do not trigger rapid increases in the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for the “high” that often drives substance abuse behaviors. However, long-term use of AAS can eventually have an impact on some of the same brain pathways and chemicals—such as dopamine, serotonin, and opioid systems—that are affected by other drugs of abuse.Considering the combined effect of their complex direct and indirect actions, it is not surprising that AAS can affect mood and behavior in significant ways.

    AAS and Mental Health

    Preclinical, clinical, and anecdotal reports suggest that steroids may contribute to psychiatric dysfunction. Research shows that abuse of anabolic steroids may lead to aggression and other adverse effects. For example, although many users report feeling good about themselves while on anabolic steroids, extreme mood swings can also occur, including manic-like symptoms that could lead to violence. Researchers have also observed that users may suffer from paranoid jealousy, extreme irritability, delusions, and impaired judgment stemming from feelings of invincibility.

    Addictive Potential

    Animal studies have shown that AAS are reinforcing—that is, animals will self-administer AAS when given the opportunity, just as they do with other addictive drugs. This property is more difficult to demonstrate in humans, but the potential for AAS abusers to become addicted is consistent with their continued abuse despite physical problems and negative effects on social relations. Also, steroid abusers typically spend large amounts of time and money obtaining the drug: this is another indication of addiction. Individuals who abuse steroids can experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking AAS—these include mood swings, fatigue, restlessness, loss of appetite, insomnia, reduced sex drive, and steroid cravings, all of which may contribute to continued abuse. One of the most dangerous withdrawal symptoms is depression— when persistent, it can sometimes lead to suicide attempts.

    Research also indicates that some users might turn to other drugs to alleviate some of the negative effects of AAS. For example, a study of 227 men admitted in 1999 to a private treatment center for dependence on heroin or other opioids found that 9.3 percent had abused AAS before trying any other illicit drug. Of these, 86 percent first used opioids to counteract insomnia and irritability resulting from the steroids.

    What Other Adverse Effects Do AAS Have on Health?

    Steroid abuse can lead to serious, even irreversible health problems. Some of the most dangerous among these include liver damage; jaundice (yellowish pigmentation of skin, tissues, and body fluids); fluid retention; high blood pressure; increases in LDL (“bad” cholesterol); and decreases in HDL (“good” cholesterol). Other reported effects include renal failure, severe acne, and trembling. In addition, there are some gender- and agespecific adverse effects:

    • For men—shrinking of the testicles, reduced sperm count, infertility, baldness, development of breasts, increased risk for prostate cancer
    • For women—growth of facial hair, male-pattern baldness, changes in or cessation of the menstrual cycle, enlargement of the clitoris, deepened voice
    • For adolescents—stunted growth due to premature skeletal maturation and accelerated puberty changes; risk of not reaching expected height if AAS is taken before the typical adolescent growth spurt

    In addition, people who inject AAS run the added risk of contracting or transmitting HIV/AIDS or hepatitis, which causes serious damage to the liver.

    Cocaine

    Cocaine is a powerful drug that stimulates the brain. People who use it can form a strong addiction. They may have to use more and more of the drug to get high. It's sold on the street as a fine, white powder. There are two forms of cocaine: hydrochloride salt and freebase. The salt dissolves in water. People can take it in a vein or in the nose. The freebase form can be smoked. Crack is the street name of a smokable form of cocaine. No matter how cocaine is taken, it is dangerous. Some of the most common serious problems include

    • Heart problems, including heart attacks
    • Respiratory effects, including respiratory failure
    • Nervous system problems, including strokes
    • Digestive problems

    Any of these can be fatal. Using cocaine with alcohol is a common cause of drug-related death.

    What Type of Drug is Cocaine?

    Cocaine is a powerfully addictive stimulant drug. The powdered hydrochloride salt form of cocaine can be snorted or dissolved in water and then injected. Crack is the street name given to the form of cocaine that has been processed to make a rock crystal, which, when heated, produces vapors that are smoked. The term “crack” refers to the crackling sound produced by the rock as it is heated.

    How Is Cocaine Abused?

    Three routes of administration are commonly used for cocaine: snorting, injecting, and smoking. Snorting is the process of inhaling cocaine powder through the nose, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream through the nasal tissues. Injecting is the use of a needle to insert the drug directly into the bloodstream. Smoking involves inhaling cocaine vapor or smoke into the lungs, where absorption into the bloodstream is as rapid as it is by injection. All three methods of cocaine abuse can lead to addiction and other severe health problems, including increasing the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.

    The intensity and duration of cocaine’s effects—which include increased energy, reduced fatigue, and mental alertness—depend on the route of drug administration. The faster cocaine is absorbed into the bloodstream and delivered to the brain, the more intense the high. Injecting or smoking cocaine produces a quicker, stronger high than snorting. On the other hand, faster absorption usually means shorter duration of action: the high from snorting cocaine may last 15 to 30 minutes, but the high from smoking may last only 5 to 10 minutes. In order to sustain the high, a cocaine abuser has to administer the drug again.

    For this reason, cocaine is sometimes abused in binges—taken repeatedly within a relatively short period of time, at increasingly higher doses.

    How Does Cocaine Affect the Brain?

    Cocaine is a strong central nervous system stimulant that increases levels of dopamine, a brain chemical (or neurotransmitter) associated with pleasure and movement, in the brain’s reward circuit. Certain brain cells, or neurons, use dopamine to communicate. Normally, dopamine is released by a neuron in response to a pleasurable signal (e.g., the smell of good food), and then recycled back into the cell that released it, thus shutting off the signal between neurons.

    Cocaine acts by preventing the dopamine from being recycled, causing excessive amounts of the neurotransmitter to build up, amplifying the message to and response of the receiving neuron, and ultimately disrupting normal communication. It is this excess of dopamine that is responsible for cocaine’s euphoric effects. With repeated use, cocaine can cause long-term changes in the brain’s reward system and in other brain systems as well, which may eventually lead to addiction. With repeated use, tolerance to the cocaine high also often develops. Many cocaine abusers report that they seek but fail to achieve as much pleasure as they did from their first exposure. Some users will increase their dose in an attempt to intensify and prolong the euphoria, but this can also increase the risk of adverse psychological or physiological effects.

    What Adverse Effects Does Cocaine Have on Health?

    Abusing cocaine has a variety of adverse effects on the body. For example, cocaine constricts blood vessels, dilates pupils, and increases body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. It can also cause headaches and gastrointestinal complications such as abdominal pain and nausea. Because cocaine tends to decrease appetite, chronic users can become malnourished as well.

    Different methods of taking cocaine can produce different adverse effects. Regular intranasal use (snorting) of cocaine, for example, can lead to loss of the sense of smell; nosebleeds; problems with swallowing; hoarseness; and a chronically runny nose. Ingesting cocaine can cause severe bowel gangrene as a result of reduced blood flow. Injecting cocaine can bring about severe allergic reactions and increased risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne diseases. Binge-patterned cocaine use may lead to irritability, restlessness, and anxiety. Cocaine abusers can also experience severe paranoia—a temporary state of full-blown paranoid psychosis—in which they lose touch with reality and experience auditory hallucinations.

    Regardless of the route or frequency of use, cocaine abusers can experience acute cardiovascular or cerebrovascular emergencies, such as a heart attack or stroke, which may cause sudden death. Cocaine-related deaths are often a result of cardiac arrest or seizure followed by respiratory arrest.

    Heroin

    Heroin is a drug made from morphine, a natural substance in the seedpod of the Asian poppy plant. Heroin usually appears as a white or brown powder. Heroin can be injected, smoked or snorted. Heroin abuse is a serious problem in the United States. Major health problems from heroin include miscarriages, heart infections and death from overdose.

    People who inject the drug also risk infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. Regular use of heroin can lead to tolerance. This means users need more and more drug to have the same effect. At higher doses over time, the body becomes dependent on heroin. If dependent users stop heroin, they have withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, diarrhea, vomiting and cold flashes.

    Heroin is an opiate drug that is synthesized from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed pod of the Asian opium poppy plant. Heroin usually appears as a white or brown powder or as a black sticky substance, known as “black tar heroin.”

    How Is Heroin Abused?

    Heroin can be injected, snorted/sniffed, or smoked—routes of administration that rapidly deliver the drug to the brain. Injecting is the use of a needle to administer the drug directly into the bloodstream. Snorting is the process of inhaling heroin powder through the nose, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream through the nasal tissues. Smoking involves inhaling heroin smoke into the lungs. All three methods of administering heroin can lead to addiction and other severe health problems.

    How Does Heroin Affect the Brain?

    Heroin enters the brain, where it is converted to morphine and binds to receptors known as opioid receptors. These receptors are located in many areas of the brain (and in the body), especially those involved in the perception of pain and in reward. Opioid receptors are also located in the brain stem—important for automatic processes critical for life, such as breathing (respiration), blood pressure, and arousal. Heroin overdoses frequently involve a suppression of respiration.

    After an intravenous injection of heroin, users report feeling a surge of euphoria (“rush”) accompanied by dry mouth, a warm flushing of the skin, heaviness of the extremities, and clouded mental functioning. Following this initial euphoria, the user goes “on the nod,” an alternately wakeful and drowsy state. Users who do not inject the drug may not experience the initial rush, but other effects are the same.

    With regular heroin use, tolerance develops, in which the user’s physiological (and psychological) response to the drug decreases, and more heroin is needed to achieve the same intensity of effect. Heroin users are at high risk for addiction—it is estimated that about 23 percent of individuals who use heroin become dependent on it.

    What Other Adverse Effects Does Heroin Have on Health?

    Heroin abuse is associated with serious health conditions, including fatal overdose, spontaneous abortion, and—particularly in users who inject the drug—infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. Chronic users may develop collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, and liver or kidney disease. Pulmonary complications, including various types of pneumonia, may result from the poor health of the abuser as well as from heroin’s depressing effects on respiration. In addition to the effects of the drug itself, street heroin often contains toxic contaminants or additives that can clog blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain, causing permanent damage to vital organs.

    Chronic use of heroin leads to physical dependence, a state in which the body has adapted to the presence of the drug. If a dependent user reduces or stops use of the drug abruptly, he or she may experience severe symptoms of withdrawal. These symptoms—which can begin as early as a few hours after the last drug administration—can include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea and vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps (“cold turkey”), and kicking movements (“kicking the habit”). Users also experience severe craving for the drug during withdrawal, which can precipitate continued abuse and/or relapse.

    Major withdrawal symptoms peak between 48 and 72 hours after the last dose of the drug and typically subside after about 1 week. Some individuals, however, may show persistent withdrawal symptoms for months. Although heroin withdrawal is considered less dangerous than alcohol or barbiturate withdrawal, sudden withdrawal by heavily dependent users who are in poor health is occasionally fatal. In addition, heroin craving can persist years after drug cessation, particularly upon exposure to triggers such as stress or people, places, and things associated with drug use.

    Heroin abuse during pregnancy, together with related factors like poor nutrition and inadequate prenatal care, has been associated with adverse consequences including low birthweight, an important risk factor for later developmental delay. If the mother is regularly abusing the drug, the infant may be born physically dependent on heroin and could suffer from serious medical complications requiring hospitalization.

    Marijuana

    Marijuana is the most commonly abused illicit drug in the United States. It is a dry, shredded green and brown mix of flowers, stems, seeds, and leaves derived from the hemp plant Cannabis sativa. The main active chemical in marijuana is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC for short.

    How is Marijuana Abused?

    Marijuana is usually smoked as a cigarette (joint) or in a pipe. It is also smoked in blunts, which are cigars that have been emptied of tobacco and refilled with a mixture of marijuana and tobacco. This mode of delivery combines marijuana's active ingredients with nicotine and other harmful chemicals. Marijuana can also be mixed in food or brewed as a tea. As a more concentrated, resinous form, it is called hashish; and as a sticky black liquid, hash oil. Marijuana smoke has a pungent and distinctive, usually sweet-and-sour odor.

    How Does Marijuana Affect the Brain?

    Scientists have learned a great deal about how THC acts in the brain to produce its many effects. When someone smokes marijuana, THC rapidly passes from the lungs into the bloodstream, which carries the chemical to the brain and other organs throughout the body.

    THC acts upon specific sites in the brain, called cannabinoid receptors, kicking off a series of cellular reactions that ultimately lead to the "high" that users experience when they smoke marijuana. Some brain areas have many cannabinoid receptors; others have few or none. The highest density of cannabinoid receptors are found in parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thinking, concentrating, sensory and time perception, and coordinated movement.

    Not surprisingly, marijuana intoxication can cause distorted perceptions, impaired coordination, difficulty with thinking and problem solving, and problems with learning and memory. Research has shown that, in chronic users, marijuana's adverse impact on learning and memory can last for days or weeks after the acute effects of the drug wear off. As a result, someone who smokes marijuana every day may be functioning at a suboptimal intellectual level all of the time.

    Research into the effects of long-term cannabis use on the structure of the brain has yielded inconsistent results. It may be that the effects are too subtle for reliable detection by current techniques. A similar challenge arises in studies of the effects of chronic marijuana use on brain function. Brain imaging studies in chronic users tend to show some consistent alterations, but their connection to impaired cognitive functioning is far from clear. This uncertainty may stem from confounding factors such as other drug use, residual drug effects, or withdrawal symptoms in long-term chronic users.

    What Other Adverse Effect Does Marijuana Have on Health?

    1. Effects on the Heart: Marijuana increases heart rate by 20-100 percent shortly after smoking; this effect can last up to 3 hours. In one study, it was estimated that marijuana users have a 4.8-fold increase in the risk of heart attack in the first hour after smoking the drug. This may be due to increased heart rate as well as the effects of marijuana on heart rhythms, causing palpitations and arrhythmias. This risk may be greater in aging populations or in those with cardiac vulnerabilities.
    2. Effects on the Lungs: Numerous studies have shown marijuana smoke to contain carcinogens and to be an irritant to the lungs. In fact, marijuana smoke contains 50-70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco smoke. Marijuana users usually inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer than tobacco smokers do, which further increase the lungs' exposure to carcinogenic smoke. Marijuana smokers show dysregulated growth of epithelial cells in their lung tissue, which could lead to cancer; however, a recent case-controlled study found no positive associations between marijuana use and lung, upper respiratory, or upper digestive tract cancers. Thus, the link between marijuana smoking and these cancers remains unsubstantiated at this time.

    Nonetheless, marijuana smokers can have many of the same respiratory problems as tobacco smokers, such as daily cough and phlegm production, more frequent acute chest illness, and a heightened risk of lung infections. A study of 450 individuals found that people who smoke marijuana frequently but do not smoke tobacco have more health problems and miss more days of work than nonsmokers. Many of the extra sick days among the marijuana smokers in the study were for respiratory illnesses.

    How Widespread is Marijuana Abuse?

    Source: National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)

    According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2009, 16.7 million Americans aged 12 or older used marijuana at least once in the month prior to being surveyed, an increase over the rates reported in all years between 2002 and 2008. There was also a significant increase among youth aged 12-17, with current use up from 6.7 percent in 2008 to 7.3 percent in 2009, although this rate is lower than what was reported in 2002 (8.2 percent). Past-month use also increased among those 18-25, from 16.5 percent in 2008 to 18.1 percent in 2009.

    Is Marijuana Medicine?

    The potential medicinal properties of marijuana have been the subject of substantive research and heated debate. Scientists have confirmed that the cannabis plant contains active ingredients with therapeutic potential for relieving pain, controlling nausea, stimulating appetite, and decreasing ocular pressure. Cannabinoid-based medications include synthetic compounds, such as dronabinol (Marinol®) and nabilone (Cesamet®), which are FDA approved, and a new, chemically pure mixture of plant-derived THC and cannabidiol called Sativex®, formulated as a mouth spray and approved in Canada and parts of Europe for the relief of cancer-associated pain and spasticity and neuropathic pain in multiple sclerosis.

    Scientists continue to investigate the medicinal properties of THC and other cannabinoids to better evaluate and harness their ability to help patients suffering from a broad range of conditions, while avoiding the adverse effects of smoked marijuana.