NurseAsk Nurse Lisa


What is Marijuana?

Marijuana is the combination of dried leaves and flowers from a Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica plant. Alaska law defines marijuana as leaves, stems, or flowers (the “buds”) of the marijuana plant; marijuana concentrates, such as oils, hashes, and waxes; and a wide variety of marijuana-infused products, such as edibles, tinctures, and topicals.

Of the more than 500 chemicals in marijuana, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC, is responsible for many of the drug’s mind-altering effects. It’s a chemical that distorts how the mind perceives the world. In other words, it is what makes you high.

There are a few different ways people use marijuana:

  • Smoking hand-rolled cigarettes called joints or blunts (often made by slicing open cigars and replacing some or all of the tobacco with marijuana).
  • Inhaling smoke using glass pipes or water pipes called bongs
  • Inhaling vapor using devices that pull the active ingredients (including THC) from marijuana into the vapor. Some vaporizers use a marijuana liquid extract.
  • Drinking tea brewed with marijuana or eating food with marijuana cooked into it, sometimes called edibles– such as brownies, cookies, or candy.

The amount of THC in marijuana has increased over the past few decades. In the early 1990s, the average THC content in marijuana was less than 4 percent. It is now more than 12 percent and much higher in some products such as oils and other extracts. There have been reports of people seeking help in emergency rooms with symptoms, including nervousness, shaking and psychosis (having false thoughts or seeing or hearing things that aren’t there), after consuming high concentrations of THC.

Medical Marijuana

The marijuana plant itself has not been approved as a medicine by the federal government. However, the plant contains chemicals–called cannabinoids–that may be useful for treating a range of illnesses or symptoms. Here are some samples of cannabinoids that have been approved or are being tested as medicines:

  • THC: The cannabinoid that can make you “high”–THC–has some medical properties. Two laboratory-made versions of THC, nabilone and dronabinol have been approved by the federal government to treat nausea, prevent sickness and vomiting from chemotherapy in cancer patients, and increase appetite in some patients with AIDS.
  • CBD: Another chemical in marijuana with potential therapeutic effects is called cannabidiol, or CBD. CBD doesn’t have mind-altering effects and is being studied for its possible uses as medicine. For example, CBD oil has been approved as a possible treatment for seizures in children with some severe forms of epilepsy.
  • THC and CBD: A medication with a combination of THC and CBD is available in several countries outside the United States as a mouth spray for treating pain or the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

It is important to remember that smoking marijuana can have side effects, making it difficult to develop as a medicine. For example, it can harm lung health, impair judgment and affect memory. Side effects like this might outweigh its value as a medical treatment, especially for people who are not very sick. Another problem with smoking or eating marijuana plant material is that the ingredients can vary a lot from plant to plant, so it is difficult to get an exact dose. Research continues to extract and test chemicals in marijuana to create safe medicine. However, until medicine can be proven safe and effective, it will not be approved by the federal government.

The Brain and Body

When marijuana is smoked or vaporized, THC quickly passes from the lungs into the bloodstream, which carries it to organs throughout the body, including the brain. Its effects begin almost immediately and can last from 1 to 3 hours. This can affect decision making, concentration, and memory for days after use, especially in people who use marijuana regularly. If marijuana is consumed in food or beverages, the effects of THC appear later–usually about 30 minutes to 1 hour–and may last for many hours. Some people consume more and more waiting for the “high” and end up in the emergency room with uncomfortable symptoms from too much THC.

Marijuana and the Teenage Brain

As marijuana enters the brain, THC attaches to cells, or neurons, with specific kinds of receptors called cannabinoid receptors. Normally, these receptors are activated by chemicals similar to THC that occur naturally in the body. Most of these receptors are found in parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thinking, concentration, sensory and time perception, and coordinated movement. Marijuana stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward centers, reinforcing the “high” feeling. Other effects include changes in perceptions and mood, lack of coordination, difficulty with thinking and problem solving and disrupted learning and memory.

Marijuana and the Teenage Body

Within a few minutes after inhaling marijuana smoke, a person’s heart rate speeds up, the bronchial passages (the pipes that let air in and out of your lungs) relax and become enlarged, and blood vessels in the eyes expand, making the eyes look red. While these and other effects seem harmless, they can take a toll on the body.

Short-term effects include:

  • altered senses (such as seeing brighter colors)
  • altered sense of time
  • changes in mood
  • slow reaction time
  • increased appetite
  • problems with balance and coordination
  • hallucinations (seeing things that aren’t there)
  • delusions (believing something that is not true)
  • psychosis (having false thoughts)

Long-term effects include:

  • Increased heart rate. When someone uses marijuana, the heart rate (normally 70 to 80 beats per minute) may increase or even double. This increases the risk of a heart attack.
  • Respiratory (lung and breathing) problems. Smoke from marijuana irritates the lungs and can cause a chronic cough.
  • Increased risk for mental health problems. Marijuana has been linked with depression and anxiety, as well as suicidal thoughts among teens. Research also suggests that smoking marijuana during the teen years might increase the risk of developing psychosis in people with genetic risk for developing schizophrenia.
  • Increased risk of problems for an unborn baby. Marijuana used during pregnancy is linked to lower birth weight and increased risk of behavioral problems in babies.


Excessive or too much marijuana use can lead to bad outcomes physically, mentally and socially. Being under the influence of marijuana can make it hard to keep your personal rules or you may find yourself in a situation that you may not want to be in. Using marijuana causes you to become impaired which leads to making the right choices more difficult.

There are increased risks and a range of negative outcomes related to marijuana use. such as:

  • Reduced life satisfaction. Research suggests that people who use marijuana regularly for a long time are less satisfied with their lives and have more problems with friends and family compared to people who do not use marijuana.
  • Reduced school performance. Students who use marijuana tend to get lower grades and are more likely to drop out of high school than their peers who do not use it. The effects of marijuana on attention, memory, and learning can last for days or weeks.
  • Impaired driving. Marijuana affects several skills required for safe driving–alertness, concentration, coordination, and reaction time–so it’s not safe to drive high or to ride with someone who uses marijuana.
  • Use of other drugs. Most young people who use marijuana do not go on to use other drugs. However, those who use are more likely to use other illegal drugs. Exposure to addictive substances, including marijuana, may cause changes to the developing brain that make other drugs more appealing.
  • Severe nausea and vomiting. Studies have shown that in rare cases, regular, long-term marijuana use can lead some people to have cycles of severe nausea, vomiting, dehydration, sometimes requiring visits to the emergency room.
  • Legal issues. Although marijuana possession and use are legal for persons over the age of 21 in the state of Alaska, Federal Law still considers it illegal. Misusing or providing marijuana to persons under the age of 21 can lead to serious legal consequences.

Legal Issues

Under United States Federal Law, it is illegal to possess or use marijuana. This means marijuana cannot be used by anybody on any federal land–including national parks or forests, federal properties or federally-regulated areas. Federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug–the same category as heroin and LSD. Bringing or using marijuana on federal property can result in serious legal consequences. However, states have recently been able to make laws and regulations regarding the legality of marijuana. As of 2015, recreational use of marijuana is legal within Alaska for persons over 21 years of age.

Alaska law defines marijuana as leaves, stems, or flowers (the “buds”) of the marijuana plant; marijuana concentrates, such as oils, hashes, and waxes; and a wide variety of marijuana-infused products, such as edibles, tinctures, and topicals.

Only people 21 and over may legally possess or use marijuana. It is illegal to give marijuana to anyone under 21 years of age.

Know where you can use marijuana. Aside from specially designated marijuana retail stores, the law bans all public use of marijuana (not just smoking). This means it is illegal to use marijuana in schools and universities, amusement venues, businesses, parks, playgrounds, sidewalks, or roads, just to name a few. Responsible consumption occurs on private property, though some property owners or homeowners associations may have policies that prohibit marijuana use.

Adults aged 21 and older may possess, grow and give away as many as 6 marijuana plants and may transfer up to 1 ounce of marijuana to another adult. Only 3 of the plants can be mature and flowering at any one time. Federal law prohibits the transport of marijuana through federally regulated highways, airspace, or waterways (this includes the shipment through the postal service). It is illegal to transport marijuana out of state, even to another state where it is legal, such as Washington or Oregon.

Employers may have a policy against use. Marijuana use in the workplace may cause safety concerns, especially in industries already prone to workplace injuries. Also, employers may have a zero-tolerance policy that requires employees to abstain from marijuana use.

When using marijuana, do not operate any motorized vehicle, including cars, snow machines, boats, ATVs, airplanes, etc. A person can get a DUI (driving under the influence) while operating any aircraft or watercraft that isn’t motorized. It is illegal to drive under the influence of any amount of marijuana, regardless of age.

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