By Lindsey Greto and Meghan King
Retail cannabis is legal in Washington, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely safe and free of health or social impacts. While little is definitively known about the health effects of cannabis, there are both public health risks and health benefits, and these must be balanced. Over the next few months, we’ll talk about what these are and bring you up to date on local public health efforts taking place post-legalization. To get you started, this first blog covers the basics of cannabis.
What is the difference between cannabis and marijuana?
Cannabis is a plant with three species: cannabis sativa, cannabis indica, and cannabis ruderalis. When cannabis flowers, leaves, and stems are dried, people commonly refer to it as “marijuana.” The name “cannabis,” however, can apply to both the plant and its products.
Speaking of names, there are lots out there… what should people use?
Marijuana, weed, pot, kush, dope, reefer, ganja, Mary Jane… there are hundreds of names to choose from.
“Marijuana” is the most widely used name in the United States, but many people prefer to use “cannabis” instead. This is due to the name’s racialized history, as “marijuana” was initially a derogatory term when it was introduced in the early 1900s – a future blog post on racial equity and cannabis will provide more of this history. Plus, “cannabis” is the name widely used around the world.
What are THC and CBD, and what do they do?
Just like all plants, cannabis contains a lot of organic compounds—the two compounds people hear the most about are THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). The “high” from cannabis use usually comes from THC. CBD does not cause a high, but is more widely known for its medical uses. Cannabis plants are bred into strains with different amounts of THC and CBD for different effects.
People may have also heard of “terpenes” – these are the aromatic compounds found in the essential oils of plants, and are responsible for the odor and flavor of different cannabis strains. Terpenes form the largest group of compounds in the cannabis plant, but we are still learning about what they do.
Is today’s weed the same as the weed of the 1960s and ‘70s?
Not even close! Today’s cannabis has much higher concentrations of THC (and consequently increased psychoactive impacts). Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the concentration of THC in smoked cannabis was typically 3-7%. Nowadays, it’s usually 20-30%. Some highly concentrated products can be 60-85% THC, and are used by vaping (inhaling heated vapor) or “dabbing” (see below for a description). People can tell how potent a cannabis product is by its label – Washington state rules require all products to be labeled with their THC and CBD levels.
There may be more negative health effects with higher THC potency (like panic attacks, addiction, and marijuana use disorders). New cannabis users, in particular, are at higher risk for some of these negative health effects from high potency products. We’re still waiting for the research to catch up to learn more about the long-term consequences of high THC concentrations on the body and brain.
Isn’t “dabbing” a dance?
People use cannabis by smoking, vaping, eating or drinking foods containing it (edibles), and applying it topically. Dabbing involves inhaling heated oils and waxes containing highly concentrated THC that has been extracted with solvents (usually butane).
Dabbing as a dance move is super cool. Dabbing cannabis has risks, both in terms of making it and consuming it. Flammable gases typically used to extract THC for oils and waxes can cause fires. Users can be burned from the inhaled vapor (it’s very hot!) and can also inhale concentrated chemical contaminants, pesticides, and residual solvents. Once inhaled, the effects of dabbing can be overly intense, and people can easily exceed their personal limit. Plus, dabbing is associated with toxic psychosis episodes, panic attacks, and a greater severity of cannabis dependence among adults.
Cannabis is legal, so why is it still a risk?
Again, even though retail cannabis is legal, it can still have negative health or social impacts—especially for youth and pregnant women. To name a few:
- Smoke: Just like tobacco smoke, cannabis smoke is bad for people’s lungs, and actually contains many of the same toxins, irritants, and carcinogens.
- Addiction: Some people think users can’t get “hooked” on cannabis. Actually, about 1 in 10 cannabis users can become addicted. For people under 18, that number rises to 1 in 6. We also don’t know how some of the newer, higher concentrated products on the market might change this addiction potential.
- Brain health: Heavy use can damage memory, learning, and attention, especially among youth.
- Criminal justice: Remember, retail cannabis is only legal for adults over the age of 21—so, youth who use can face legal consequences. For all consumers, it is illegal to use cannabis in public or drive while under the influence.
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women: THC can pass from a person who is pregnant to their unborn baby, as well as infants in breast milk. Because we don’t know the full effects of this, pregnant and breastfeeding people should avoid using cannabis (we’ll tell you more about cannabis use during pregnancy and breastfeeding in a future post).
What about medical cannabis?
In 2016 new laws were created around using marijuana for medical purposes. Doctors can authorize it for a patient if they have a condition that may benefit from the use of marijuana. We’ll talk more about what’s known about the scientific benefits of cannabis in future blog posts.
These effects and more will be explored throughout the rest of our blog series.
Stay tuned for our next blog on the 10 laws you need to know about legalized retail cannabis!
Sources & Resources:
- Andre, Hausman, and Guerriero: Cannabis sativa – The Plant of the Thousand and One Molecules
- Brenneisen: Chemistry and analysis of phytocannabinoids and other cannabis constituents
- Carlini, Garret, and Harwick: Beyond Joints and brownies: Marijuana concentrates in the legal landscape of WA State
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Marijuana and Public Health
- Hudak: Marijuana: A Short History
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids – The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research
- University of Washington Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute: Learn About Marijuana WA
- Washington Department of Health
- Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board: General Information about Marijuana