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Marijuana (Cannabis)

By Gerald F. O’Malley, DO, Professor of Emergency Medicine, Sidney Kimmel School of Medicine, Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital
Rika O’Malley, MD, Attending Physician, Department of Emergency Medicine, Einstein Medical Center

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Marijuana is a euphoriant that can cause sedation or dysphoria in some users. Overdose does not occur. Psychologic dependence can develop with chronic use, but very little physical dependence is clinically apparent. Withdrawal is uncomfortable but requires only supportive treatment.

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug; it is typically used episodically without evidence of social or psychologic dysfunction.

In the US, marijuana is commonly smoked in cigarettes, made from the flowering tops and leaves of the dried plant, or as hashish, the pressed resin of the plant. The legalization of recreational marijuana in 2010 in certain states in the US created a large market for marijuana products that are ingested, insufflated, vaporized, applied topically in tincture, lotion and spray form.

Dronabinol, a synthetic oral form of the active ingredient, Δ-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is used to treat nausea and vomiting associated with cancer chemotherapy and to enhance appetite in AIDS patients.


Δ-9-THC binds at cannabinoid receptors, which are present throughout the brain.

Chronic effects

Any drug that causes euphoria and diminishes anxiety can cause dependence, and marijuana is no exception. High-dose smokers can develop pulmonary symptoms (episodes of acute bronchitis, wheezing, coughing, and increased phlegm), and pulmonary function may be altered, manifested as large airway changes of unknown significance. However, even daily smokers do not develop obstructive airway disease.

Recent data suggest that heavy marijuana use is associated with significant cognitive impairment and anatomic changes in the hippocampus, particularly if marijuana use begins in adolescence.

There is no evidence of increased risk of head and neck or airway cancers, as there is with tobacco. A sense of diminished ambition and energy is often described.

The effect of prenatal marijuana use on neonates is not clear. Decreased fetal weight has been reported, but when all factors (eg, maternal alcohol and tobacco use) are accounted for, the effect on fetal weight appears less. However, because safety has not clearly been proved, marijuana should be avoided by pregnant women and those who are trying to become pregnant. THC is secreted in breast milk. Although harm to breastfed infants has not been shown, breastfeeding mothers, like pregnant women, should avoid using marijuana.

Symptoms and Signs

Intoxication and withdrawal are not life threatening.

Acute effects

Within minutes, smoking marijuana produces a dreamy state of consciousness in which ideas seem disconnected, unanticipated, and free-flowing. Time, color, and spatial perceptions may be altered. In general, intoxication consists of a feeling of euphoria and relaxation (a high). These effects last 4 to 6 h after inhalation.

Many of the other reported psychologic effects seem to be related to the setting in which the drug is taken. Anxiety, panic reactions, and paranoia have occurred, particularly in naive users. Marijuana may exacerbate or even precipitate psychotic symptoms in schizophrenics, even those being treated with antipsychotics.

Physical effects are mild in most patients. Tachycardia, conjunctival injection, and dry mouth occur regularly. Concentration, sense of time, fine coordination, depth perception, tracking, and reaction time can be impaired for up to 24 h—all hazardous in certain situations (eg, driving, operating heavy equipment). Appetite often increases.


Cessation in frequent, heavy users can cause a mild withdrawal syndrome; the time of onset of withdrawal symptoms is variable but often begins about 12 h after the last use. Symptoms consist of insomnia, irritability, depression, nausea, and anorexia; symptoms peak at 2 to 3 days and last up to 7 days.

Cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome is a recently described syndrome of cyclic episodes of nausea and vomiting in chronic cannabis users; symptoms usually resolve spontaneously within 48 h. Hot bathing ameliorates these symptoms and is a clinical clue to the diagnosis.


  • Clinical evaluation

Diagnosis is usually made clinically. Drug levels are not typically measured. Most routine urine drug screens include marijuana, but they may give false-positive or false-negative results.


  • Supportive measures

Treatment is usually unnecessary; for patients experiencing significant discomfort, treatment is supportive. Patients with cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome may require IV fluids and antiemetics (anecdotal reports suggest haloperidol is effective).

Management of abuse typically consists of behavioral therapy in an outpatient drug treatment program.

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