2015-04-09 15:28:08

Everyone has heard of marijuana and cannabis before. But how many people actually know exactly what these terms mean? With more and more individuals, medical practitioners, and politicians pushing for the legalization of marijuana, understanding more about the drug and the plant from which it comes is important to those who want to know where they stand on the issue, or who are considering pursuing marijuana as a treatment for a medical condition.

Marijuana vs. Cannabis: What's the Difference? Is There One?

If you're talking about the actual drug that is used recreationally or medicinally, the words cannabis and marijuana are completely interchangeable. If you're speaking from a scientific perspective, cannabis is the name of a genus or family of plants. There are three plants that are a part of the family:

  • 1. Cannabis Sativa
  • 2. Cannabis Indica
  • 3. Cannabis Ruderalis

Closely related to nettles and hops, plants in the cannabis genus produce flowers, and are native to Central and South America. Since ancient times, people have grown cannabis plants for a variety of uses, not just for marijuana. The fibers of the plants, called hemp, are used to make ropes, and the oils from the seeds are often found in skin creams and dietary supplements. You can even cook with hemp oil and eat hemp seeds.

Marijuana: Controversial Even in its Naming

Marijuana is a name for the drug that is produced from the cannabis plant. Just as people are split about whether or not the drug should be legalized, the origin of the name of the drug is up for debate. There are two main theories as to how the drug got its name:

  • Some say that marijuana was derived from the words "Maria" and "Juana," the Spanish equivalents to Mary and Jane. People who stand behind this story claim that the name originated in Mexico and then was passed on to other Central and Latin American countries.

  • Another theory is that the word is traced back to the Aztecs and somehow derived from the word "mallihuan," which in the Aztec language, Nahuatl, means "a prisoner." Those who support this story state that the name shifted from Nahuatl to Spanish and became part of the English language sometime in the 19th century.

Drug Cannabis: What It Is and Where It Comes From

The drug cannabis is derived from one of two species of cannabis plants: Cannabis indica or Cannabis sativa. There are more than 400 chemicals in cannabis. Some of these are psychoactive and others are not. When used recreationally or medicinally, cannabis may be used in the form of:

  • - Dry herbs
  • - Resin or wax
  • - Powder
  • - Concentrated Oils
Forms of Cannabis or Marijuana

In addition to being sometimes called marijuana, cannabis has many other slang names, marijuana slang (nicknames) includes: Pot, Weed, Dope, Hashish, Grass, Hash, Reefer, Ganja, MaryJane, Chronic, and many others.

Why Does Marijuana Make You High?

Marijuana or cannabis affects the brain and body due to two main psychoactive chemicals that are naturally present in the plant. They are:

  • Tetrahydrocannabinol - also called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC for short, is the primary psychoactive substance in marijuana. The amount of THC present in cannabis can vary from variety to variety. For example, skunk marijuana has been shown to contain 300 percent more THC than other types.

THC affects the release of natural chemicals that are present in the central nervous system. This gives it the ability to reduce sensations of pain and to relax the body. In addition, THC increases feelings of hunger and can temporarily affect the senses, causing changes in eyesight, and the perception of sounds and smells.

  • Cannabidiol - Called CBD for short, cannabidiol is a secondary psychoactive chemical found in cannabis. It is primarily a sedative, meaning that it slows down the nervous system and creates feelings of relaxation. There is also some evidence that CBD reduces inflammation due to injuries and medical conditions. When used together, CBD may decrease the rate at which THC is eliminated from the body by the liver, prolonging its effects.

Cannabis indica has been found to have a higher ratio of CBD to THC than Cannabis sativa. Some research shows that this makes it a better choice for marijuana usage, as it cuts down on the risk of anxiety or paranoia, one of the common side effects of marijuana.

What Does Cannabis Do to the Body When Used for Recreation?

As of March 2015, cannabis is legal to buy for recreational use in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Alaska and can be purchased from legal dispensaries. In other states, it must be purchased illegally.

What Does Cannabis Do to the Body When Used for Recreation

Typically, when used for recreation, marijuana is purchased as a herb and then rolled in cigarette papers to make a joint or in cigar papers to make a blunt. It can also be placed in a vaporizer. In order for marijuana to have an effect on the body, there must be a high enough concentration of THC. Studies show that there must be at least 10 micrograms of the chemical for every kilogram of a person's body weight for there to be any type of effects.

Assuming that there is a high enough concentration of THC to have an impact, the following effects arise from using cannabis:

  • Distortions in perception. While marijuana is not a hallucinogen, it can make a person sense things differently.

  • Mood changes. The most desired effects of cannabis among recreational users is getting high or stoned. This is the term used to describe the mood effects of the drug, which can range from feelings of joyfulness and elation to feelings of relaxation and peacefulness.

  • Cardiovascular and respiratory effects. Marijuana effects the heart and blood vessels, increasing heart rate and decreasing blood pressure. The drug also causes breathing rates to increase.

  • Mental effects. Cannabis has a number of short-term effects on the mind. The drug is associated with interfering with working and short-term memory and reducing one's ability to concentrate. It can also interfere with coordination and make a person clumsy.

  • Digestive effects. Some people become nauseous after smoking cannabis. Feelings of hunger, commonly known as the munchies, frequently occur.

What Are the Potential Medical Benefits of Marijuana?

In ancient times, the cannabis plant was used as a folk remedy for many conditions. Modern scientists have spent decades studying the use of cannabis for the treatment of diseases and for easing symptoms of medical conditions. There is promising evidence that cannabis may:

Potential Medical Benefits of Marijuana
  • Assist with Cancer Treatment. Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy may get relief from nausea by using cannabis and find it easier to eat. There is also some evidence that cannabis can interfere with the growth of some types of cancer cells and be beneficial for the treatment of prostate cancer, leukemia, and gliomas (cancers of the nervous system).

  • Pain Relief. Cannabis has been shown to alleviate many types of pain. It is often recommended for people with neuropathy or nerve damage that causes pain. An extract of cannabis, Cannador, is sometimes used to provide pain relief after surgery. Using marijuana along with opioid prescription medications may make the pain relievers stronger. There is also evidence that marijuana can diminish pain caused by migraines and firbromyalgia.

  • Neurological Diseases. Some of the most promising research regarding the medicinal use of marijuana has been in relation to neurological diseases. Because of its calming effects on the nervous system, cannabis may reduce spasms caused by multiple sclerosis and Tourette syndromes. It has also been shown to reduce the frequency of seizures in people with epilepsy, and to improve short-term memory in individuals with Alzheimer's disease.

  • Mental Health Disorders. Research has produced evidence that cannabis can benefit people with some mental health problems, particularly PTSD. There is also some indication that marijuana can help reduce withdrawal symptoms for people who are recovering from alcohol abuse.

  • Other Conditions. There is evidence that marijuana could be beneficial for reducing skin rashes caused by contact dermatitis. Studies have also shown that marijuana usage lowers the risk of bone loss or osteoporosis later in life. Other conditions for which marijuana may be beneficial include inflammatory bowel disease, and other digestive diseases, asthma, certain types of arthritis, MRSA, and sickle cell disease.


It's important to note that while early research has been very promising, there is still more research needed to fully confirm the potential health and medical benefits of marijuana.

Your Brain on Marijuana

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  • marijuana
  • medicalnewstoday
  • Sources: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • National Health Service (NHS) U.K., Wikipedia
  • Colorado Dept of Health, Medical News Today Archives

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