What's the Deal With Cannabis?

To help clear things up, we’re answering your most pressing questions about a drug that’s really hard to understand.

“It’s chocolate— how bad can it be?"

That was the thought running through Jojo’s mind during a sleepover two years ago, when she decided to break out a cannabis-infused chocolate bar that she had gotten from a friend. With her family upstairs, Jojo, then 15, and another friend unwrapped the bar, which contained THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the chemical from the cannabis plant that gets people high. “We each took a little bit,” says Jojo. The girls waited for the drug to take effect. After 40 minutes of not feeling anything, they split the bar and each ate half. 

Bad idea. Before long, Jojo had trouble standing. “I could feel my heartbeat in my ears,” she recalls. “I felt like I was going to die.” Too scared to ask her parents for help, Jojo and her friend lay awake all night waiting for the drug to wear off. “We’d turn to look at each other, and I’d see fear in my friend’s eyes,” she says. “I was terrified too.”

There’s a lot Jojo wishes she’d known about cannabis before that night—including what to do when you consume too much—but like many teens, she didn’t have enough information. And she’s not alone. You might be picking up facts here and there from other kids, YouTube, or school, but it can be tricky to figure out what it all means. That’s why we asked Choices readers to send us their most pressing questions about cannabis. Read on for the eye-opening answers.

"My parents smoke pot, so why is it bad for me to do it?"

There’s a big difference between an adult brain and a teen brain. The brain is still developing until age 25. Research shows that using cannabis even once can affect brain development—and could result in a lower IQ and impaired memory and concentration, says Joseph Lee, M.D., of the Hazelden Betty Ford treatment centers. When teens smoke cannabis regularly, it increases their risk for depression too.

"I’ve heard a lot of people are getting very sick—and sometimes dying— from vaping cannabis. Why?"

When you vape cannabis, you’re inhaling more than just THC. Scientists have discovered that the mist you inhale can contain dangerous chemicals and tiny metal particles that settle in your lungs, causing inflammation and making it hard to breathe. Investigators, who’ve been trying to solve the mystery of what’s made more than 2,000 people sick and killed at least 39 others since March 2019, think a likely culprit is vitamin E acetate, a thickener that illegal sellers add to THC-laced cartridges.

Is eating cannabis in cookies and brownies less dangerous because you’re not smoking it?

No. Edibles—foods infused with cannabis—come with their own serious risk: THC overconsumption. (Edibles have even been blamed in some deaths!) The reason? Even if the cannabis comes from an official store (called a dispensary) and you know how much you’re eating, you don’t know how that amount will affect you. Once someone eats cannabis, it can take a long time to feel it, which often leads the person to eat even more. Then the drug’s effects—from nausea to hallucinations—hit all at once, says Dr. Lee. 

If cannabis is legal, how can it be dangerous?

Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s good for you (case in point: alcohol and cigarettes). Even in the 33 states where it’s legal to buy, sell, and use cannabis if you’re 21 or older, there are a lot of restrictions around buying, selling, and using it. These rules—like having to purchase products from dispensaries— are designed to help keep people safe. 

"I see CBD everywhere—in lotions, drinks, candies. What does it do, and is it a drug?"

CBD is another name for cannabidiol, the second-most-prevalent chemical found in cannabis plants. It doesn’t have the mind-altering and addictive properties of THC (though it’s still illegal for anyone under 21 to purchase it). Some people say CBD-only products make them feel calmer or help with pain, but many doctors argue that not enough research has been done to prove CBD products are effective. We do know that cannabidiol can work as medicine for some people who have seizures.

"What should I do if I’m with a friend and they smoke or eat too much cannabis and start feeling sick?"

The most important thing to do if a friend isn’t feeling well is to get help from an adult immediately—don’t worry about getting into trouble, says Dr. Sharon Levy, of Boston Children’s Hospital. Emergency room doctors regularly see kids experiencing scary symptoms such as vomiting, psychosis, hallucinations, panic attacks, and paranoia after ingesting THC-packed products. If you can’t find an adult right away, the best thing to do is to call 911.

"Aren’t adults just blowing all of this out of proportion and trying to scare me?"

The fact that cannabis can harm your brain and lungs is very real (and scary). Doctors are alarmed that THC levels in cannabis keep increasing. For example, before the 1990s, a flower (what people smoke in a joint) contained about 2 percent THC, but today, some might have as much as 28 percent. In concentrated liquid or wax form, THC levels can be dangerously high.

"A lot of kids at my school vape cannabis, but I don’t want to. How do I say no?"

“I’m not into it” is fine, but if you feel like you need a better excuse, blame your parents (“If they ever find out, I’ll be grounded forever”), your schoolwork, or some other commitment (“I need to be 100 percent for my paper/game/whatever”). If you’re talking to someone you know well, you might want to share that you’re worried about how it might mess with your body and brain— just don’t turn it into a lecture.

"Is it bad to ride with a driver who is high?"

Yes. Someone high on cannabis may look totally fine, but the chemicals in the drug slow down motor coordination and cloud judgment—both of which can seriously impair someone’s driving ability. 

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