Cannabis is a drug that derives from Indian hemp plants such as Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica.
There are three main forms of cannabis:
- Marijuana is the most common and least powerful form of cannabis. It is the dried leaves and flowers of the plant. Marijuana looks like chopped grass, and ranges in colour from grey-green to greenish-brown. Marijuana is smoked in hand-rolled cigarettes (joints) or in a pipe (bong).
- Hashish (hash) is dried cannabis resin which comes in small blocks ranging in colour from light brown to nearly black. The concentration of THC in hashish is high and produces strong effects. Hash is added to tobacco and smoked, or baked and eaten in foods such as "hash cookies".
- Hash oil is a thick, oily liquid, golden-brown to black, that can be extracted from hashish and is the most potent form of cannabis. This form is rarely found in Australia.
The cannabis plant contains approximately 460 known compounds. Sixty of these are unique to the cannabis plant and are called cannabinoids. The cannabinoid that is mainly responsible for the psycho-active effects of cannabis is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or D-9 THC .
The brain cells of humans have special receptors to which bind the body's own, naturally produced cannabinoids (e.g. Anandamide), which act much like plant-derived cannabinoids. While research is still being done in this area, the body's own cannabinoids are thought to be involved in a range of functions including thinking, memory, and mood states; control of appetite; pain relief; physical activity; blood pressure; and inflammatory and immune responses.
Plant derived THC binds to brain cells' cannabinoid receptors and has been shown to release an important brain chemical messenger called dopamine which is responsible for feelings of pleasure or reward. Dopamine is also released by a range of other drugs such as heroin, nicotine, and speed, all of which can produce dependence in regular users.
Who uses cannabis?
Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in Australia. More than one third of all Australians have used cannabis at some time in their lives, and about one third of these people have used cannabis in the last year. Nearly one in five people aged 20-29 report recent use.
What problems can arise?
Many people can use cannabis from time to time without experiencing serious problems, but some people do run into trouble along the way, particularly those who use heavily or regularly, and those who have mental health problems.
If you are a regular user, you might have trouble controlling your use of cannabis, lack motivation, have decreased energy, and/or have problems with concentration, your memory, and your attention span.
If you mix cannabis with tobacco, which is common in Australia, your risk of lung disease is significantly increased.
Other problems can involve:
- Study - missing lectures, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, lack of motivation.
- Relationships - conflict with family, friends, partners.
- Work - difficulty concentrating, lack of motivation.
- Physical and mental health- respiratory problems, some cancers, depression and anxiety. Cannabis is a particularly risky for people who already have a mental health problem.
- Driving - driving under the influence of cannabis impairs judgment and ability, and road-side testing for cannabis is now available in most states and territories in Australia.
- Money worries - cannabis is expensive.
- Legal issues - cultivation, use, possession, and sale of cannabis are generally prohibited in Australia (see "Where to find more information" for links to sites with detailed information about legal issues).
- Dependence - about one person in ten who has ever tried cannabis might become dependent at some time. People who use heavily on most days are at risk of having withdrawal symptoms when they stop using cannabis such as anxiety, restlessness, depression, irritability, reduced appetite, sleep disturbance and possibly aggressive behaviour. Those who mix cannabis with tobacco often develop a dependence on both drugs.
Am I dependent on cannabis?
If you haven't already taken the cannabis use self-assessment, spare 5 minutes to take it now. If your score is in the High range, you might be dependent on cannabis.
Generally speaking, if you answer YES to a few of the following you could be dependent on cannabis:
- I can't control my cannabis use or use/smoke more than I mean to
- I need to smoke more and more to get the same effect
- I skip uni, work, or other important things because of being stoned or feeling the after effects
- I'm worried about my cannabis use and I want to cut down or stop
- I've tried to stop but can't
- I have problems in other areas of my life because of cannabis (legal, social, financial etc)
- I have withdrawal symptoms when I stop
What treatments are useful for cannabis problems?
There are a number of cannabis treatment options available in Australia. Some options include counselling, withdrawal (detoxification) and medication. Most programs adopt strategies that have an overall aim of reducing the harms and risks related to a person's drug use. Some self-help strategies can be very useful, and the cannabis self-help materials on this site offers practical tips for self-management.
Counselling that's based on Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or CBT is effective in helping people to deal with a range of problems associated with cannabis use. CBT is a short-term, talking therapy that targets unhelpful patterns of thinking as well as behaviours that lead to or increase cannabis use. CBT also helps people to cope with problems more easily so they feel more optimistic about their ability to control cannabis use.
As yet there are no medications routinely prescribed for cannabis dependence or withdrawal, although some do show promise and are currently being trialled in Australia and elsewhere. Medication can be prescribed to help with the symptoms of cannabis withdrawal but it is best to consult with a health professional about what might be suited to you.
Source of information: DrugInfo Clearinghouse - Australian Drug Foundation
Get Help Now
000 Emergency Assistance
National emergency assistance number for ambulance, police and fire response.
24 HR DRUG AND ALCOHOL HELPLINES - AUSTRALIA WIDE
Contact these services for telephone counselling, information and referral.
1800 888 236
1800 422 599 or (02) 9361 8000
1800 811 994
1800 131 350
(02) 6205 4545
1800 177 833 or (07) 3837 5989
1800 131 340 or (08) 8363 8618
1800 198 024 or (08) 9442 5000
National Cannabis Information and Helpline
Confidential info and support for cannabis users, friends and family concerned about cannabis use. Provides counselling, info and referrals. Available 11am-8pm, Mon to Fri (incl public hols).1800 30 40 50
Find your local student support services, by selecting your state, and then the name of your university or TAFE.