Drug use has always been a legitimate public concern. Several decades ago, it was believed that the use of cocaine was generally safe, as it is not addictive, unlike opioids and heroin. However, more recent studies have confirmed that this drug has adverse effects on health, such as deformations in the white matter of the brain and corpus callosum responsible for memory and motor coordination. Another “soft” drug, marijuana, is also the subject of research. Scientific evidence suggests that marijuana use is hazardous during adolescence, as the brain’s final formation occurs during this time, including the processes responsible for interactions between the hemispheres, long-term memory, and decision-making. Endogenous cannabinoids are produced by the body and regulate sleep and wakefulness, short-term memory, and movement coordination. They are also involved in the brain’s final formation in adolescents, and young adults, so uncontrolled use of marijuana can be dangerous. This paper aims to describe the effects of marijuana and cocaine on the human brain and other consequences that may cause physical and mental damage.
Marijuana as an Alternative to Opioids
Many myths are associated with the use of marijuana, and one of the most common is that cannabinol causes brain necrosis and death. For a long time, this opinion was considered a delusion until a scandal happened in 2016 to confirm this hypothesis. After the legalization of marijuana in Canada and the 28 states of the US, scientists began to study the plant’s medicinal pain-relieving potential. In one study, volunteers were offered a drug based on the endocannabinoid blocker FAAH, which resulted in one participant’s death and necrosis of the brain tissue of other participants (Knopf 1). Post-facto scientists who did not take part in this study commented that it is difficult to draw any conclusions since the pharmacological company that conducted the trials did not share the details of the study, which does not allow determining which form of the compound of the endocannabinoid blocker FAAH caused the death of the volunteer. The experts also noted that the FAAH endocannabinoid blocker is a pharmacologically derived artificial substance not found in marijuana plants. Interestingly, marijuana-based drugs could replace opioid-based medicines.
Death in such clinical trials is the only case; other trials of drugs based on the endocannabinoid blocker FAAH have not caused side effects. The research that caused the tragedy was carried out in Rennes, France, by Biotrial (Knopf 3). As a result of this accident, five out of six volunteers were injured. One of them died in intensive care from brain necrosis; the other four participants, according to MRI, had deep, necrotic, and hemorrhagic brain lesions. Endogenous cannabinoids are produced by the body and broken down by FAAH, so scientists believe that by blocking this breakdown, pain can be fought. In theory, drugs using the endocannabinoid blocker FAAH are indicated to treat anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, cancer, hypertension, and obesity. The NIH, which encourages researchers to develop the endocannabinoid system’s potential, has called on the scientific community to refrain from judging that FAAH inhibitors were the cause of death.
Lee (96) notes that in the United States, a movement of athletes who prefer to use marijuana for muscle pain relief is gaining popularity. The author interviewed several famous runners and basketball players who stated that marijuana, in their opinion, was safer than the mainstream drug Vicodin. For example, professional ultra-marathon runner Avery Collins uses two types of marijuana – in the form of chocolates for long marathons of 30 miles and smoking for shorter runs of 10-15 miles. The athlete notes that high-quality cannabis helps him tune his mind while running properly and reduces the painful effects on the legs’ muscles. The athlete also uses a cannabis-based external gel to relieve tremors after jogging. Avery believes that cannabis mostly affects the mind, and therefore, even without using the drug during the competition – as the sports association prohibits it – cannabis helps him win.
Other elite athletes, including soccer players, bodybuilders, Major League baseball players, mixed martial artists, and endurance athletes, choose cannabis because they see it as an alternative to opioid pain relievers such as codeine and OxyContin. Some doctors, like Suzanne Sisley, MD, psychiatrist, a member of the Doctors for Cannabis Regulation group, see this as a sensible option and will approve of the athletes’ desire for mutual “mentoring.” Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr sees marijuana as an alternative to Vicodin. Kyle Turley of the NFL said that after severe injuries to his ankle, shoulder, and back, he began taking opioid pain relievers, which caused him suicidal depression and fainting, and dependence on these drugs. After the athlete replaced opioids with medical marijuana, he managed to get rid of the symptoms, became more energetic and determined.
Therefore, today the NFL is in favor of legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Simultaneously, some politicians consider it dangerous due to the unhealthy interest on the part of the public who can take the drug just for fun. The consensus of athletes and doctors is that the plant can only provide medical benefits in the proper doses and when taken with the plant at a certain level of tetracannabinol saturation. Doctors insist that medical cannabis needs to be tested in a laboratory setting, which will allow athletes to select optimal doses and leave the black market. Experts speak about microdoses of no more than 5 mg since such a dosage already produces a positive effect but is not large enough to stimulate a negative one. Interestingly, Fryer (25) found marijuana to be effective in treating epilepsy, social anxiety, and addiction. But despite its benefits, scientists warn that cannabis negatively affects short-term memory, reduces alertness, increases muscle fatigue, and increases the risk of a heart attack.
Marijuana’s Effects on Teen Brains and Other Side Effects
Wallis (25) studies the effects of marijuana on adolescents’ brains and provides some arguments that indicate the dangers of this drug. Marijuana impairs attention, memory, and learning ability and has long-term side effects. The author cites studies in which people who have previously used marijuana performed better on tests for attention, memory, motor skills, and verbal ability, noting that drug residues in the body may have influenced the outcome. She also cites encouraging data, according to which a 2012 study showed similar results of cognitive tests between those who used the drug and those who did not.
Simultaneously, the author makes a strong case for the harmful effects of marijuana on adolescents. According to Wallis (25), during adolescence, the brain matures and its executive functions, including emotional self-control, increase, and cannabis disrupts the maturation process. The brain’s maturation and regulation are influenced by a person’s own nerve cells, endocannabinoids, which regulate appetite, sleep, memory, emotions, and movement. According to Wallis, during adolescence, “the concentration of these cells undergoes tremendous changes,” raising doctors’ concerns about the consequences of “accidental dosing” of marijuana (25).
What’s more, studies using brain imaging have shown changes in communication between the brain’s hemispheres and ineffective cognitive processing in adolescents using marijuana. Changes in the size of the amygdala and hippocampus were also identified, on which emotional regulation and memory depend. Animal studies have shown persistent cognitive problems with tetrahydrocannabinol exposure during puberty, but not with THC in adulthood, although such studies usually use excessively high THC doses (Wallis 25). The factors that lead to cannabis use – poverty, abuse, and neglect – may have similar effects on emotional self-regulation and cognitive ability. The link between marijuana and the development of schizophrenia in adolescents has not yet been clarified. Since brain development during adolescence shapes the ability to navigate difficult situations and solve complex problems, marijuana use can have serious consequences.
Interestingly, the adverse effects are directly related to the excess of the safe amount of THC in the plant. Sanders (8) notes that potent-pot users show brain damage in white matters. In particular, study participants who consumed more potent types of marijuana showed signs of damage to the corpus callosum, the main tract of the white matter that connects the left and right hemispheres. Scientists have recorded a lighter distribution of water along this track, which is a sign of weak tissue. Leduc-Pessah et al. (17) reported no apparent increased risk of lung respiratory disease, heart effects, and cancer for adult cannabis users. At the same time, scientists have linked schizophrenia and anxiety to drug use, but more research is needed. Scientists also confirm the risk of consumption for young people.
Cocaine Damage for Health
Cocaine is classified as a stimulant drug; it is a fine white powder that is most commonly inhaled through the nose. However, some people rub it into their gums, dissolve the powder and inject it into their veins, or convert it into one crystal and smoke the so-called “crack” by inhaling the vapors. Cocaine users feel happy, energized, and mentally active (“Drugs and Your Body” 1). However, after a while, these feelings are replaced by paranoia, irritability, and hypersensitivity to light, sound, and touch. Cocaine primarily damages the brain’s reward system, as it causes the brain to release dopamine but does not signal the need to recycle it. Therefore, dopamine accumulates, increasing the urge to use cocaine; cocaine causes stress, irritability, and mood swings through its effects on the brain and nervous system.
Notably, other drugs in the stimulant category are used to treat people with ADHD by increasing alertness and energy. Alexander et al. (1535) state that the use of methamphetamine, another stimulant, results in more severe psychotic symptoms than the use of cocaine. Graziani et al. (60) found no greater dependence on cocaine in women than in men, while female pharmacological sensitivity to the drug varied according to the menstrual cycle stage. Progesterone attenuated the subjective effects; alcohol was a factor in higher subjective assessments of physical well-being when taken with cocaine; women are less likely to undergo addiction therapy than men.
Narvaez et al. (238) acknowledge crack use as a significant health problem in Brazil. Scientists have found an association between childhood trauma and worse outcomes among cocaine users and noted that “childhood trauma may be associated with executive dysfunction and impulsivity in crack cocaine users” (Narvaez 238). Xu et al. (1541) support the association of cocaine use with white matter disorders that compromise cognitive function. Scientists looked at the effects of cocaine addiction treatment and found improvements in the integrity of the white matter.
Nnadi (1504) notes the fatality of an acute cocaine overdose and that the use of light to moderate doses can cause both fatal and nonfatal neuropsychiatric consequences. Chronic cocaine use causes deficiencies of neurocognition, brain perfusion, and brain activation patterns (Nnadi 1504). The period of neurodeficiency can last from 3 to 200 days of abstinence. Tan-Laxa (357) found that prenatal cocaine exposure resulted in hearing impairment in infants. Finally, there is evidence that chronic intravenous cocaine use or free inhale use leads to vascular pathology in the brain (“Cocaine Harms Brain” 8). According to scientists, the cause may be vasospasm that blocks blood flow and the influence of impurities that cause tiny strokes in the brain. Patients undergoing addiction treatment themselves report that their brains have become weak; they cannot concentrate, feel tired and complain of depression. Simultaneously, according to scientists, after stopping the use of cocaine in some patients, the blood flow returned to normal after 10 days.
Thus, the effects of marijuana and cocaine impact on the human brain were described, and other consequences that may cause physical and mental damage were presented. With the legalization of marijuana in 28 states, scientists have begun to look more actively at options for using the drug for medical purposes. Professional athletes are the most likely category of medical marijuana users, as its adverse effect on health is less significant than opioid pain relievers and medicines like Vicodin or codeine-based drugs. Simultaneously, scientific evidence confirms the danger of marijuana for adolescents due to the participation of endogenous cannabinoids in brain formation processes in teenagers and young adults. In addition to the positive effects, such as pain relief or euphoria, marijuana causes deterioration in cognitive functions, memory, motor skills, emotional regulation in adolescents and can cause paranoia, schizophrenia, and anxiety. Cocaine is an even more dangerous drug that induces strong feelings of happiness and energy levels. Side effects of cocaine use include vascular pathology in the brain and destruction of the white matter – particularly the corpus callosum, which is responsible for the exchange of information between the right and left hemispheres, which leads to memory impairment. These effects can be cured by quitting cocaine and receiving therapy. Cocaine addiction is formed due to an excess of dopamine in the body, which is not recycled after the brain signals the need to release dopamine due to drug use. Therefore, the use of cocaine, despite a lower level of addiction than heroin, has many dangerous consequences.
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