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Cannabis comes from the Cannabis sativa plant. The primary active ingredient is THC (delta - 9 tetrahydrocannabinol), a central nervous system depressant. THC can also act as a hallucinogen. 

cannabis buds

Cannabis comes in three different forms:

  • marijuana, the dried leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant - this is the weakest form
  • hashish (or hash), the dried resin from the cannabis plant, which is stronger than marijuana
  • hashish oil (or hash oil), which is oil extracted from hashish, which is the most potent form.

The cannabis plant has been used for centuries for two very different purposes:

  • its effects as a drug
  • the production of hemp fibre.

Cannabis grows easily in a wide range of environments (hence the name 'weed'), and is a prolific source of hemp, which can be used to make cloth. Rope was usually made from hemp fibre before synthetic fibres were introduced.

Cannabis was first used for medical and religious purposes in China, India and the Middle East. It was introduced to the Western world via India in the early 1800s, and was the most commonly used drug for pain relief before the introduction of aspirin in the late 1800s.

Cannabis and the law

The use, possession and supply of cannabis is illegal in all states and territories in Australia. It is also illegal to possess items used to take cannabis, such as bongs.

In NSW, first offenders with a small amount of cannabis may be issued with a formal caution, which can include information about the harm associated with cannabis use and a number to call for drug - relatedinformation or referral. A person can receive up to two cautions.

More serious or subsequent offences may lead to a period of imprisonment.

How cannabis is used

Marijuana is usually smoked, rolled up in a cigarette paper (a joint ), usually, but not necessarily, with tobacco. A water pipe (a bong ) may also be used.

Hashish oil can be soaked into cigarette papers and smoked with tobacco.

All types of cannabis can be cooked into food and eaten.

Short term effects

When cannabis is smoked the active ingredient is absorbed directly from the lungs into the blood stream, and the effect is almost immediate. Cannabis eaten in food takes longer to have an effect (up to 60 minutes), as it must be digested before it can enter the blood stream. This method does not carry the risks associated with smoking, but the time lapse between consumption and effect makes it hard for the user to judge how much to take.

The effects of cannabis vary considerably from one person to another; relevant factors include mood, body weight, the person's previous experience with cannabis and the type being used. In some cases there may be no noticeable effects at all.

Short term effects may include:

  • a feeling of being 'stoned' - relaxed, euphoric and uninhibited
  • enhanced sensory perceptions, particularly enjoying food, for example, or music
  • feelings of hunger (having 'the munchies')
  • panic reactions, confusion and feelings of paranoia
  • nausea, headaches and reddened eyes
  • dizziness, with impaired balance and coordination.

When the active ingredient is particularly strong, psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations can occur.

Cannabis intoxication can impair a person's ability to perform tasks requiring coordination, judgement and quick reactions, such as driving.

The short - term effects of cannabis can last from two to four hours, but thedrug is stored in fatty tissue for anything up to four weeks.

Long term effects

Ongoing heavy use may:

  • increase the risk of lung cancers
  • cause chronic bronchitis and permanent damage to the airways
  • damage the cardiovascular system (the heart and circulation)
  • lead to mental health effects

Babies whose mothers smoke cannabis in pregnancy (like those whose mothers smoke tobacco) are more likely to be born prematurely and at a low birth weight.

How common is cannabis use?

Cannabis is the most commonly used illegal drug in Australia.The 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that 10.4% of Australians (people aged from 14 and over) had used cannabis in the previous 12 months and 34.8% had ever used cannabis in their lifetime.

Cannabis and driving

It is dangerous, and illegal, to drive under the influence of cannabis. Research suggests that a driver affected by cannabis is two to three times more likely to have an accident.

Random drug testing of drivers for cannabis (an 'oral fluid' test) has been introduced in NSW.

Cannabis and pregnancy

If a pregnant woman smokes cannabis with tobacco - the most common way of using cannabis - the unborn baby is exposed to the risks presented by tobacco smoking. Cannabis - smoking in pregnancy also increases the risk that the baby will be born prematurely.

Cannabis also passes into breast milk, which means that it is likely to affect abreast-fed baby.

Cannabis and mental health

Cannabis use can have serious consequences for the mental health of particularly vulnerable people. It increases the frequency of episodes of psychosis in those with a disorder such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Whether it can cause a psychotic illness is not known, but it appears that heavy use at a young age can bring about a psychotic episode in susceptible individuals. Heavy use from an early age is associated with an increase in the risk of depression later in life. A relationship between cannabis use and anxiety disorders, or between cannabis use and lack of motivation, has not been established.

Using cannabis with other drugs

Cannabis is often used with other drugs.

Using cannabis with any other drugs (illegal or prescription) is more dangerous than using cannabis alone. Cannabis and tobacco are a common combination. The risks to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems of using both drugs appear to be higher than for using either cannabis ortobacco alone.

It is also common to mix alcohol and cannabis, and there is evidence that even small doses of the two drugs together can impair driving performance to a greater extent than either alone.


Close up picture of marijuana plant