By Lauren Brande | Published 01/15/18
Welcome back to Let’s Talk Drugs, where we use modern research to explore the truth behind all kinds of drugs. We’re presented by ProjectKnow.com (that’s project k-n-o-w dot com), which provides easy-to-understand information about substances so that everyone can arm themselves with knowledge.
I’m Lollie, and in this series, we’ll be discussing one of the most abused and debated drugs on the market: marijuana. As numerous states are in the process of implementing 2018 recreational business regulations, it just felt right to investigate it. In my hunt for information, I came across many surprising facts, and I can’t wait to share them with you.
Marijuana is one of the most debated drugs in our current culture. The federal government considers it one of the most dangerous substances, lumping it in with heroin and bath salts. Yet, as of the 2016 nationwide vote, 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized it in some form, including seven states that have approved it for recreational use.1 Advocates argue its medicinal benefits and low risk profile, while opponents label it an addictive gateway drug that can only cause harm.
Exaggerated claims and misrepresented research rain down from both sides of the debate, but the fact remains that marijuana is the most commonly used illicit substance in the United States, with almost 38 million people reporting use in 2016 alone.2 As many states head into 2018 with recreational business regulations settling into place, it’s important to distinguish fact from fiction when it comes to the green. In this series we’re going to explore the truth about weed. No more lies, no more inflated claims. Just facts. Let’s get started!
1. Weed Is Really, Really Weird.
Cannabis is a super weird drug that defies any strict classification. It has psychoactive effects that blur the lines between other classes of drugs. It can relax you and lower your blood pressure like depressants. It can inspire racing thoughts and rapid heart rate like stimulants. It can even cause hallucinations like, well, hallucinogens. Researchers have a hard time classifying it into any other drug category, so they made it its own category.
What’s even more strange is that we have natural receptors for it all over our brain and body. This doesn’t mean that we evolved to smoke weed, however. The natural cannabinoid receptors in humans exist because we actually produce similar chemicals in our bodies, called endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are important for memory, pain management, and maintaining a healthy appetite.
Smoking marijuana activates these receptors to an extreme degree, which is why users experience an intoxicating high, complete with irresistible munchies. Funny enough, cannabinoids (which are the psychoactive compounds of weed) were actually discovered before endocannabinoids, which is why the prefix “endo,” meaning “within,” was added to the term.
2. It Might Not Be As Medical As You Think
Marijuana has some undeniable medicinal benefits, but not as many as advocates may suggest. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that weed is an effective treatment for glaucoma, epilepsy, or Parkinson’s Disease, but the fact is that there is simply not enough conclusive evidence to back these claims.3 I’m not saying there is no evidence. I’m saying that the research that currently exists is either weak or ambiguous, and we simply cannot base medical treatment on incomplete information.
On top of this, regular heavy use has been linked with long-lasting problems with memory, learning, and self-control, particularly for younger users.4 Smoking weed has even been linked with numerous lung problems, though this may have more to do with smoking itself than weed in particular.4, 5 Either way, it is not 100% medical, as many advocates claim.
Unfortunately, because of the strict federal laws surrounding it, research into marijuana is extremely limited. Neuroscience researchers have an easier time getting approved to use high-grade cocaine for studies than concentrated THC. So, we’re sort of caught in this crappy limbo between the need for more research and the limitations put in place by our own laws.
In spite of these limitations, there is some conclusive evidence behind the use of medical marijuana to treat chronic pain, neuropathic pain, appetite loss, nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy, and spasticity symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis.3, 5 Cannabis may be a safer treatment alternative for various conditions, but more research needs to be done before we can claim widespread medicinal facts.
3. It Has Been Linked With Schizophrenia
I know when I say that some people are going to hear, “weed causes schizophrenia,” but let me be clear: weed does not cause schizophrenia, it has been associated with it. In fact, marijuana may actually speed up the progression of schizophrenia in people who are genetically predisposed to developing the disorder.3, 6 As weed gets more and more potent, from high-THC content in buds to more recent cannabis concentrates like wax, oil, and shatter, the risk of advancing a psychological disorder increases.
Again, it is extremely important to note that this risk applies primarily to people who are already at risk of developing schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is hereditary, meaning that your genetics can lay the groundwork for later development, depending on various environmental components (like whether or not you decide to smoke weed). If schizophrenia runs in your family, you may want to reconsider the stoner lifestyle.
4. Your Nose Knows
While cannabinoids encompass the psychoactive compounds of marijuana, there are a lot of other compounds that contribute to the diversity and range of effects of marijuana. There are nearly 1,000 different marijuana strains around the world, and growers are always experimenting with different strains to market, each with their own unique compound profile, resulting in differing effects and flavor profiles.
The flavor of a particular strain is the result of its combination of fragrant oils known as terpenes. Terpenes create the unique scent of each cannabis strain, but also contribute to their unique effects.7 Some strains make people feel mellow and sleepy, while others cause giggle fits. The effects that a particular strain can cause will depend largely on the terpenes present, and these can have a major impact on the medical usefulness of marijuana. Some terpenes have no psychoactive effects and many medical benefits, while others contribute greatly to the stereotypical high that recreational users seek. Legitimate medical use may depend largely on the terpenes present.
So how can a person tell which terpenes are in a particular strain? Well, we could run the strain through some high-tech compound testing analysis, which many medical growers are starting to use in order to specialize their strains to treat certain medical conditions. But it doesn’t have to be so complicated because humans have a built-in terpene detector: the nose.
The human nose can detect the difference between general classes of terpenes, which means we can detect the potential effects of particular strains. Some medical dispensaries even recommend that patients use their nose to help them determine which strain to buy. The terpene limonene has a citrus, lemon-y orange scent and it tends to improve mood, relieve stress and anxiety, and may even have minor anti-cancer effects.7-10 Caryophyllene, on the other hand, has a spicy, peppery, wood smell and has no psychoactive impact on the user, but has been found to have medical benefits that can help with inflammation, muscle spasms, insomnia, and pain management.7, 11-13
There are over 140 different types of terpenes that have been identified in marijuana, and chances are high that they interact in many ways that we have yet to discover.14 What’s even more interesting about these terpenes is that they have numerous other sources where they can be found, meaning their effects are not only limited to cannabis. Carophyllene, the non-psychoactive terpene I mentioned earlier, can also be found in pepper, basil, oregano, cloves, and hops. Limonene, the citrus-y mood-enhancing terpene, can be found in peppermint, juniper, and citrus rind. You don’t have to smoke a bowl to get the medicinal benefits of terpenes, just follow your nose!
5. Its Effects Are Different For Everyone
The weed high can range from sleepy relaxation to unstoppable giggle fits to extreme paranoia and anxiety. Marijuana doesn’t affect everyone in the same way, and even the same strain may not cause the same high for the same user every time. The effects that marijuana will have depend on many different things, from genetics to expectations, and it can be difficult to know exactly what to expect every time.
The most obvious factor has to be tolerance. As a person smokes (or vapes or eats or whatever else) weed more and more frequently, they will find that they need more and more in order to get the same high. This is known as building up a tolerance. A person who smokes a lot will have a higher tolerance than someone who rarely smokes. This means the same amount of weed may feel like nothing to a seasoned smoker, but could leave an occasional smoker stuck in an armchair staring at the wall for the rest of the night. Been there, and it’s not fun. Peer pressure is a major problem in these kinds of situations as the pressure to “keep up” may lead a person to smoke more than they can handle. It’s extremely important to know and honor your own limits. Learning how to say, “I’m good where I’m at” could save you from a night of too-high terrors.
Genetics are another major factor that can change a person’s high. Some people are more or less sensitive to the terpenes present in marijuana, which we talked about earlier. If you have allergies, terpenes could affect you differently. Additionally, if you struggle with asthma, you could end up with more lung irritation which could cause you to cough more, resulting in increased absorption of THC. This is because when you cough you’re quickly breathing in and out, so you end up repeatedly inhaling the smoke, which can result in a faster, more intense high.
Another aspect that is related to genetics is personality and mood. People who tend to be more anxious or nervous in general may carry those feelings into their high. This is not always the case, but your mood going into the high can have a huge impact on the effects that you experience. If you’re stressed going in, you may simply amplify your stress with racing thoughts or paranoia. If you’re relaxed and happy going in, odds are you’ll keep feeling that way once you’re high.
Ultimately, the effects of marijuana depend largely on the user. Some people are simply more prone to not-fun highs, and trying it “one more time” isn’t likely to change that. If someone knows they are prone to anxiety-ridden highs, don’t pressure them into smoking. If you know that you tend to smoke too much in order to keep up, practice passing on the next hit. Know yourself, know your friends, and get comfortable with respecting limits.
Well, that’s it for this week’s weed facts! We’ll be back again in the next episode with 5 more fun facts about marijuana that you can use to impress your friends. In the meantime, be sure to subscribe and share so that everyone can know how empowered with knowledge you are! Check out our new Instagram, letstalkdrugspodcast, for some behind-the-scenes peeks and to stay up to date on episode releases. Reach out to us with your drug questions at #letstalkdrugs. See you next time!
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- Governing. (2016). State marijuana laws in 2016 map.
- Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2017). 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD.
- Hill, K. P. (2015). Medical marijuana for treatment of chronic pain and other medical and psychiatric problems: a clinical review. JAMA, 313(24). 2474-2483.
- Volkow, N. D., Baler, R. D., Compton, W. M., & Weiss, S. R. B. (2014). Adverse health effects of marijuana use. New England Journal of Medicine, 370(23). 2219-2227.
- Kramer, J. L. (2015). Medical marijuana for cancer. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 65(2). 109-122.
- Patton, G. C., Coffey, C., Carlin, J. B., Degenhardt, L., Lynskey, M., & Hall, W. (2002). Cannabis use and mental health in young people: cohort study. BMJ, 325. 1195–1198.
- Russo, E. B. (2011). Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. British Journal of Pharmacology, 163. 1344-1364.
- Sun, J. (2007). D-Limonene: safety and clinical applications. Alternative Medicine Review, 12(3). 259-264.
- Hawiset, T., Sriraksa, N., Somwang, P., & Inkaew, P. (2016). Effect of orange essential oil inhalation on mood and memory in female humans. Journal of Physiological Biomedical Science, 29(1). 5-11.
- Joung, D., Song, C., Ikei, H., Okuda, T., Igarashi, M., Koizumi, H., Park, B. J., Yamaguchi, T., Takagaki, M., & Miyazaki, Y. (2014). Physiological and psychological effects of olfactory stimulation with D-Limonene. Advances in Horticultural Science, 28(2). 90-94.
- Ghelardini, C., Galeotti, N., Di Cesare Mannelli, L., Mazzanti, G., & Bartolini, A. (2001). Local anaesthetic activity of beta-caryophyllene. Il Farmaco, 56. 387-389.
- Gertsch, J., Leonti, M., Raduner, S., Racz, I., Chen, J., Xie, X., Altmann, K., Karsak, M., & Zimmer, A. (2008). Beta-caryophyllene is a dietary cannabinoid. PNAS, 105(26). 9099-9104.
- Chavan, M. J., Wakte, P. S., & Shinde, D. B. (2010). Analgesic and anti-inflammatory activity of Caryophyllene oxide from Annona squamosa L. bark. Phytomedicine, 17(2). 149-151.
- Giese, M. W., Lewis, M. A., Giese, L., & Smith, K. M. (2015). Development and validation of a reliable and robust method for the analysis of cannabinoids and terpenes in cannabis. Journal of AOAC International, 98(6). 1503-1522.
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