Marijuana, also called weed, pot, ganja, Mary Jane, and many other names is one of the oldest substances with psychoactive effects used throughout history. Since ancient times, people have used it for various purposes, but they didn’t have modern instruments to examine what exactly makes this plant so special.
For a while now, science has been examining every possible angle of marijuana use and its short-term and long-term effects, and now we know which substances make it tick. Researchers have concluded that besides psychoactive, it also has some therapeutic health effects, which helped make the case that there are medicinal uses for marijuana and resulted in its legalization in some states.
So, let’s review the basics about marijuana and discuss its components, as well as all the different ways you can use it.
The Basics – What Is Marijuana?
First, let’s recap. Marijuana refers to the portions of the cannabis plant, more specifically the Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa strains, consumed as a drug due to their psychoactive properties. The buds are the parts of the plant that give marijuana its powerful effects because they contain the highest concentration of the components that make marijuana mind-altering.
Cannabis can sometimes be consumed raw, but generally, it’s dried, cured, and ground-up before it’s ready for consumption. The drying process is important because it allows for the active ingredients to come forth.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana is the most widely used psychotropic drug in the United States, and it’s more prevalent among men than women.
As of yet, marijuana is legalized in 33 states. However, currently, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not officially approved any marijuana products, apart from Epidiolex, which is used to treat severe forms of epilepsy.
The other FDA-approved drug products related to cannabis are Marinol (dronabinol), Syndros (dronabinol), and Cesamet (nabilone) which are not derived directly from the plant, but from synthetic cannabinoids.
Cannabis is a very complex plant when it comes to its chemical components. It contains over 400 naturally occurring compounds of which over 120 are the active ingredients called cannabinoids. Only some of them have been thoroughly examined, with THC and CBD being the major cannabinoids that give marijuana its specific properties. Let’s review some of the components.
- Tetrahydrocannabinol or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the main psychoactive component in marijuana, present in up to 30% of the cannabis plant. The highest THC content is found in seedless buds, also called sinsemilla, and hashish (cannabis resin). It’s the main ingredient that gets you “high” and it’s what most people associate with the effects of marijuana. Besides getting you high, THC is also known to help with some health problems, like short-term pain and nausea relief, muscle spasms, insomnia, and low appetite.
- Cannabidiol (CBD) is another well-known cannabinoid. It’s not psychoactive like THC, but it works to balance out the effects of THC. It’s also a great standalone medical treatment for medical conditions like chronic pain, migraines, inflammation, and it’s even used to treat mental health disorders like depression and PTSD. There is some evidence that it could also be effective for multiple sclerosis. High-CBD content marijuana strains are common for medical cannabis.
- Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) is a lesser-known cannabinoid, still undergoing research. THCV is similar to THC, but it’s not as psychoactive as THC and it has very different effects. Preliminary research shows that it may be effective for diabetes. (Jadoon et al, 2016)
- Cannabinol (CBN) is not a cannabinoid in the traditional sense, but it’s a byproduct of THC. When THC degrades, whether due to UVA/UVB exposure or due to oxidation, it loses some of its potency. But, although it becomes less psychoactive, in a lot of cases, CBN can be quite effective for medical use.
- Cannabichromene (CBC) doesn’t get much mainstream attention, but it’s been under medical research for a while. It’s not psychotropic as it doesn’t bind to the same receptors as THC, but it’s thought to bind to different receptors that are linked to pain perception.
- Cannabigerol (CBG) is present at low concentrations of about 1%. This cannabinoid is a precursor to THC, CBD, and CBC, so to obtain it, breeders have experimented with genetic manipulation of some strains.
- Terpenoids are different from cannabinoids in that they have a different role in the plant. Cannabis contains over 100 different terpenoids that give the plant its unique aroma and flavor. Different strains contain different terpenes in varying concentrations, and they’re all released at different temperatures. It’s believed that some terpenoids may have therapeutic effects, but the research is still ongoing. (Russo, 2011)
Main Cannabinoids CBD and THC
Cannabinoids CBD and THC are the most important components in marijuana and largely responsible for its recreational and medical effects. When they enter the body, they interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system by attaching to its receptors. These receptors are mostly located in the nervous and immune system and in different brain areas that are responsible for mood, memory, motor control, pain perception, hunger, and sleep.
As we mentioned earlier, THC is psychoactive and mind-altering, causing the euphoric effect known as “the high”. THC causes feelings of pleasure, elation, and relaxation, and is highly sought after by users, which is why breeders tend to create marijuana strains high in THC.
However, in higher doses or in people who are inexperienced or intolerant, THC may cause side effects such as red eyes, increased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, heightened anxiety, and even paranoia. This is nothing alarming and it’s temporary, but it can cause discomfort and an unpleasant experience.
CBD, on the other hand, serves to balance out the effects of THC. CBD doesn’t bind to the cannabinoid receptors in the human body in the same way as THC, which is why it doesn’t cause mind-altering effects. High CBD cannabis strains are often used as medical marijuana, which is why they’re mostly recommended for medical patients in states where marijuana is legalized, alongside other CBD products like oils and tinctures.
When it comes to side effects, CBD is better tolerated than THC and it rarely causes side effects. Though, it has been reported that it can cause dry mouth, reduced appetite, drowsiness, and fatigue.
Generally, long-term users of marijuana can have a difficult time quitting cold turkey and may experience mild withdrawal symptoms, like mood swings and lack of appetite. However, as reported by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, people who start using marijuana before they turn 18 have much higher chances of developing cannabis use disorder than those who start when they’re older.
Ways of Using Marijuana
These days, when it comes to using marijuana, you can take your pick. While in the past, smoking was the predominant way of ingesting cannabis, today there are many different ways to implement marijuana into your routine.
- Smoking marijuana, either via joint or bong, is still one of the most popular ways of cannabis use, though some people avoid it because of lung irritation. It’s one of the fastest ways to get weed into your system because the effects can be felt within the first 20 minutes;
- Vaping is increasing in popularity among marijuana users as it’s less harsh than smoking and more convenient. With today’s modern vaporizers, you can adjust the temperature of vaping to get different effects from marijuana depending on the THC content, and you can also vape either dried flowers or concentrate;
- Edibles are also entering the mainstream market in the states where marijuana is legalized. Many dispensaries sell different kinds of edibles, from gummies and brownies, to weed butter and lollipops. Edibles take a longer time to kick in, so users need to be careful not to take more than needed;
- Making tea is a great way of using cannabis for both therapeutic and recreational use. It’s not often practiced, but it offers good medicinal benefits as its effects are more subdued than other conventional methods of consumption;
- Tinctures, whether homemade or store-bought, are a good entryway for experiencing the effects of cannabis and they can easily be incorporated into other foods;
- Eating marijuana raw is also fairly common. Some people use it in smoothies, though with this method you won’t get the same effects as with smoking, for example, because weed should be dry to give you the desired effects;
- Using topicals in the form of cannabis-infused lotions, creams, or salves are common for people who seek localized pain relief or suffer from skin problems;
- Taking capsules or supplements is a good alternative to edibles or if marijuana smoke bothers you, and it’s very convenient for dosing.
Marijuana is one of the oldest drugs used in human history. It refers to parts of the cannabis plant that are consumed with the purpose of getting high or for medicinal purposes. The legalization of marijuana in the United States has made it available to more people, therefore the interest in its components has been increasing.
The marijuana plant contains hundreds of compounds of which cannabinoids and terpenes are the most important ones. CBD and THC are the main cannabinoids that make marijuana unique, and they both have very different effects.
Marijuana can be consumed in various different ways, the most common ones being smoking and edibles, but vaping is also increasing in popularity by the day.
Jadoon KA, Ratcliffe SH, Barrett DA, Thomas EL, Stott C, Bell JD, O’Sullivan SE, Tan GD. Efficacy and Safety of Cannabidiol and Tetrahydrocannabivarin on Glycemic and Lipid Parameters in Patients With Type 2 Diabetes: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Parallel Group Pilot Study. Diabetes Care. 2016 Oct;39(10):1777-86. doi: 10.2337/dc16-0650. Epub 2016 Aug 29. PMID: 27573936.
Russo, Ethan B. “Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects.” British journal of pharmacology vol. 163,7 (2011): 1344-64. doi:10.1111/j.1476-5381.2011.01238.x
NIDA. 2020, April 8. What is the scope of marijuana use in the United States?. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/what-scope-marijuana-use-in-united-states on 2020, October 27
NIDA. 2019, December 24. Marijuana DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/marijuana on 2020, October 27