Medically Reviewed by
Jason Crawford

Article Last Updated on January 3, 2023

Like we’ve said many times before, weed is a complex plant that we’re still learning a lot of new things about. While most cannabis users are pretty informed about weed and its effects, not everyone knows the details of its course of action. We do know that cannabinoids are responsible for the majority of the effects of marijuana, but how exactly does that happen?

In order to give you a more detailed overview of what compounds in weed make you high and how the whole process goes, in today’s article, we’ll talk about just that. Let’s start with the basics!

The Active Ingredients Found In the Cannabis Plant 

The cannabis plant contains hundreds of different compounds of which the cannabinoids, as the main active ingredients, are the most important (closely followed by the terpenes). Each cannabis strain contains different ratios and combinations of cannabinoids and terpenes and together they work synergistically to bring out the full potential of the strain. 

Typically, Indicas are known to be tranquilizing while Sativas are known as energizing – but this can greatly vary.

Cannabinoids THC and CBD

There are over a hundred different cannabinoids identified in the cannabis plant, but the ones that are the most abundant and stand out the most are THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol).

Out of all compounds present in weed, THC is the psychoactive compound that gets you high and causes the munchies. It has some medicinal benefits, especially when combined with other cannabinoids (it can help with chronic pain and insomnia, it works as an appetite stimulant, and so on), but is mostly sought after for its short-term recreational effects. The psychoactivity of THC is precisely what makes the legalization of recreational marijuana difficult in many parts of the world.

CBD, on the other hand, is a non-psychoactive compound primarily known for its therapeutic benefits, and as the main compound in medical marijuana (such as CBD tinctures). CBD can help with inflammation and chronic pain, and it has beneficial effects on mental health due to its anti-anxiety properties, to name a few. 


The terpenes are aromatic compounds responsible for the skunky smell and herbal taste of cannabis flowers, but their role extends far beyond the senses. Terpenes work with the cannabinoids to enhance or balance out their effects. They have many therapeutic benefits of their own which contribute to the variety of sensations produced by different cannabis strains.

Cannabinoids and the Endocannabinoid System

As we already established, cannabinoids are the most important compounds responsible for the unique effects of marijuana, but how do they work in the body?

To answer this question, we must look at the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a complex cellular network that’s naturally present in the human body through which weed gets you high. 

The ECS plays a significant part in maintaining physiological, emotional, and cognitive balance in response to outside stressors. It consists of cannabinoid receptors, neurotransmitters also known as endocannabinoids, and enzymes that work together.

Typically, it goes like this: whenever the need arises, the body’s own endocannabinoids attach to the receptors located in various parts of the body (depending on where a balance needs to be restored) and they temporarily modify their function. Once their job is done, the enzymes dissolve them so that everything can go back to normal.

Where do cannabinoids fit in all this, you ask? Well, the ECS is the bridge between the cannabis plant and the human body because the cannabinoids found in weed attach to the same receptors as the endocannabinoids because they have a similar structure. It’s as simple as that. Now let’s see how THC gets you high.

How THC Produces the Psychoactive Effects, Also Known as Being High

THC interacts with the endocannabinoid system by attaching to a type of cannabinoid receptors called CB1 receptors. They are found in the central nervous system, especially in parts of the brain associated with memory, mood, sensory perception, appetite, and spatial coordination. When THC attaches to these receptors, it activates them and temporarily modifies their function, which results in different kinds of sensations. 

THC’s main course of action is stimulating the neurons in the brain’s reward system by mimicking the endocannabinoid called anandamide which plays a major role in the production of dopamine, the mood-boosting hormone. In this way, THC stimulates the release of dopamine which produces the euphoria associated with weed.

Additionally, by acting on the receptors in parts of the brain responsible for appetite, coordination, and sensory perception, it enhances their responses, resulting in more intense sensations.

However, large amounts of THC can overstimulate the receptors and lead to the opposite effect. When the receptors are overwhelmed, you feel all sorts of side effects.

The Side Effects of Getting High Are Mostly Caused by High Doses of THC

Experiencing side effects is common among cannabis users, especially those who are new to weed and haven’t built up tolerance yet. However, side effects can happen to anyone, experienced user or not, because they’re mostly caused by high doses of THC through taking too much or consuming strains with high THC levels.

In high doses, THC excites the cannabinoid receptors a little too much, resulting in some unpleasant sensations that usually aren’t a cause of concern but can be distressing, nonetheless.

The most common side effects of cannabis use are experiencing increased anxiety and paranoia, often coupled with an increased heart rate. The sensations can be very unpleasant and scary, but they only last until the effects of weed start subsiding. 

However, due to these side effects, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recommends that individuals with a “genetic vulnerability” to schizophrenia should be careful with their marijuana use as it “could increase the chances of developing psychosis.”

Finally, marijuana use in adolescence (while the brain is still in development) can leave the individual vulnerable to negative long-term effects on their cognitive abilities, as NIDA reports.

Does Getting High With Different Methods of Consumption Feel Different?

It won’t be wrong to say that the method of consumption plays an important part in how the marijuana high will feel. Apart from the strain you’re using and your own sensitivity to THC, the method of consumption can influence how you feel because the weed is processed differently.

For example, when you smoke weed, the high temperature combusts some of the cannabinoids and terpenes, which means you’re not getting the optimal amount. Bongs, in particular, produce large clouds of smoke that contain all the combusted plant material. But the good thing about smoking weed is that it doesn’t take long to feel the effects.

Vaping is similar to smoking in the duration of the high and the onset of the effects. However, vapes don’t combust the weed but only heat it so that the active ingredients can be efficiently extracted. Compared to smoking, just one hit will feel much more potent than a hit of joint.

On the other hand, the effects of edibles are always delayed because weed has to go through the digestive system first. But even though delayed, the effects of edibles last twice as long, if not longer, than those of smoking and vaping. This can be around 7-8 hours, and sometimes the high may feel more intense because of the way THC is metabolized.

The Takeaway – THC, the Main Cannabinoid That Gets You High

The cannabis plant is a wondrous plant – it contains hundreds of compounds that work together to produce some very unique effects that make weed so desirable. Weed communicates with the human body through the endocannabinoid system and its receptors by mimicking the endocannabinoids otherwise naturally produced by the body when balance needs to be restored.

THC is the main psychoactive compound that is responsible for the high that you get when you consume marijuana, and which produces the euphoric feelings that are typical for weed. THC does this by stimulating the release of dopamine, which is the “happy hormone”, and it also influences other parts of the brain that control memory, sensory perception, and coordination, among others. Keep in mind that too much THC can cause side effects that aren’t dangerous but can be very unpleasant.

Finally, the high can feel different depending on the way you consume weed, but this is entirely up to your personal preference.

A passionate advocate for the benefits of cannabis. Fraser Horton, who has a background in botany and a strong love of nature, has spent years researching how cannabis affects the body and mind. He established Leaf Nation in 2020, where he has devoted himself to educating people about the legalisation of marijuana and its safe and responsible use. Fraser is committed to highlighting cannabis’ potential for improving wellness and working to dispel the stigma associated with its use.


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