Cannabis has an incredibly interesting history. From its ancient origins in the East, to being used as a powerful political tool in the West, saying cannabis has a rocky story would be an understatement. This wild history has left plenty of room for misconceptions, as well as unknowns, as the drug is rapidly gaining notoriety and legality across the world.
Cannabis has never been as accessible as it is today, and with that, as widely consumed, though potentially not amongst teens in areas where it has become recreationally legal. Regardless, it is important that misconceptions are cleared and awareness raised surrounding the dangers and benefits of cannabis.
As many as 238 million people use cannabis worldwide, a number that is only increasing with the beginning of the end of prohibition. Being a recently illicit drug, there are misconceptions and lack of awareness surrounding the risks and potential benefits associated with cannabis use. Parents – this one’s for you.
Cannabinoids are the chemical compounds found in cannabis that bind to the cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body. It is estimated that cannabis produces more than 500 of these compounds. Only 104 of these compounds have been identified, many of which have not been studied. The two most studied compounds are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
THC is the only known compound in cannabis to have a psychoactive effect, and is responsible for the experience of being high, whereas CBD has an anti-psychoactive effect and is used for anxiety management, epilepsy syndromes, insomnia, arthritic and neuropathic pain, and other inflammatory related issues.
The scientific community has made it quite clear that more studies must take place before CBD can be adopted as a medicine, and cautions against purchasing unregulated supplements (currently the FDA does not regulate CBD and has warned the public about the many unjustified claims that’s the compound is a cure-all.) CBD is regarded as mostly safe and non-addictive.
Cannabis has been manipulated over the years to be more potent and psychoactive. The cannabis of old (1960’s and 1970’s) typically had a THC content of around 3%, meaning it took a lot more for our hippie ancestors to get stoned, and perhaps was easier to achieve a “manageable high” (less anxiety and paranoia, more peace and love.)
In contrast, modern day cannabis can have as much as 28% THC, like this strain. While THC is on the rise, CBD concentrations are dwindling. Cannabis tested in 2001 contained 0.28% CBD, compared to less than 0.15% in 2014.
There have been studies that point to higher THC cannabis causing an increase in more severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia. For example, this study found higher incidences of schizophrenia in England and the Netherlands where high THC is more common, vs in Italy where lower THC cannabis is typically used. The study also concluded that the absence of CBD could play a role in increasing the risk for an onset of psychosis.
A recommended alternative to high THC cannabis is what’s called a ‘balanced’ strain that contains close to equal parts THC and CBD. A major positive to the legalization of cannabis is the regulation surrounding cannabinoid profiles. All legal cannabis sold must display THC and CBD concentrations, making the selection process as easy as buying liquor.
Besides severe mental illness, common effects of a higher THC concentration for someone with a moderate to low tolerance include anxiety, paranoia, and in some cases, panic attacks.
Much can be said about the increased risks that come with a high THC concentration, but there also several other known risk factors to be considered that could result in negative long-term effects, such as severe (psychosis, schizophrenia) or moderate (anxiety, depression) mental health conditions, decreased cognitive function (memory, impulse control, motivation).
While there has been debate surrounding this topic, it is largely agreed that there is some sort of relation between forms of psychosis and adolescent cannabis use. Cannabis use by young persons (10-19 years) has the potential to trigger certain severe mental health conditions. However, it is undecided whether this occurs in otherwise healthy individuals, or only in those with predispositions.
This study concludes that daily use of high potency cannabis can lower the age of onset of psychosis by upwards of 6 years. This may be because the adolescent brain is more susceptible to the potentially negative effects of strong THC.
In addition to severe metal health conditions, earlier onset of cannabis use has been associated with decreased cognitive function later on in life. The primary concerns are that of memory function (though this can be debated), risk/ reward behaviours, and attention spans.
The evidence remains inconclusive as to whether or not cannabis use is directly associated with a decline in cognitive function, but certain studies have indicated that those who use cannabis at least once per week during adolescents performed worse on tests of memory, attention, and learning ability. Younger brains just aren’t as resilient to the effects of cannabis.
While experts are divided on whether or not cannabis use causes psychosis, or if people with psychosis are just more likely to use the drug as a coping mechanism, it is generally agreed that the group most at-risk to developing cannabis related psychosis are young people who have a parent or sibling with the disorder.
Some studies have concluded that predispositions may be the sole contributing factor to developing schizophrenia, whereas others emphasis a dose-response relationship. While the majority of users will not experience any harmful outcomes, the risk remains high enough that it is unanimously agreed that cannabis abstinence for adolescents should be made top priority.
As touched on earlier, there is evidence to suggest that dosage, THC potency, and frequency of use can be contributing factors to negative health effects of cannabis. Most studies available online focus on one, if not all three variables described, leaving little evidence for the long-term effects of occasional adolescent cannabis use.
Recommendations, as laid out in the LRCUG, suggest that low THC potency or a balanced THC to CBD ratio, paired with a reduced frequency of consumption (once per week at most), and the total avoidance of synthetic THC, can mitigate the risk for developing adverse health conditions.
It is important to distinguish between the multiple ways in which cannabis can be consumed. Smoking cannabis flower (or bud) by way of a joint has historically been the most common method of consumption, and typically produces the most controlled high.
There are however a few other ways in which cannabis can be smoked. Where a joint is essentially a cannabis cigarette, a bong is a pipe that uses water to filter and cool the smoke. Both methods involve inhaling smoke, but they differ in the intensity in which the smoke is delivered to your lungs. A bong is a much more intense hit of a larger quantity of smoke, and therefore THC, which gets you more high much quicker.
Another method of consumption that involves the lungs is a cannabis vaporiser. This method is relatively new, so the effects of water vapor on the lungs has not been adequately studied. There has however been a study on the effects of vapor vs. smoke that concluded that vapor has the potential to deliver a more intense high with sometimes unwelcome side effects such as anxiety, paranoia. Note that this study has some noteworthy limitations (type of flower and vapor, sample size, sample type.) Experienced smokers may disagree.
Caution must be considered when ingesting cannabis by way of an edible. It is well known that edibles are more challenging to manage in terms of dosage and potency. In fact, ingested cannabis can be considered a completely different drug, as the liver metabolizes THC differently to the lungs, producing a more potent psychoactive metabolite called 11-hydroxy-THC(11-OH-THC).
The high experienced after eating an edible normally takes around 30 – 60 minutes to take effect, lasts on average between 6 – 8 hours, and is typically stronger and more intense. The delayed effects make for trickier dosage management, often times resulting in too much or too little consumed. Similarly to edibles, cannabis oil can be ingested, or taken sublingually with comparable effects.
Lastly, THC concentrates and extracts (dabs, shatter) are as named, extracts of concentrated THC derived from the cannabis flower. Though more concentrated, they surprisingly do not result in increased impairment as compared to smoking flower, despite higher blood THC levels. Reasons for this may include an increased tolerance by study subjects, bio-variability in terms of THC metabolism, or possibly that once cannabinoid receptors in the brain are full, further cannabinoids don’t affect intoxication. It is strongly advised that those who are inexperienced with cannabis do not try concentrates.
A bad high is when someone experiences unmanageable or uncomfortable anxiety or paranoia. This typically occurs in new/ inexperienced users but can happen to anyone. There are a few key tips for mitigating a bad high.
‘Set’ is your mindset going into the high. The mind is very powerful, and can often dictate how you experience your high. Studies suggest that your expectancy prior to getting high can dictate your experience during the high. This expectancy manipulation is so extreme that users can be given a placebo, and experience a THC induced high. The same effect can extend to bad high vs good high expectations.
Additionally, a user’s setting can also influence their experience. Cannabis has the potential to exacerbate feelings and emotions. Some users may find that a more comfortable, familiar setting results in a more manageable, enjoyable high.
Lastly, the dosage (and potency) of cannabis plays a significant role in the high experienced. Too much, or too potent cannabis can result in feeling uncomfortable which leads to heightened anxiety and potentially paranoia.
It is hypothesized that creativity is associated with what’s called a flat associative hierarchy. In essence, creative people are better able to make associative connections between words and ideas. For example, they are quicker to associate a further removed word like ‘blimp’ to the word ‘sky’, whereas less creative people with a steep associative hierarchy would jump to words with a closer association like ‘blue’ or ‘clouds’.
If you’ve ever been high on cannabis, you’d know about tumbling thoughts, and how your mind seems to jump from idea to idea rather quickly and randomly. The increase in distance of these jumps is caused by a phenomenon called hyper-priming, something that cannabis induces. It’s no coincidence that many creatives use cannabis.
A fairly common anecdotal use of cannabis is for the treatment of anxiety and depression. Cannabis is known to relieve stress and provide feelings of euphoria, albeit temporarily. Scientifically, there may be some evidence that CBD is effective in treating anxiety, amongst many other ailments. In terms of THC, evidence is inconclusive as to whether or not it is effective in treating anxiety and depression.
In summation, a greater focus should be placed on CBD vs THC for treatment, whereas THC provides a great way to simply relax and unwind.
Ailments that can be treated or managed with cannabis, backed by science:
Ever since the DARE program was founded in 1983, cannabis has been labeled as a gateway drug, a labelling that has divided experts. The gateway drug theory says that someone is more likely to jump to a stronger, hard drug, after getting a taste of the cannabis high.
There is growing support against this theory, that claims that someone who is going to do a hard drug such as heroine, is going to do it regardless of whether or not they were first exposed to cannabis. It just so happens that cannabis is cheaper and more accessible then many harder drugs, so naturally will fall into people hands before something like heroin. By this logic, alcohol is the pinnacle of gateway drugs, as it is notorious for lowering inhibitions.
A stoner hypothesis would also argue that cannabis is more likely to be a gateway to increased sugar and carb intake in the form of the ‘munchies’, then a gateway to harder drugs. It could even be argued that cannabis leads to a reduced alcohol intake, a drug some experts would consider more detrimental to one’s health (alcohol was the leading health risk factor worldwide in 2016.) Alcohol can be a contributing factor to certain cancers (liver, breast, colon, esophagus, head and neck), mental health problems (depression, anxiety and addiction), liver disease, high blood pressure, dementia, weakened immune system, and countless social issues.
There is also evidence that points to medical cannabis having potential in reducing the impact of the opioid epidemic, as cannabis offers some potential in chronic pain management with fewer side effects.
Evidence from the Hebrew University and University Bonn suggests that regular low dose THC can reverse age related decline in cognitive performance. This is only true when THC was administered to older mice, whereas the opposite is true for younger mice. As can be expected, younger mice excelled at the various cognitive tests while sober, but struggled after received a dose of THC. However, the old mice saw a massive improvement in cognition after receiving low dose THC, putting them even on par with young mice who had ‘abstained’.
It’s not always easy making decisions regarding your kids (or yourself), but I hope you were able to take something away from this article.
Here are some key takeaways: