Here’s What Actually Happens When You Smoke Weed
Whether you’ve used it yourself, have a friend who tokes, or don’t know anyone who is canna-curious, you probably have an opinion about weed.
Cannabis — as in, the name of the plant that produces marijuana and the substance itself — is no longer considered as taboo as it once was. In fact, 14 percent of American adults have used marijuana in the last year. That’s roughly the same number of people who smoke cigarettes. Keyhani S, et al. (2018). Risks and benefits of marijuana use: A national survey of U.S. adults. DOI: 10.7326/M18-0810
Before it became illegal, cannabis was long used as a medicine. The U.S. government officially criminalized cannabis in 1937, and use quickly declined after that. Zuardi AW, et al. (2006). History of cannabis as a medicine: A review. DOI: 10.1590/S1516-44462006000200015][Abuhasira R, et al. (2018). Medical use of cannabis and cannabinoids containing products – Regulations in Europe and North America. DOI: 10.1016/j.ejim.2018.01.001
Now, with a resurgence in marijuana as medicine and the ever-changing legal landscape, it’s helpful to know about how it works. Here’s what actually happens to your brain and body on cannabis.
You typically hear about two types of cannabis: C. sativa and C. indica. They work in similar ways, with some notable differences. Sawler J, et al. (2015). The genetic structure of marijuana and hemp. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0133292
Cannabis plants produce chemical compounds called cannabinoids. More than 100 unique cannabinoids have been identified in different strains of the cannabis plant. The ones that get the most attention are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Lafaye G. (2017).Cannabis, cannabinoids, and health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29302228
“THC is the most psychoactive compound,” says Thorsten Rudroff, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa who has studied cannabis for multiple sclerosis. “When you smoke cannabis, THC gives you the high feeling. The more THC you have, the more powerful the high.”
The specific effects differ from person to person, but a few are common. “You’re more sensitive to sound; you’re hungrier,” says Beatriz Carlini, PhD, an affiliate associate professor and research scientist at the University of Washington.
“All those different sensations that people who use marijuana recreationally describe — like being more relaxed — are because of the THC.” It also increases dopamine levels, creating that sense of euphoria. Oleson EB, et al. (2012). A brain on cannabinoids: The role of dopamine release in reward seeking. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3405830/
You know that time you thought you smelled a skunk, but it turned out to be someone smoking a J nearby? Those are the terpenes at work.
Terpenes are the compounds responsible for the plant’s unmistakable odor. But recently researchers have found that they can do a whole lot more than that. It turns out that terpenes play a role in how weed hits you.
More research is needed, but scientists have an inkling that terpenes can impact THC’s effects related to pain, anxiety, appetite disorders, and more. It’s looking more and more like a synergistic relationship. Russo EB, et al. (2017). Chapter 3: Cannabis pharmacology: The usual suspects and a few promising leads. Cannabinoid Pharmacology. DOI: 10.1016/bs.apha.2017.03.004
CBD, on the other hand, is a different cannabinoid that acts as an antagonist to THC, Rudroff says.
“CBD does not have psychoactive effects, but it does have beneficial effects,” he says. “It reduces pain and muscle spasticity [stiffness] and can make you more relaxed. This is the compound of greatest interest for medical marijuana.”
You’ve probably noticed how hot CBD products are right now. Sales are expected to reach $22 billion in the next 3 years. Well-known pro athletes like Rob Gronkowski and Lamar Odom are pursuing endorsements or business deals with CBD companies.
“You can look at this and say, ‘THC is bad, and CBD is good,’ but it’s not that simple,” Rudroff says. “There are some interactions. You need both in the product to work together.” Scientists are still working out the perfect ratio, but Rudroff says some research suggests it might be 1-to-1.
The legal status of cannabis means it’s difficult to fully understand the benefits of CBD. In July 2019, the FDA released a consumer update saying they are “working to learn more about the safety of CBD,” but CBD products are not approved.
In August 2019, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put pressure on the FDA to move faster, proposing an amendment that would force them to implement guidance on CBD products in the next 120 days.
First, a quick neuroscience lesson: Your brain is made up of billions of neurons and neural circuits. Neurons are long cells that are clustered near each other with a tiny space between their active sites.
To bridge the gap (or synapse) between neighboring neurons, chemicals called neurotransmitters deliver messages by traveling from one neuron to another. They then attach to molecules called receptors. Your body has many types, including endocannabinoid receptors.
“When we experience pain, inflammation, or stress — or have issues related to fear or mood — our body releases a number of neurotransmitters. Sometimes [endocannabinoids], which go to our endocannabinoid system are released to modulate these sensations as well,” Carlini says. Piomelli D. (2005). The endocannabinoid system: A drug discovery perspective. http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/16044662
Since the cannabinoids in marijuana look and act the same as the kind your body makes, they latch on to the cannabinoid receptors in your brain. There are two known types.
First up, CB1 cannabinoids are (mostly) located in parts of your brain associated with learning, memory, reward, anxiety, pain, and movement control. Then there are the CB2 cannabinoids, which are associated with your immune system. Ameri A. (1999). The effects of cannabinoids on the brain. DOI: 10.1016/S0301-0082(98)00087-2 Priyamvada S, et al. (2012). Chemistry, metabolism, and toxicology of cannabis: Clinical implications. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3570572/ Alger BE. (2013). Getting high on the endocannabinoid system. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3997295/
The exogenous cannabinoids throw your usual neuron functions out of whack, boosting certain signals and interfering with others. That’s why marijuana’s effects can range from a feeling of relaxation and pain relief to clumsiness, anxiety (or lack thereof), and even the munchies.
Just how quickly do you feel those results? Well, it all depends on whether you smoke, vape, or consume edibles.
“When you smoke, [cannabis] enters the bloodstream very quickly,” Rudroff says. “When you eat it, it can take up to 20 or 30 minutes before you can feel the effect.”
How long it takes also depends on the concentration of THC and CBD in the product you’re taking. “For us as scientists, it’s all about the levels of THC and CBD,” Carlini says. “It’s very hard to say, ‘Purple Haze [a popular strain of weed] is sativa, and it has X effect.’”
Weed experiences vary from person to person. What produces paranoia in one person might not have the same effects in someone else. The NIH says you can expect these side effects, among others:
- altered senses
- distorted sense of time
- changes in mood
- impaired body movement
- difficulty with problem solving
- impaired memory
Science can explain certain feelings like muscle relaxation and hunger, but the exact formula needed to create an identical reaction in everyone? That’s a lot trickier.
“We don’t doubt the differences, it’s just not well understood from the perspective of science,” Carlini says. “It’s a very complex plant.”
And strains aren’t as clear-cut as they used to be. You’ve probably heard that sativa strains can make you feel like you’re on cloud nine or ready to create a masterpiece, while indica strains are good for ditching PMS pain or catching some much-needed Zzz’s.
But recently researchers have started questioning conventional wisdom on strains. “The whole thing about strains is that we have no scientific basis that they will produce different experiences,” Carlini says.
She and Rudroff both say this is due to the amount of crossbreeding that has happened. At this stage, it’s tough to track botanical origins. That’s not to say science can’t pin down any effects. For instance, if you’ve ever smoked pot and felt anxious, it’s likely you smoked a strain with a high level of THC.
“Doses that are THC dominant can provoke paranoia,” Carlini says, “but good luck on having an equation on when that is going to happen.”
As for the consequences of habitual pot use, the jury is out. One recent study found that using pot regularly for 20 years resulted in higher incidences of gum disease but not much else. Hill KP, et al. (2016). Minimal physical health risk associated with long-term cannabis use — but buyer beware. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2016.5181
Another study that measured cognitive performance found that middle-aged users had poorer verbal memory than their non-using counterparts. Hall W, et al. (2016). Long-term marijuana use and cognitive impairment in middle age. DOI: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.7850
At this point we can’t be sure how reliable the data is. Many long-term studies like these use self-reporting techniques, which aren’t always dependable.
“We don’t know much about the long-term effects of cannabis,” Rudroff says. “In my opinion, cannabis does not lead to physical and mental dependence as long as it is used in a responsible manner.”
However, Rudroff adds that effects seem to be highly dependent on the age at which you start using. He says people who start at a younger age — when the brain is not fully developed — may have more negative effects later in life.
Researchers have only scratched the surface of this powerful plant. It’s getting a buzz (see what we did there?) for its potential to do everything from relieve pain to treat cancer symptoms, but a lot still isn’t known.
That said, canna-culture seems to be on everyone’s radar these days, from topicals to tinctures, edibles to extracts. If you decide to indulge, we recommend you do so responsibly. Everyone has a different sweet spot. Start slow and get to know the dose that works for you.
Most people think weed makes you giggly and hungry. But this plant can cause everything from bursts of energy to appetite suppression. Here’s why.
What Marijuana Does To Your Body And Mind
Marijuana comes from the cannabis sativa plant, and is the dried and shredded leaves, stems seeds and flowers. The high you get from marijuana comes from a chemical called Tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC. Some strains contain more or less THC — making them more or less potent.
Most of THC’s effects happen in the brain, where the chemical interacts with receptors on brain cells called cannibinoid receptors. Our bodies actually make chemicals very similar to THC, which are used in normal brain function and development. THC co-opts these natural pathways to produce most of its effects.
Marijuana makes you feel good
When THC hits brain cells, it causes them to release dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical. This is a part of the brain’s reward system, which makes you feel good when you do things that ensure the survival of yourself and your offspring. These things include eating and having sex.
When over-excited by drugs, the reward system creates feelings of euphoria.
.. but that’s not all good
When the rewards system is overstimulated, for example with drugs of abuse like cocaine, it can go haywire and cause a dependence (and in extreme cases addiction) on whatever is providing the rewarding feeling, and also take away from how rewarding normal things, like eating, are.
This can cause apathy and dependence on the drug.
It blocks memory formation
The active ingredient in marijuana acts in the part of the brain called the hippocampus to alter the way information is processed and how memories are formed. Animal studies have shown that this is particularly true while the brain is still developing — specifically why the legal smoking age is 21 in the states that have legalized it.
This blockage of memory formation can cause cognitive impairment in adulthood if use happens during adolescence, at least for rats. It can also quicken age-related brain cell loss, though marijuana has been shown to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
THC messes with your balance
THC messes with brain areas called the cerebellum and basal ganglia, which regulate balance, posture, coordination, and reaction time. When these brain areas are disturbed, the user has a harder time walking and talking correctly, becoming quite clumsy. It also impacts their ability to drive.
Cannabis use may increase the risk of depression
Although there is no conclusive evidence that marijuana makes users depressed (it’s just as likely that people who are depressed use pot), one recent study from the Netherlands found that smoking cannabis increases the risk of depression for young people who have a genetic vulnerability to the mental illness.
In the long-term, smoking marijuana increased depressive symptoms in subjects with a special serotonin gene responsible for increased risk of depression.
Intense anxiety, fear, distrust, or panic are common side effects
Somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of recreational marijuana users react with intense anxiety after taking the drug, making it one of the most commonly reported side effects.
Marijuana users may experience psychosis
Marijuana users who have taken large doses of the drug may experience an acute psychosis, which includes hallucinations, delusions, and a loss of the sense of personal identity. These episodes may be related to the link between marijuana use and psychosis, but are distinct.
Audio and visual hallucinations are common
Along with actual psychosis, cannabis users can also have audio and visual hallucinations, from the effects on the brain areas that process what we see and hear.
These audio hallucinations include “looping” sounds, where one particular sound (that is usually one syllable in duration) will repeat over and over again until it is either replaced by a different sound or the effects of THC begin to wear off.
It robs you of sleep
There are five stages of sleep, which get progressively deeper as the night goes on. The first four stages are called rapid eye movement, or REM. THC, the main active chemical in marijuana, has been shown to interrupt the later phases of REM sleep, the point during the night that is most crucial to making the body feel re-energized when you wake up.
Inhaling marijuana causes your heart rate to increase
Within a few minutes of inhaling marijuana, your heart rate increases, sometimes by 20 to 50 beats per minute (normal is 70 to 80 beats per minute). In some cases, like when taking other drugs with marijuana, heart rate can double.
This heart rate increase usually subsides relatively quickly, in about 20 minutes.
The traditional red eyes of a marijuana user — Visine anyone? — come from blood vessels expanding in the eye.
On uncomfortable effect of smoking weed is dry mouth or thirst.
The common side-effect, equivalent to the feeling of having a bunch of cotton balls shoved in your mouth, is not just the result of inhaling in hot smoke. It turns out cannabinoids receptors are located where our saliva is produced. When these receptors are activated by cannabis use, they inhibit the production of saliva.
After marijuana intake, most people feel the need to eat. And eat a lot. The drug increases food enjoyment and interest in food, increasing appetite. This is thought to be caused by the THC interacting with the cannibinoid receptors in a brain area called the hypothalamus.
Interestingly, a link has been drawn between milk products and cannibinoids. Some researchers think that these cannibinoids in milk play an important role in infant survival, because they stimulate the child’s appetite and cause them to eat more and suckle, which could be why THC has a similar effect in adults.
The drug is also touted for its health benefits
All The Reasons Pot Is Good For You >
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She first joined Business Insider in 2012 as the site’s first science editor. In 2015, she moved to Tech Insider to help launch the new site’s science vertical.
She graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 2010 with a graduate certificate in Science Communications and got a Bachelors of Science in Biology from the University of Notre Dame in 2006. In between, she was a research associate at at startup biotech company in San Francisco.
She’s written for Wired Science, The Scientist, Discover Magazine and LiveScience.com, among others.
Dina Spector is the managing editor at Business Insider UK. She is currently based in London.
What Marijuana Does To Your Body And Mind Marijuana comes from the cannabis sativa plant, and is the dried and shredded leaves, stems seeds and flowers. The high you get from marijuana comes from