As more information about cannabis and its compounds becomes available, those seeking the reputed benefits of bud without the ‘high’ are being directed to try strains with greater CBD content. This is because CBD, or cannabidiol, is claimed to be a cannabis compound that’s ‘non-psychoactive’; it’s the foil to THC, the compound known to cause the ‘head high’ associated with cannabis consumption.
Now, some experts in the cannabis and medical community are saying that this designation isn’t entirely true – that CBD is psychoactive, but it’s ‘non-intoxicating’.
Intoxication is the feeling most connected to experiences with alcohol, and we are aware of what alcohol intoxication looks like: Loud, proud and in some cases, clumsy. Since alcohol is a more widely-accepted recreational mind-altering substance, it has historically provided context for what comes out of cannabis experiences. It really has yet to be decided what it means to be ‘intoxicated’ from cannabis, so there’s a void that experiences with alcohol can conveniently fill. This creates some issues, of course.
The word “‘psychoactive’ has become interchangeable with ‘intoxication’,” says Dr. Adie Poe, a faculty member at Washington University Medical School. The term ‘psychoactive’ has embedded itself into how we socially define ‘cannabis intoxication’ – and many now believe it doesn’t belong there.
A psychoactive substance means that it has altered your state of mind. Intoxication from either cannabis or alcohol increases ‘happy’ chemicals in your brain (i.e. dopamine). In both cases, the perception of the world changes, inwardly and outwardly, and you begin to interact differently with your environment.
Two important brain centers are the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area (VTA). These regions release uplifting chemicals when you’ve done something good, like an intense workout. This positive reinforcement teaches your brain that this was an action that you should repeat.
Alcohol and cannabis bind to these centers in the brain, but the effects are vastly different. Our brains are complex organs, and it’s not enough to know which part of the brain is affected, but also how it happens. THC is responsible for the majority of intoxicating symptoms of cannabis because of its chemical structure and how it attaches itself to CB1 receptors in the brain. Alcohol ‘slows’ brain activity by increasing ‘lazy’ chemicals like GABA, a neurotransmitter that reduces brain function.
Intoxicating effects from THC are not due to your brain being lazy — in fact, THC excites your brain, allowing for expanded consciousness and awareness of your environment. In addition, it affects your ability to concentrate, make decisions, and physically move — much like alcohol — but the experience of those outcomes are not ultimately comparable.
To that end, cannabis is definitely psychoactive — but not always intoxicating. One does not imply the other. But is CBD intoxicating? “No, but I think that people can buy what they think are purely CBD products which can be contaminated with THC”, says Dr. Poe. Cannabidiol does not interact with the brain like other active compounds found in cannabis — namely THC.
Cannabis’ reputation is highly dependent on its use, both recreational and medicinal, being de-stigmatized, and stigma can only be deflated once we have come to terms with cannabis’ place in society. Additionally, an increase in studies surrounding its effects must be more thoroughly conducted so we can clearly identify its properties and outcomes after consumption.
We have been trained to fear substances that have ‘psychoactive’ effects, such as magic mushrooms (psilocybin) and acid (LSD). Because of alcohol’s wide acceptance, it’s easy to want to use it as the benchmark for cannabis experiences. However, we must first understand the meaning behind descriptive words, appropriately apply them, and realize that a generalized concept won’t work in the case of cannabis.
Story by Katarina Kostovic
Graphic by Andrew Cooper
The preceding is for informational purposes only. It is not meant to condone the use or consumption of cannabis. For more information, please refer to our disclaimer.