First off, there are two main active compounds in marijuana; tetrahydocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Cannabidiol is the non-psychoactive component. It is believed to have pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory, and anti-psychotic properties that may help people with schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, and cancer. This is the compound that pharmaceutical companies are scared of, as it may be a natural replacement for those lucrative pain medications all the kids are hooked on these days.
But the compound we’re gonna talk about is the psychoactive component, which is known as THC. Tetrahydocannabinol causes both psychological effects such as euphoria, lack of concentration, a fragmented thought process, impaired memory, drowsiness, distorted time perception, and paranoia, to name a few. It also causes physical effects that include increased heart rate, red eyes, dry mouth, and increased appetite.
These effects occur within seconds as THC goes from your lungs – if you smoked it, if you ate a pot brownie and it goes to your lungs you’re gonna experience slightly different effects (i.e. choking and death) – to your bloodstream and then to your brain. In your brain, THC attaches to cannabinoid receptors, mimicking a natural neurotransmitter called anandamide.
Anandamide is often called the “bliss molecule,” which sounds lovely. It plays a role in improving memory and learning, dulling pain, and increasing appetite. Because THC can mimic anandamide, when it binds to certain receptors in the brain it blocks anandamide from doing its job. Much like smoking weed before work blocked you from doing your job. Hey Kai, that subway sandwich isn’t gonna make itself, get your shit together.
When THC binds to anandamide’s receptors it prevents anandamide from doing its job, so the areas in the brain where these receptors are located get thrown out of whack. Cannabinoid receptors are located in high concentrations in the following areas of the brain:
Cerebellum: involved in coordination, precision, and timing. When this region of the brain is affected by THC, it can lead to the individual having a distorted perception of time. If you’ve ever driven on a long, straight road while high (disclaimer: you shouldn’t drive under the influence blah blah blah, okay I’m pretty sure that covers me legally) you notice while driving that it’s taking a realllllyyyy long time to get to the end of the road and you’re pretty sure you might actually not be moving at all. This is also why it takes longer for the oven to preheat, the pizza to cook, and for your friend holding the joint to shut the fuck up and pass it already.
Basal ganglia: assists with coordination of movement. If you’ve ever been hiking while high, or doing any other activity that involves a modicum of athletic ability, you’ll notice that normal, every day motions are a little bit harder to pull off. It’s my excuse every time I airball a shot playing basketball, cuz it makes you seem super chill and also provides a legitimate reason for why your 3-point attempt barely made it past the foul line.
Some people, like myself, are more on the paranoia and anxiety side of the marijuana spectrum. It’s not much fun, but at least there’s an explanation other than the often uttered but seldom true “bro, something was in that weed.”
Neurons in your brain typically have a “refractory period” after they fire, meaning they aren’t able to fire again for a certain period of time. However, cannabinoids remove the refractory period of active neurons, which causes your thoughts, imagination, and perception to run wild. You essentially get caught up in the momentum of your most recent idea, whether it’s “what if what I see as orange other people see as green?” or “what was that noise? Dude, that was definitely the cops, I thought I heard sirens earlier. No, that wasn’t from the movie, Josh, it was totally from outside the house. Oh my god did someone just come in the front door… are those footsteps? EVERYBODY RUN!” And then it turns out it was just your friend’s cat walking down the basement steps.
That’s about it for the short-term effects of ingesting marijuana. Long-term effects include the problem that it’s fat-soluble, which means it can stay in body tissue for weeks or months depending on how big of a stoner your are. This can have the consequence of royally screwing up the drug test for that job your dad helped you get despite the fact that you have a 2.1 as an English major.
Some studies also show that frequent adolescent marijuana use can reduce IQ by middle age, and frequent smoking can cause overuse of cannabinoid receptors, which leads to a slower mental capacity. But there’s also a lot of research that points to there being no significant affect on the brain over time, which is pretty chill.