Tens of millions of Americans are potheads — or 55 million, to be exact, according to a Yahoo News and Marist College study from 2017. Surprised? Well, you might be more surprised to find out that those tens of millions of people aren’t wily teenagers or college students smoking doobies on the corner. Rather, those 55 million Americans who partake in the use of weed in some form or another are adults — and that number from 2017 has undoubtedly increased as more states have legalized or decriminalized over the last three years.
But while 55 million or more adults are using cannabis, how many of them know how it actually works? How does consuming cannabis produce a high — or one of the other physiological effects associated with the plant, for that matter?
Well, while many of us are out and proud cannabis lovers, how cannabinoids react to our systems isn’t something they just teach in high school biology, so these weren’t questions we could answer off the top of the old head. Luckily, it turns out that there’s a whole collection of experts just on the other side of the mountains at the Institute of Cannabis Research at Colorado State University Pueblo, so we reached out to them to find out.
THC and meSang Hyuck Park, a senior scientist and research liaison at ICR, walked us through the basics of how weed works when we smoke it or otherwise consume it.
Most people are aware that the high you get from weed comes from a cannabinoid (a chemical found in cannabis) called tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. Fewer people are aware that there’s an entire system of cannabinoids within the human body called the endocannabinoid system.
Your body and brain are littered with cannabinoid receptors that regulate things like appetite, mood, memory, and the way we sense pain. Astute fans — or medical users — of ganja might recognize these as things the herb affects. While the term “cannabinoid receptor” makes it sound like a benevolent higher power designed the human body specifically so it would interact with cannabis, it’s really just an accident of naming. Scientists identified the existence of cannabinoids in cannabis plants in 1964, well before realizing we generate similar chemicals in our own bodies — but the name had already stuck.
One example of a cannabinoid we make ourselves is anandamide, which borrows its name from the Sanskrit word “ananda,” meaning “joy, bliss, or delight.” We use the chemical to affect our energy, appetite, mood, and the perception of time, among a host of other things. When it binds with receptors within the nucleus accumbens region of your brain, dopamine, the chemical our brains use to reward us with a feeling of pleasure, is produced.
It turns out, though, that THC and anandamide are chemically similar — at least enough to trick the receptors into thinking they’re the same thing. Chocolate contains a similar compound, coincidentally. As a result, when we consume marijuana and the THC it contains, we can mess around the function of those receptors enough to induce those feelings of pleasure and the other psychoactive effects that come together to make us feel high, get the munchies, and all the other things weed is associated with.
By making us experience the thrill associated with, say, music or ideas more intensely, it also distorts how we perceive them. That’s why all those great ideas you have when you’re high aren’t nearly as good or even comprehensible when you’re not. It’s also what makes jam bands tolerable. (Bring it, Deadheads.)
To a certain extent, by hijacking our brain chemicals with THC, we’re interfering with a natural system and our brains will self-adjust the responses. Over time, a heavy pot user’s brain will produce less dopamine, and that user will have to consume more or seek out more powerful strains.
On the other hand, Park pointed out, the receptors in our bodies are already prone to function less well as we age, and that’s where some of cannabis’ therapeutic effects come in — you can use it to create beneficial chemical reactions that your body is no longer up to the task of completing. For example, it can make chemotherapy patients hungry again.
What’s up with CBD?Cannabis plants produce more than 120 different cannabinoids, with nine major ones identified thus far. THC and cannabidiol, or CBD, are the most abundant. But whereas scientists have been studying THC for over 50 years, there has been very little formal research into CBD, and its functioning is still largely a mystery. For instance, the receptors that bind with THC, the body’s CB1 and CB2 receptors, do not bind with CBD. And, according to Park, we’re not sure which receptors do. In theory, CBD works similarly to how THC works, but it activates receptors that don’t create any psychoactive effects.
While there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that CBD has medical benefits — for instance, in controlling the seizures of Charlotte Figi, the girl who recently passed away who had inspired CBD treatments for seizure disorders with a CBD strain called Charlotte’s Web — there’s not necessarily a ton of actual science behind it. Yet.
“It looks like CBD is a cure for all human disease, honestly,” Park said. “Pain relief, cancer treatments, seizures, mental illness, Alzheimer’s, neuropathic pain, inflammation-associated diseases ... it looks like it (CBD) does everything, like it cures all diseases. Is that true? That is the question.”
That clinical science is being conducted, though, and the Institute of Cannabis Research is conducting part of it — in addition to all the other research it’s carrying out.
Park is working on several research programs at the moment. The main one is an in-depth gene sequencing of the Cannabis sativa plant, which involves basically mapping out its DNA so we can understand how it synthesizes cannabinoids from the ground up. Alongside his ICR colleagues, he is also studying:
• How different wavelengths of light affect cannabinoid production in plants
• Whether cannabis plants can be used to remediate soil polluted with heavy metals
• Whether CBD can be used to inhibit the growth of cells involved in breast cancer or rheumatoid arthritis
• How the three glandular trichomes (the tiny protuberances where shiny, sticky crystals form) of the Cannabis sativa plant function during cannabinoid production
While much of Park’s research revolves around actual cannabis plants, that’s not necessarily the case for all research at the institution. We also talked to Jeff Smith, a neurobiologist and the chair of CSU-Pueblo’s biology department. His experiments study the behavior of animals that are exposed to cannabinoids.
Smith is specifically looking into the possibility that CBD can be used as a memory-enhancing agent for treating cognitive disorders. To do this, he uses transgenic mice that have been genetically altered in such a way that he can visualize the activity in neurons in their brains and central nervous systems. They treat some of the mice with cannabinoids and then condition them all to respond to stimuli in ways that utilize their abilities to remember, such as fear.
Before you use a monkey’s paw and wish to be reincarnated as a cannabis-treated mouse, remember that Smith and his colleagues aren’t treating them with THC. And, the mice get their brains sliced open before electrodes are inserted. This allows the scientists to observe how the blueprints and circuitry for memories in the mice’s brains form differently with and without cannabinoids.
Interestingly, one of the actions their current research suggests isn’t so much a new treatment as the re-examination of a current one. One of the many disorders that people are currently treating with CBD is post-traumatic stress disorder — in which someone has difficulty recovering after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. While THC has been well-researched as a chemical that inhibits the formation of memories, the opposite seems to be true of CBD. Smith’s data suggests that CBD would be a very poor choice of therapeutic treatment for someone suffering from PTSD — especially if they’re in an environment where they might form new fear memories — as the cannabinoid may actually enhance the strength of that memory.
“You could imagine somebody who is maybe a combat soldier that goes out into the field and then comes back and sees a therapist for exposure therapy to try and talk them through cognitive behavioral therapy, which walks them through bad experiences,” Smith said. “If a person in that situation was taking cognitive behavioral therapy with cannabidiol as an augmentation for that, and then at the same time was going back into a stressful environment that triggered or could trigger a post-traumatic stress disorder, it actually could enhance the strength of the memory. And that would make a memory that would be more difficult to extinguish in a therapeutic setting.”
On a wider scale, this study also demonstrates the need for more research into cannabinoids — and skepticism toward anecdotal claims about what they do. Unfortunately, the Institute of Cannabis Research, which was founded in 2015, might be in jeopardy. It relies on state funding, and Colorado is facing budget issues. As such, the ICR may be on the chopping block.
“It’s really important though that we fund research into the effects of cannabinoids at a real level, using real, good-quality science with well-trained people and good-quality instrumentation because so many people are using it, and companies are making it and selling it, and people are consuming it for lots of different things,” Smith said. “The potential to do good with cannabinoids is real, but the potential to do harm is equally as true, and without the research, we can’t discern. I think it’s very likely that my research won’t be funded next year, not because of any deficiency in the quality of our work, but because of a deficiency in state funding to the Institute of Cannabis Research.”
Judging by how much it has become a part of the economy, it’s safe to say that Coloradoans are very interested in the consumption of cannabinoids, but there is a disproportionate amount of research being done into the same chemicals. And it would be troubling if the state cut that research back even further — especially when it could be the key to unlocking the true potential of the plant.