Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States, but it’s also a controversial substance. Debates as to its effectiveness as medicine, and whether or not recreational use should be made legal, dominate headlines. However, it’s the center of another debate: What is it?
Psychoactive drugs are put into four large categories based on their effects.
But marijuana’s effects vary widely from person to person. Is it a depressant or a stimulant?
Learn more about marijuana’s effects and why it’s so difficult to categorize.
What Are the Main Drug Types?
Part of the confusion about which drug category marijuana falls into is because it doesn’t seem to fit into any of the major drug categories.
Psychoactive drugs are grouped into large categories based on their effects and more specific categories based on their other properties like their chemical structure. Marijuana seems to fit into multiple categories at once. The four major categories of psychoactive drugs are:
- Depressants. Central nervous system depressants are drugs that suppress nervous system excitability in the brain. Depressants include alcohol, benzodiazepines, and other prescription sleep aids. They typically work by affecting a chemical messenger in your nervous system called gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA). By increasing the efficiency of this chemical, you experience relaxation, sedation, drowsiness, slowed cognitive ability, loss of motor control, and other effects of a suppressed nervous system.
- Stimulants. Central nervous system stimulants are the chemical opposite of a depressant in many ways. Stimulants increase excitability in the nervous system by affecting dopamine, a chemical that’s tied to reward, motivation, and alertness. Stimulants include cocaine, amphetamines, and methamphetamine.
- Opioids. While some people group opioids in with depressants because they also have some of the same nervous system depressing effects, they work in the brain differently. They are chemically similar to your own naturally occurring endorphins, so they bind to opioid receptors and influence your nervous system directly. Opioids cause pain-relief, sedation, dizziness, and deep relaxation. Opioids include heroin, oxycodone, fentanyl, and other prescription opioid pain-relievers.
- Psychedelics. Psychoactive drugs that cause an altered state of consciousness are called psychedelics or hallucinogens. Drugs in this category include LSD, peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, and others. Psychedelics and the way they work in the brain are poorly understood and may affect people in different ways.
Marijuana seems to have a wide range of different effects that can fit into several categories. Different people have completely different experiences using the drug depending on several factors. The strain of cannabis you take, the dose you take, and your individual physiology can all play a role in the effects you experience.
How Cannabis Works
Different drugs cause different effects because of the way they work in your brain and nervous system. They may influence chemical receptors directly or indirectly, but the way they alter your brain’s chemical messaging system will determine their effects. For that reason, it’s important to understand how cannabis works in the brain to understand why it has so many strange effects.
Cannabis plants have several active chemicals, but the one that produces the psychoactive effects is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is a cannabinoid, a chemical that binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain. Under normal circumstances, cannabinoid receptors in your brain are activated by a neurochemical called anandamide.
There is still a lot to learn about what anandamide does in the brain, but it seems to be tied to memory suppression, eating behavior, pleasure, and even pain relief. When THC binds to these same receptors, it can cause the following effects:
- Altered perception of time
- Increased appetite
- Memory loss
- Pain relief
- Nausea suppression
Some of these effects are very similar to the ones that anandamide produces. THC is also very potent, so its effects are more pronounced than typical anandamide. When THC is bound to receptors in your brain, it can disrupt normal chemical communication, which is why it might be more difficult to recall certain information while you’re high.
Sedative, Depressant, or Both?
So where do marijuana’s effects put it in the major categories of psychoactive drugs? Some people experience sedation, depression, and relaxation when they smoke marijuana. Others feel energized or anxious. The effects of marijuana are largely dependent on dose and strain. Cannabis is a genus of plant with three different species in it.
One of them is very low in THC, and it’s typically only used to make hemp and in extracting CBD, another cannabinoid that’s not psychoactive. The other two species, Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa, both contain significant amounts of THC.
In recreational use, the two drugs are thought to have different effects. Indica is said to cause a “full-body high” like deep relaxation and sedation. Sativa is said to produce “head highs” that are energizing and stimulating. However, they contain some of the same psychoactive chemicals, and research hasn’t been able to show a major difference in their effects.
Strains might be more important.
A strain is an individual plant or crop that has unique effects. There are dozens of cannabinoids in cannabis plants with different effects. While THC is the most abundant psychoactive chemical, other cannabinoids may cause their own effects or even interfere with THC. For instance, CBD might counteract THC and lower its effects. Some strains are very high in THC while others are low in it and high in CBD.
We know marijuana has some dose-dependent effects. High doses can cause hallucinations, psychosis, or paranoia that you most likely won’t experience at low doses.
In the same way, different strains may cause different effects like stimulation or sedation.
Cannabis can’t be definitively placed in a major drug category, but some people consider it a depressant with stimulant properties. However, it’s really in its own category. It’s not the only drug that’s difficult to classify. Kratom, a plant native to Southeast Asia, causes stimulating effects at low doses but acts as an opioid in higher doses.
Is Marijuana Dangerous?
Marijuana isn’t chemically dependent, and it isn’t likely to cause dangerous overdose symptoms, so many marijuana advocates say it’s relatively harmless. Though it isn’t as dangerous as some other drugs, it isn’t without side effects. Its immediate effects can cause memory impairment, hallucinations, delusions, and psychosis when it’s taken in high doses.
Long-term use can affect brain development, especially in younger users. If it’s used frequently by people whose brains are still developing, it can cause cognitive impairment, memory issues, impaired learning, and other negative effects on important functions.
Other studies have shown that marijuana use may be linked to psychosis in people that are predisposed to disorders like schizophrenia.
Frequent use of highly potent marijuana can cause psychotic symptoms. Illicit marijuana is often high in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the chemical that produces it’s high. Today’s marijuana is higher in THC than it once was because it allows drug dealers to transport more valuable products in smaller packages. THC has also been linked to psychosis so high-THC marijuana may be more dangerous.
Though rare, there have been instances of heart-related issues caused or worsened by marijuana use. There have even been cases of sudden death caused by heart complications in young users.