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The science of cannabis

October 16, 2018

Before reading this article, please note that this is not meant to be an academic article or review. There are no proper citations used, and the websites listed as resources below were used by the blogger to create this post. Happy reading!

You probably know of weed/marijuana, formally known as cannabis, but how much do you really know?


Ever since the talks of marijuana being legalized started picking up traction, I became interested in knowing what exactly the big deal was about this drug. All I knew was that it was a drug, and that’s it. So why were people pushing to get it legalized? After all, aren’t all drugs super-duper bad for you?


In this article I won’t be discussing the legalization of marijuana and the implications of its legalization on society and all that jazz (that’s a whole other article), rather we’re going to inform and educate ourselves about the drug itself. This is by no means a comprehensive article, but I wanted to touch the basics because it is important to be educated and make the correct choices. Plus, you’ll have some cool facts to share at your next dinner and probably understand what the heck these news articles are talking about.


So, let’s start with the name. The term Marijuana, the non-scientific/informal name for cannabis, originated from Mexican Spanish, and according to Google Analytics, the usage of the word marijuana flared up around the 1950’s (the late 1900s). There are many theories and reasons as to why marijuana became the popular name1 and if you’re interested in the etymology a quick Google search should satisfy your curiosity. Prior to marijuana existing as a word in American culture, it was referred to as cannabis, which is the actual Latin name for the plant from which weed is derived.2


Since I am a biology student, I have to talk about the taxonomy of cannabis. If you’re not interested in the biology, you can skip this bit! Cannabis is a genus of a flowering plant in the family Cannabaceae.9 There is no consensus about how many species exist within the genus but there are 3 recognized species: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. But even within these three, there is debate about whether C. ruderalis should be included within C9. sativa, or if all three should be treated as subspecies of a single species, C. sativa9. Phew, that was a mouthful! Let’s just stick with “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell” when it comes to bio, shall we?


Now, weed also has ANOTHER name, one that you might also be familiar with... hemp! Although, when the term hemp is used, as opposed to its plethora of the plants' other names, we are referring to the varieties of cannabis used for their non-drug use. For example, you may have heard of hemp seed oil or hemp fiber.9


Cannabis/Marijuana/Weed has two major uses currently. One as recreational marijuana and the other as medical marijuana. To understand how it can be used both recreationally and in medicine, it’s important to understand the chemical makeup of marijuana. Cannabis has two major cannabinoid components: Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Both these substances interact with the cannabinoid receptors found in the human body, but they have very different effects.


THC is the main psychoactive component of marijuana. In other words, it’s what gives you the “high” feeling. In cannabis plants, it’s thought to be involved in the plants’ self-defense, such as against insect predation, ultra-violet light, and environmental stressors. In your body, it mimics the effect of two neurotransmitters; anandamide, and 2-AG. This is typically how most drugs work – they mimic the effect neurotransmitters that generally make you “feel good”. These neurotransmitters help to control sleeping and eating habits, the perception of pain, and countless other bodily functions. 3,4,6 Therefore, the effects of THC include:

  • Relaxation
  • Altered senses of sight, smell, and hearing
  • Fatigue
  • Hunger
  • Reduced aggression


CBD is an isomer of THC. That means it has the same chemical formula as THC but the molecule is arranged differently, leading to a different structure; a different compound. Fun fact, cannabinoids are present within several plants in nature, but cannabis is the only plant known to contain CBD. CBD is the non-psychoactive compound, meaning it does not give you that “high” effect, but produces all the “non-high” effects of THC listed above. This is why many people prefer to use CBD to avoid the euphoric effects and side effects that occur with THC. 3,5,6


 So now you know the strains of marijuana used for recreational purposes will typically contain a higher level of THC, while those used for medicinal purposes will contain a higher level of CBD, but THC can also be used for medicinal purposes. Usually, a combination of both THC and CBD are used as research suggests CBD may be better for inflammation and neuropathic pain, while THC may excel with spasticity and cramp-related pain. It is worth noting that sometimes high doses of THC can exacerbate pain symptoms, meaning THC consumed in this capacity is usually used in small amounts.3


So what are the negative side effects of THC? They are the following.3

  • increased heart rate
  • coordination problems
  • red eyes
  • dry mouth
  • slower reaction times
  • memory loss and working memory

When consumed in large amounts and over long-term usage, some of the side effects linked to this are:9

  • auditory and/or visual hallucinations
  • distortions in the perceptions of time and space
  • ataxia
  • dissociative states such as depersonalization and derealisation


High use of THC is also connected to long-term negative psychiatric effects. This is especially true for adolescents who consume large amounts of THC. Use of the compound has been linked to an increased risk for some psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, and a variety of other bodily functions have been affected (brain, eye, stomach).9 A reduced quality of life is associated with heavy cannabis use, although the relationship is inconsistent and it is unclear whether this is a cause or effect relationship.9

Now I know the majority of this article I spent talking about different strains of marijuana with different levels of THC and CBD, but new research by E.M. Mudge et al (2018) suggests that all strains of marijuana have the same level of THC and CBD! The researchers who conducted this study say that the special effects of medicinal marijuana are provided by other cannabinoids in smaller doses, and not THC and CBD. Now you may be saying, what was the point of that article then? Well, this is still new, ongoing research and it could be proven to more than just a theory or not. That’s the beauty of the scientific process.


There are various documentaries available to inform and educate yourself. Always inform yourself of the risks and benefits involved with anything, especially regarding your health and wellbeing. In addition, please be mindful of others who you share spaces with, and of the new campus policy on smoking/vaping. A campus is a shared place and we can only foster a better community by being mindful of others and campus policies.


Websites used as resources for this article are the following


Academic papers used in research for this article are:

Shrivastava, Amresh, et al. "Cannabis use and cognitive dysfunction." Indian Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 53, no. 3, 2011, p. 187. Academic OneFile, Accessed 14 Oct. 2018.

M. Mudge et al. Chemometric Analysis of Cannabinoids: Chemotaxonomy and Domestication Syndrome, Scientific Reports (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-31120-2

By Hafsa Zia