Adult african male smoking joint with cannabis sitting on a cliff at sunrise

What Type of Drug is Marijuana?

Depending on who you ask, marijuana may be described as a depressant, stimulant, hallucinogen, or all three. Here’s how your unique body chemistry, environment, strain, dosage, and other factors can result in different effects every time you use marijuana.

What are the Main Types of Drugs?

Drugs can be grouped into several major categories based on their effects.

Depressants

Depressants are drugs that slow down your brain activity 1 NIDA. 2018, March 6. Prescription CNS Depressants DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-cns-depressants on 2020, October 29 . They typically make you feel calmer, more relaxed, and less inhibited. Alcohol is arguably the best example of a depressant.

Stimulants

The opposite of depressants, stimulants increase brain activity 2 NIDA. 2018, June 6. Prescription Stimulants DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-stimulants on 2020, October 29 . These drugs are associated with improved energy, attention, and mood. Common stimulants include caffeine, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

Hallucinogens

Hallucinogens are a class of drugs that change your perception of reality and alter your thoughts and feelings 3 NIDA. 2019, April 22. Hallucinogens DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/hallucinogens on 2020, October 29 . The two best examples of hallucinogens are LSD and psilocybin.

Opioids

Opioids are a type of drug naturally present in the opium poppy plant. They work by interacting with opiate receptors found in your brain and other parts of the body 4 NIDA. 2020, May 27. Prescription Opioids DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-opioids on 2020, October 29 . Their main effects are pain relief and a feeling of euphoria.

Opiates are highly addictive and are used both as prescription painkillers, such as morphine and codeine, and illicit drugs, such as heroin.

Some opioids are sourced directly from the plant, while others are made synthetically.

Is Marijuana a Stimulant or Depressant?

While we can immediately say that marijuana is not an opiate, it doesn’t fit neatly into any of the three remaining categories. That’s because it can produce effects from every category: depressant, stimulant, and hallucinogen.

Is Marijuana a Depressant?

Weed is most commonly considered a depressant because its most frequent effects fit into that category.

These effects can include reduced anxiety, sleepiness, and relaxation. Marijuana can also cause negative depressant effects, such as impaired memory, dizziness, and difficulty thinking and concentrating 5 Health Canada. (2020) Health effects of cannabis – Canada.ca. Retrieved October 29, 2020, from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/drugs-medication/cannabis/health-effects/effects.html .

Is Marijuana a Stimulant?

As a stimulant, marijuana can produce feelings of euphoria and enhance your mood and energy. But it can cause negative effects associated with stimulants as well, such as anxiety, paranoia, and increased heart rate 6 NIDA. 2019, December 24. Marijuana DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/marijuana on 2020, October 29 .

Is Marijuana a Hallucinogen?

Marijuana can cause some hallucinogenic effects, most of which are linked to heightened sensory perception 7 Winton-Brown, T. T., Allen, P., Bhattacharrya, S., Borgwardt, S. J., Fusar-Poli, P., Crippa, J. A., … & Atakan, Z. (2011). Modulation of auditory and visual processing by delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol: an FMRI study. Neuropsychopharmacology, 36(7), 1340-1348. . These can include altered perception of time, vivid colors, increased sensitivity to touch, and hearing sounds differently.

Having said that, these are less common than marijuana’s depressant and stimulant effects and don’t happen to everyone.

It’s also possible to experience full-blown visual and auditory hallucinations, such as seeing or hearing things that aren’t there 8 Barrett, F. S., Schlienz, N. J., Lembeck, N., Waqas, M., & Vandrey, R. (2018). “Hallucinations” following acute cannabis dosing: a case report and comparison to other hallucinogenic drugs. Cannabis and cannabinoid research, 3(1), 85-93. . However, these effects are rare and typically require higher doses.

How Should you Classify Marijuana?

So, is marijuana a depressant? As we can see, it can cause effects associated with all three types of drugs: depressants, stimulants, and hallucinogens. In fact, it’s possible to experience all three at the same time.

Which raises the question: why does marijuana behave this way? The biggest reason is that unlike most drugs, marijuana is composed of hundreds of active components. The most important of these are cannabinoids and terpenes.

Not only do these compounds have effects of their own but they can work together synergistically — a phenomenon scientists call the entourage effect 9 Andre, C. M., Hausman, J. F., & Guerriero, G. (2016). Cannabis sativa: the plant of the thousand and one molecules. Frontiers in plant science, 7, 19. .

As a result, when you use marijuana, you’re getting the combined effects of many different compounds, which can manifest itself in seemingly contradictory effects, such as feeling energetic yet relaxed.

However, several factors can determine whether marijuana will primarily act as a hallucinogen, stimulant, or depressant in your particular case. These include marijuana strain, dosage, environment, and individual differences.

Factors Impacting Marijuana Effects

Marijuana Strain

Marijuana comes in hundreds of strains: plant varieties that differ in their exact composition of cannabinoids and terpenes. Many of these compounds have been studied by researchers and found to have distinct effects and synergies 10 Namdar, D., Voet, H., Ajjampura, V., Nadarajan, S., Mayzlish-Gati, E., Mazuz, M., … & Koltai, H. (2019). Terpenoids and phytocannabinoids co-produced in Cannabis sativa strains show specific interaction for cell cytotoxic activity. Molecules, 24(17), 3031. .

Consider the fact that CBD, the popular non-intoxicating cannabinoid, may counteract the psychoactive side effects of THC, such as anxiety and psychosis — a condition characterized by hallucinations and delusions 11 Niesink, R. J., & van Laar, M. W. (2013). Does cannabidiol protect against adverse psychological effects of THC?. Frontiers in psychiatry, 4, 130. .

It stands to reason that strains with higher CBD levels might be less likely to worsen anxiety or produce hallucinogenic effects.

Meanwhile, the terpene myrcene is known for its sedative and relaxing effects, and its interplay with THC has been suggested as the cause behind the infamous “couch lock” experienced by some marijuana users 12 Russo, E. B. (2011). Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid‐terpenoid entourage effects. British journal of pharmacology, 163(7), 1344-1364. .

This suggests that weed strains high in myrcene might have stronger depressant effects.

These are just a few examples. With over 120 distinct cannabinoids and 150 terpenes having been identified in cannabis, that leaves a lot of room for different combinations and levels of these compounds 13, 14 Booth, J. K., & Bohlmann, J. (2019). Terpenes in Cannabis sativa–From plant genome to humans. Plant Science, 284, 67-72. .

This may explain why certain strains of marijuana are often associated with specific depressant or stimulant effects, such as increased energy, sedation, relaxation, anxiety relief, or euphoria.

Dosage

Another variable that plays a role in whether weed will act more like a depressant, stimulant, or hallucinogen is the dosage.

For example, research has shown that high-potency marijuana with high THC levels is more likely to cause psychosis 15 Di Forti, M., Morgan, C., Dazzan, P., Pariante, C., Mondelli, V., Marques, T. R., … & Butt, A. (2009). High-potency cannabis and the risk of psychosis. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 195(6), 488-491. . In that sense, potent marijuana is more likely to act as a hallucinogen.

Similarly, there’s some evidence that THC has a biphasic effect on anxiety 16 Bhattacharyya, S., Egerton, A., Kim, E., Rosso, L., Barros, D. R., Hammers, A., … & McGuire, P. (2017). Acute induction of anxiety in humans by delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol related to amygdalar cannabinoid-1 (CB1) receptors. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 1-15. . That means low doses can relieve anxiety, which is a depressant effect,  whereas higher doses can actually make it worse — a common side effect of stimulants.

Environment

Often referred to as the “set (one’s mindset) and setting (the atmosphere),” the physical and social environment in which marijuana and other drugs are consumed can also influence their effects 17, 18 McElrath, K., & McEvoy, K. (2002). Negative experiences on ecstasy: The role of drug, set, and setting. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 34(2), 199-208. .

For example, using marijuana by yourself at home would likely result in different effects than with a new group of people at a party. Similarly, feeling anxious, excited, sad, or happy would likely make marijuana affect you differently.

Individual Differences

Lastly, cannabis is known to affect everyone differently due to your history of marijuana use and unique biochemistry. Consider someone taking marijuana for the first time; they’re likely to experience a more pronounced effect than a regular user.

Similarly, your gender, body weight, age, and specific genetic differences can also influence the effects of marijuana. For instance, research suggests that certain genetic variations may make some people more likely to experience psychosis from marijuana use 10 Namdar, D., Voet, H., Ajjampura, V., Nadarajan, S., Mayzlish-Gati, E., Mazuz, M., … & Koltai, H. (2019). Terpenoids and phytocannabinoids co-produced in Cannabis sativa strains show specific interaction for cell cytotoxic activity. Molecules, 24(17), 3031. .

So, is Marijuana a Depressant? A Stimulant? Or a Hallucinogen?

Evidently, the effects of marijuana mean that it can fit into all three categories. The precise effects can vary based on strain, dosage, the environment, your unique body chemistry, and your personal experience with marijuana.

As such, when just one of these factors is altered, you may feel something different, even if you’re already used marijuana before. Consider a person who may have been used to describing marijuana as a depressant only to see it more as a stimulant when trying a different strain in a new environment.

The bottom line is that marijuana can be considered a stimulant, depressant, or hallucinogen, depending on the particular context.

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Sources
  1. NIDA. 2018, March 6. Prescription CNS Depressants DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-cns-depressants on 2020, October 29
  2. NIDA. 2018, June 6. Prescription Stimulants DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-stimulants on 2020, October 29
  3. NIDA. 2019, April 22. Hallucinogens DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/hallucinogens on 2020, October 29
  4. NIDA. 2020, May 27. Prescription Opioids DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-opioids on 2020, October 29
  5. Health Canada. (2020) Health effects of cannabis - Canada.ca. Retrieved October 29, 2020, from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/drugs-medication/cannabis/health-effects/effects.html
  6. NIDA. 2019, December 24. Marijuana DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/marijuana on 2020, October 29
  7. Winton-Brown, T. T., Allen, P., Bhattacharrya, S., Borgwardt, S. J., Fusar-Poli, P., Crippa, J. A., ... & Atakan, Z. (2011). Modulation of auditory and visual processing by delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol: an FMRI study. Neuropsychopharmacology, 36(7), 1340-1348.
  8. Barrett, F. S., Schlienz, N. J., Lembeck, N., Waqas, M., & Vandrey, R. (2018). “Hallucinations” following acute cannabis dosing: a case report and comparison to other hallucinogenic drugs. Cannabis and cannabinoid research, 3(1), 85-93.
  9. Andre, C. M., Hausman, J. F., & Guerriero, G. (2016). Cannabis sativa: the plant of the thousand and one molecules. Frontiers in plant science, 7, 19.
  10. Namdar, D., Voet, H., Ajjampura, V., Nadarajan, S., Mayzlish-Gati, E., Mazuz, M., ... & Koltai, H. (2019). Terpenoids and phytocannabinoids co-produced in Cannabis sativa strains show specific interaction for cell cytotoxic activity. Molecules, 24(17), 3031.
  11. Niesink, R. J., & van Laar, M. W. (2013). Does cannabidiol protect against adverse psychological effects of THC?. Frontiers in psychiatry, 4, 130.
  12. Russo, E. B. (2011). Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid‐terpenoid entourage effects. British journal of pharmacology, 163(7), 1344-1364.
  13. Booth, J. K., & Bohlmann, J. (2019). Terpenes in Cannabis sativa–From plant genome to humans. Plant Science, 284, 67-72.
  14. Morales, P., Hurst, D. P., & Reggio, P. H. (2017). Molecular targets of the phytocannabinoids: a complex picture. In Phytocannabinoids (pp. 103-131). Springer, Cham.
  15. Di Forti, M., Morgan, C., Dazzan, P., Pariante, C., Mondelli, V., Marques, T. R., ... & Butt, A. (2009). High-potency cannabis and the risk of psychosis. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 195(6), 488-491.
  16. Bhattacharyya, S., Egerton, A., Kim, E., Rosso, L., Barros, D. R., Hammers, A., ... & McGuire, P. (2017). Acute induction of anxiety in humans by delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol related to amygdalar cannabinoid-1 (CB1) receptors. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 1-15.
  17. McElrath, K., & McEvoy, K. (2002). Negative experiences on ecstasy: The role of drug, set, and setting. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 34(2), 199-208.
  18. Metrik, J., Rohsenow, D. J., Monti, P. M., McGeary, J., Cook, T. A., de Wit, H., ... & Kahler, C. W. (2009). Effectiveness of a marijuana expectancy manipulation: Piloting the balanced-placebo design for marijuana. Experimental and clinical psychopharmacology, 17(4), 217.

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