Psychoactive: A substance that affects how the brain works and causes changes in mood, awareness, thoughts, feelings, or behaviour. Examples of psychoactive substances include caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, marijuana and certain pain medications – NCI
THC and CBD both come from the Cannabis plant and interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system, so why is it that one molecule (THC) is ‘psychoactive’, whereas the other (CBD) is generally considered to keep you in a fairly sober state?
In the CBD / Hemp industry, the term ‘non-psychoactive’ is used to allay ‘Marijuana’-based fears by assuring newcomers that CBD does not produce the ‘high’ that THC instigates, un-coupling it from a lot of the prohibition stigma still surrounding the plant medicine. However, some scientists believe that this term is technically inaccurate, as if CBD alters or improves mood, then this could technically be classed as ‘psychoactive’.
The mystery deepens further however, if you consider that we also use tobacco, nicotine, coffee and entertainment to alter our consciousness and moods. And there is very little in life that does not have this effect on our nervous systems to some degree, making this spectrum and definition of ‘psychoactive’ more difficult to accurately apply.
This comes back to the nebulous but important idea of the mind-body connection, with studies showing that placebo and drug are not separate, psychological and physical processes, but rather, a part of a highly complex interaction between mind (consciousness), genetics, environment and the types of substance being used.
While CBD may have an uplifting effect, there’s no doubt that it does not cause the same intoxicating high as Marijuana. Both molecules have an impact on type 1 (CB1) receptors in the brain, albeit in very different ways. Whereas THC is an agonist of CB1 receptors, and activates them to produce a euphoria (or paranoia and anxiety in some, depending on the strain and concentration), CBD is an antagonist – in other words it blocks the CB1 receptors and therefore inhibits some of the effects caused by THC.
Some sources argue that the type of Cannabis bred for the illicit market is predominantly street ‘Skunk’, which is designed to contain extremely high concentrations of THC and low amounts of CBD. This is often attributed to supply and demand equating to the illicit market being predominantly tailored towards abuse – with a larger majority of customers seeking stronger and stronger recreational highs, as opposed to milder therapeutic effects. However this is contentious.
Therapeutic strains may be more likely to contain higher amounts of CBD, which would negate any unwanted side effects such as anxiety and paranoia, as well as subduing the effects of building up a tolerance to the highs caused by the plant. But the biggest benefit of legalisation and regulation would be that people have a more direct and accurate means of knowing what they’re buying, and what effects it might have.
This difference in action potential and the resultant high is what seems to make all the difference in terms of legal implications. While Marijuana remains a regulated substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, CBD is fast becoming a regulated, legal substance, so long as it meets certain criteria. The legal status of CBD in the UK rests upon its origins – it can be sold so long as it has been derived from an industrial hemp strain that is EU-approved, and therefore contains negligible THC. You do not currently require a ‘Hemp licence’ to sell CBD in the UK providing THC is not detected, however certain forms of CBD require FSA certification.
The exception to the rule is Sativex, which is available on the NHS and contains a 50-50 mix of synthetic CBD and THC as a treatment for MS. Pure CBD is also available on the NHS for conditions including a childhood form of epilepsy and nausea caused by chemotherapy, although it often remains a last resort that’s still difficult to prescribe, owing to the lack of dosing guidelines, stigma and fears around medical liabilities. Cannabis is also being trialled in conditions such as PTSD, anxiety and arthritis with many successful case studies in clinics in the US.
Mike Powers of The Guardian writes, “There is now no denying the medicinal value of CBD and THC – not even by the British government, which for years maintained that lie even as it rubber-stamped the cultivation and export of the world’s largest medicinal cannabis crop. But the landmark decision in November 2018 to allow UK doctors to prescribe cannabis under extremely limited circumstances, inspired by the cases of Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley, whose epilepsy is improved immeasurably by medicinal cannabis products containing both THC and CBD, has left many in a limbo: knowing or believing that cannabis offers a cure, yet remaining unable to access it.”
With Cannabis now working its way into everything from vapes, sweets and creams to sexual lubricants, as GQ magazine claims, “thanks to a brand re-imagining and increased medical research, [the naturally occurring compound] has gone from dangerous to desirable”. Though the jury is still out on what’s considered a fairly novel substance, many remain optimistic about its potential.
Except that Cannabis isn’t actually all that novel at all, both as a plant and in terms of its medical status. Although it was forced out of favour during the era of prohibition (which we are only just beginning to potentially see the back of), there is an extensive amount of historical literature into its therapeutic use across the globe.
CBD is considered novel predominantly because new technologies mean that extraction techniques such as high-flow CO2 are now available, creating new forms of cannabis including concentrated isolates or shatters. These are the formats most targeted by the FSA and Novel Foods Act, especially when added to edible food items.
However flowers and buds still remain illegal, even where they do not contain THC. This has been the source of much confusion of late, although enforcement of the laws surrounding CBD flower and bud has been relatively light in some instances, this is a problem for the industry as CBD and other cannabinoids can only be extracted from the flowers, leaves and stems, but not from the seeds – so such laws remain slightly contradictory and nonsensical.
Unfortunately, in many cases this has resulted in the industry as a whole taking consumers for a ride, with many high-street offerings either deliberately misleading buyers with the use of Hemp seed oil (which is always marketed with the signature cannabis leaf, but does not contain any cannabinoids whatsoever), or straight up lying about the amounts of CBD contained in their products.
CBD brands seeking to adhere to good practices are forced to source their supplies from abroad, where cultivating and harvesting oil from the buds and leaves is legal and approved. This is why most accredited brands will be working with farms in the Baltics, France, Switzerland, Portugal or the States. Importing the oil in its processed form without THC, is legal for sale in the UK.
At the root / stem of the issue, is no doubt, some very heavy political interference about who should and shouldn’t be able to profit from Hemp cultivation and export from within the UK, with it possibly being no coincidence that hypocritically, drugs minister Victoria Atkins (who previously spoke out against legalising and regulating the plant) is married to one of the largest legal Cannabis farmers and exporters in the country – Paul Kenward of ‘British Sugar’.
As if all of this wasn’t enough to send you into an altered-state, understanding why exactly this antagonistic effect of THC on CB1 receptors produces a dissociative high is still a bit of a medical mystery, as with much of the endocannabinoid system, consciousness and mind-body medicine.
However Cannabis is the perfect cross-over between traditional pharmacognosy and modern pharmacokinetics. Pharmacodynamics describes how THC interacts with its primary receptor in the brain, determining how long it is bound, how it is destroyed, which areas of the brain are affected, and most importantly, how this results in the experience of a high. This is all dependent on ADME – administration, distribution, metabolism and elimination, which can vary depending on type of substance, route of administration, concentration and genetics.
Humans and animals have been using natural substances to alter their states of mind for time immemorial. At a base level, by working on the level of neurotransmitters in the brain, to alter cell-signalling and excitability. THC resembles a natural neurotransmitter in the body known as Anandamide (also dubbed ‘the bliss molecule’ for self-explanatory reasons). Notably, things like chocolate, yoga and running also affect anandamide to varying degrees.
After firing, neurons become inactive for a set period of time, to prevent them from over-firing or becoming too dominant, allowing your brain to function in a sober and controlled manner. Cannabinoids can interrupt this approach in some parts of the brain, and by removing the refractory period of neurons, they can cause changes in, and magnify, your thoughts, perceptions and moods for a temporary period of time.
Cannabinoids also affect levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, causing feelings of euphoria, relaxation, pain modulation, and general enhancement of an experience, although sometimes causing anxiety. About 1 in 5 people are genetically predisposed to producing less FAAH – a naturally occurring enzyme that deactivates anandamide, meaning that it doesn’t break down in the same way. These individuals are naturally more relaxed, and experience a paradoxical effect when they smoke cannabis, meaning they are more likely to become anxious under the influence.
While Cannabis doesn’t produce the hallucinations that substances such as LSD can instigate, people do perceive the world in a different way after smoking THC. Altered states of consciousness, sometimes called non-ordinary states, include various mental states in which the mind can be aware but is not in its usual wakeful condition – such as is the case during hypnosis, meditation, hallucination, trance, and the dream stage of the sleep-wake cycle.
The underlying connection between these states is a marked difference in our levels of awareness, perception, memories, thinking, emotions, behaviours and sense of time, place and self-control. Many people find the spectrum of such experiences an integral component of self-discovery and challenging pre-existing ideas about the world.
Thorsten Rudroff, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa who has studied cannabis for multiple sclerosis says “it’s just not well understood from the perspective of science. It’s a very complex plant. [But] in my opinion, cannabis does not lead to physical and mental dependence as long as it is used in a responsible manner.” However he also adds that it is best to start at an age when the brain is more mature, and no longer developing at the rapid rate seen in your teens and even early twenties.
In fact going ‘California Sober‘ is a term used by those who’ve actually turned to the green to help them stay clean. While the approach is considered controversial, experts say some recovering addicts are better able to manage their drug-use through harm reduction strategies that encourage moderate use of alcohol or smoking, as opposed to going cold-turkey.
It’s clear that researchers have only begun to scratch the surface of this complicated but powerful plant, as well as the untapped potential behind the human body and mind. Like many other substances, Cannabis has a biphasic effect, meaning that low and high doses can elicit opposite reactions in people, and while we should be aware that nothing is a panacea, everyone does have a different sweet spot, so be informed – start low, go slow and get to know the dose and type that works best for you.