Curious About the Safety Profile of Cannabis? Read This to Learn More


While each state has different coronavirus-related restrictions during the pandemic, each state also has different laws on marijuana. Colorado and Washington state were the first two states to legalize marijuana under taxation and regulation for those 21 and older in 2012. Other states like California have followed suit. Then are some states where only medical marijuana is legal, marijuana is decriminalized, and marijuana is fully illegal. 

Today there are citizens and organizations who are advocating to legalize marijuana in all 50 states. This may explain why my Instagram DMs have been flooded with messages about the safety profile of cannabis (a term that’s commonly used interchangeably with marijuana).

So in this blog, we’ll explore:

  • What is cannabis? 
  • What are cannabinoids?
  • What is medical marijuana?
  • Is cannabis safe?

Keep reading to learn more.

What Is Cannabis?

Cannabis is also known as marijuana. (Other names include weed, dope, or pot.) But cannabis and marijuana don’t mean the exact same thing. Cannabis refers to all products and 540 chemical substances derived from the Cannabis sativa plant. Marijuana refers to products and parts of the Cannabis sativa plant that contain a high amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is responsible for the “high” that people get from taking marijuana, whereas other parts of the Cannabis sativa plant won’t give you that psychoactive effect.

For example, have you ever had hemp seeds in your smoothie or oatmeal? They’re a great source of protein and iron. You can consume the seeds of the Cannabis sativa plant, but you won’t receive a psychoactive effect eating them. 

Cannabis is taken through methods including inhalation through smoking, ingestion through “edibles,” or application through lotions or creams to achieve wanted effects. Throughout the rest of this article, we’ll use cannabis to refer to Cannabis sativa and explore the difference between the two main components in the plant.

What Are Cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are chemicals in cannabis that result in drug-like effects throughout your body systems like your central nervous system. For example in cancer patients, cannabinoids can inhibit nausea and vomiting in patients going through chemotherapy treatments. 

The two main cannabinoids are THC and cannabidiol (CBD), but there are over 100 other cannabinoids that have been identified. THC is the predominant psychotropic component in cannabis while CBD is the major non-psychoactive component. But what causes the two components in cannabis to give very different effects?

What’s the Difference Between THC and CBD?

THC and CBD have the same molecular formula (C21H30O2) and molar mass (314 g/mol). Their chemical structures are also very similar, but the main structural difference is that THC contains a cyclic ring while CBD contains a hydroxyl group (-OH or alcohol group). Just this one slight difference in the two chemicals can give vastly different biochemical effects on your body.

Your body contains endocannabinoid receptors called CB receptors. They’re part of your body’s endocannabinoid system that regulates your mood, memory, pain sensation, and appetite. Endocannabinoids are found in many parts of your body including your brain, organs, connective tissues, and immune cells.

What Do THC and CBD Do in Your Body?

When you haven’t taken cannabis, your body’s CB1 receptors are affected by anandamide, a neurotransmitter that gives your body motivation, pleasure, and appetite. If you’re a runner, you’re familiar with anandamide’s effects. Anandamide is released when you’re exercising and causes runner’s high— an “addictive feeling” that you can get from a running routine. It binds to your CB1 receptors.

THC also binds to your CB1 receptors due to its similar structure to anandamide. This is what causes the psychoactive effect of “feeling high.” While CBD is almost similar in chemical structure to THC, it doesn’t fit into the CB1 receptor so you won’t get that feeling of being high. However, CBD can affect your body.

For example, CBD was given to people with a social anxiety disorder before they had to give a speech to a large audience. Others were given a placebo. The research results showed that those given CBD reported significantly lower levels of anxiety compared to those given a placebo. CBD has also been studied in animals resulting in antidepressant-like effects, anti-inflammatory effects, and pain relief

In contrast, when someone is under the influence of THC, they experience other effects. These include altered senses, altered sense of time, hallucinations, changes in mood, delusions, and impaired memory.

What About Medical Marijuana?

Some states passed laws to legalize medical cannabis (aka medical marijuana) where the primary ingredient is THC. You can qualify for treatment if you have conditions such as epilepsy and seizures, severe chronic pain, cancer, or Alzheimer’s disease. Some side effects may include but aren’t limited to increased heart rate, dizziness, increased appetite, or withdrawal symptoms. 

The United States Food and Drug Administration has approved four cannabis drug products. They include one cannabis-derived drug product: Epidiolex (cannabidiol) and three synthetic cannabis-related drug products: Syndros (dronabinol), Cesamet (nabilone), and Marinol (dronabinol). Epidiolex contains compounds extracted from the cannabis plant, whereas the three-drug products are created in a lab.

All four cannabis drug products are only available by prescription through a licensed healthcare provider. So what about all of the CBD and cannabis products you see advertised in stores or on the market? They are not FDA-approved.

Is Cannabis Safe?

The legalization of cannabis is a very hot topic and will continue to be as more products come out on the market. While some may attribute symptom relief to cannabis, there are reports of short-term and long-term effects of the substance. Research studies are still being conducted by scientists to determine the safety profile of cannabis. For now, we know that most of the health benefits ascribed to cannabis are actually attributable to CBD and not THC. 

What are your cannabis-related questions? Ask me below. If you’re interested in other health-related topics, check out the posts under my “Doctor’s Notes” tab.

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