In the cult movie, Reefer Madness, we witness teenagers lured to smoke marijuana – the teens then ultimately become paranoid and delusional as a result. Is this an accurate portrayal of the effects of marijuana – and are there any mitigating benefits of this drug?
Marijuana & Science: Positives and Negatives
Contrary to popular opinion, ‘pot’ is not a harmless drug – the marijuana plant contains chemicals that have the potential to change your brain’s physical structure over time, and these chemicals can be addictive as well.
At the same time, there are molecules in marijuana with the potential to benefit some medical conditions.
That’s why researching this plant is so fascinating for scientists – and why science needs to research the components further. Here’s what we know right now, about the chemistry of marijuana.
Chemistry of Marijuana: THC
Most individuals are familiar with THC – Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol, a principal chemical component responsible for the feeling of euphoria associated with marijuana consumption. Molecularly, THC is derived in the marijuana plant from plant hormones called gibberellins, which in turn come from terpenes.
THC’s molecular formula is C21H30O2 – that’s 21 atoms of (C) carbon, 30 atoms of (H) hydrogen, and 2 atoms of (O) Oxygen. The approximate molecular weight of THC is 314.469.
(Molecular weight refers to the mass of one ‘mole’ of the substance. In this case, we’re talking about the mass of one mole of THC, which is equivalent to 314.469 grams, or about 0.7 lbs.)
One notable property of THC is its propensity to dissolve in fats or fatty membranes. The reasons for its propensity to dissolve in fatty tissue is the amount of carbon atoms coupled with fewer oxygens or nitrogens. A high carbon count is usually makes molecules more fat soluble. Because it is fat-soluble, over time, THC builds up in fatty tissue.
Most of marijuana’s chemical research has been concentrated on THC, which means there’s less available research about similar molecules (cannabinoids) in the marijuana plant.
These other cannabinoids may increase the euphoric ‘high,’ but are linked to a host of different properties as well – and can be beneficial. These beneficial effects may include anti-inflammatory, anti-psychotic, and anti-depressant activity, as well as potentially addressing Alzheimer’s disease. However, science needs to confirm many of these properties with further research.
Cannabinoids, THC, and Neurochemistry
Research tells us that THC and other cannabinoids can alleviate stress and pain. The cannabinoids perform these functions when they reach the brain and bind to biochemical receptors meant to bind endogenous molecules such as anandamide. (Endogenous molecules are a part of human biology – these, in particular, bind to the same receptors as THC.) How does that impact the human brain’s delicate chemistry?
In studies performed by the Mayo clinic in 2012, and the US National Institutes of Health in 2016, we get a deeper perspective on marijuana, and how it alters cognitive functioning for those who suffer mental illness and become addicted to pot.
As mentioned above, we all have have bio-chemical receptors that can attach the bio-active components of marijuana – the cannabinoids and terpenes. The receptors are distributed throughout the body, but primarily are found in the brain.
These receptors are altered during long periods of marijuana use, which disrupts the brain’s chemistry.
Typically, the brain releases millions of neuro-chemicals every moment. The endogenous cannabinoids affect how memories are formed–and when they’re displaced, and THC takes the place of anandamide, the brain cannot function in a healthy manner.
In corroborating research detailed in the journal eNeuro, Wang et al at the University of California Irvine report that THC disrupts the orderly cognition processes associated with endogenous cannabinoids.
When all studies are placed side-by-side, researchers at the US National Institutes of Health conclude that long term effects of marijuana use are unhealthy for the brain.
Marijuana: Good, Bad, or Indifferent?
Chemically-speaking, marijuana use goes well beyond the typical ‘joint.’ The chemical constituents in marijuana are presently used to alleviate pain and anxiety, but show additional promise: Research reveals that these chemicals may one day stall or eliminate Alzheimer’s disease. However, there are obstacles that need to be overcome – namely the issues surrounding mental illness and addiction, and permanent changes to the brain’s chemistry.