Tox Wednesday: Cannabinoids

Pot, hash, skunk, weed, mary-jane, ganja … a rose by any other name would smell, well, pretty much the same. Anyone who has ever been in a forensic laboratory when police bring in a haul of cannabis plants, or walked past certain student dorms will know the distinct smell of the plant. But what exactly is it?

Let’s start from the beginning. Cannabinoids are chemical compounds that act on receptors in the body, funnily enough, known as cannabinoid receptors. One type of these cannabinoids are phytocannabinoids — or those cannabinoids present in plant material.

Perhaps the most well known of these are the cannabinoids present in the Cannabis sativa (marijuana) plant. These cannabinoids can be separated into subclasses, including cannabigerols (CBG), cannabichromenes (CBC), cannabidiols (CBD), tetrahydrocannabinols (THC), cannabinol (CBN), cannabinodiol (CBDL) and various others.  Of these, tetrahydrocannabinols (THC) are the most psychoactive, or will give a user the bigger high. You have likely also heard of a man-made version — synthetic cannabinoids, sometimes also known as synthetic marijuana, spice and K-2. You can read more on these synthetic versions of the compounds here.

According to the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, “cannabinoids affect the user by interacting with specific receptors, located within different parts of the central nervous system.” Actual effects occur primarily in the part of the brain that affects memory, cognition and motor performance, but also in regions of the brain associated with feelings of reward and pain perception.

Cannabis is the most widely used recreational drug throughout the world behind alcohol, tobacco and caffeine; the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reports users usually smoke it or can use it as a tea or mixed with foods.  The DEA also summarizes some of the negative effects of using the drug such as dizziness, tachycardia, paranoia and hallucinations. A recent PBS article reported that the potency of marijuana appears to be increasing, and another article from USA Today shows that marijuana use can be linked to brain damage. As ever with such statistics, however, one must read with caution.

Within the United States, marijuana is a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act and within the United Kingdom it is a Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

As a result of this legislation, enforcement often involves so-called drug busts, generally leading to prison sentences. In some countries, however, possession and trafficking of the drug can result in the death penalty.

Not so in Colorado. On Jan. 1, 2014, Colorado became the first state in the U.S. to open recreational marijuana stores, and also the first place in the world where the sale of marijuana will be regulated from seed to sale. In fact, the move reportedly brought in $2 million in associated taxes to Colorado in the first month alone. You might even be surprised to read that this week the world’s first cannabis vending machine was unveiled in Colorado! As Colorado looks to review certain elements of its legislation, Washington state will also open recreational retail outlets later in 2014, according to CNN. To learn more about specific Colorado laws, click here.

Perhaps Colorado took a leaf from The Netherlands’ book? The “coffee shops” of Amsterdam have long been at the center of stories from backpackers passing through the Dutch city. Changes to the law in 2012 though brought a stop to foreigners taking advantage of the laidback attitude to the drug in southern provinces of The Netherlands. Campaigners, however, have managed to prevent the law taking effect in Amsterdam.

The story of this drug doesn’t end with recreational use (and abuse). Medicinal use of cannabis and cannabinoids has long been debated. Support has grown and Time Magazine recently described supporters of legislation for medicinal use lobbying Washington. Research continues into promising uses of different cannabinoids for various conditions and many countries have already approved some for use as a pharmaceutical medicine.

Cannabis and cannabinoids continue to be a topical subject and a story with many contrasts: recreational use, abuse, medicinal use, legalization and criminalization. Whatever your opinion, the debate is guaranteed to carry on for a while yet!

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