Tuesday August 18, 2015

By Abby Hutmacher

Ask Pot Guide v.12: How Does Marijuana Work? Education

Most people know that smoking (or eating) marijuana will get a person "high." Many more also understand that being high can cause a person to feel happy, lazy, euphoric or perhaps even anxious, and will almost always lead to an insatiable appetite just a few hours in.

Why marijuana causes these reactions, however, is a bit more complicated. Depending on the strain, dose, mode of consumption and individual reaction, marijuana can cause a variety of chemical reactions in the body. Here's how:

How does marijuana actually work?

User from St. Charles, MO

The most popular way to consume marijuana is by smoking it (though vaporizing is becoming increasingly popular). When inhaled, cannabinoids (the chemicals found in cannabis) get absorbed through tiny air sacs in the lungs called alveoli. Because the surface area of these sacs are so large, a higher concentration of cannabinoids can be absorbed into the bloodstream at once which then travels quickly to the brain.

Within seconds, CB1 receptors (cannabinoid receptors in the brain and spinal cord) become activated and take control of areas in the brain like the hippocampus (responsible for memory storage), the cerebellum (which controls coordination), the brain stem (which dulls nausea) and the basal ganglia which directs unconscious muscle movement. Other areas of the brain that are affected by cannabinoids include:


This part of the brain controls emotions like anxiety and fear. If too much THC interacts with the amygdala, a marijuana-induced anxiety or panic attack may occur.


The hypothalamus controls base instincts like hunger and libido. Stimulation of this brain region promotes the production of endorphins which make food (and sex) much more enjoyable.


Marijuana's effect on the neocortex can be credited for creative thinking. When THC interacts with the neocortex, complex ideas become easier to process (albeit more difficult to remember).

Nucleus Accumbens:

This is the part of the brain responsible reward processing. Thanks to marijuana's interaction with the nucleus accumbens, problems seem less severe, life is more enjoyable and that crappy television show suddenly becomes hilarious.

Spinal Cord:

The spinal cord is the primary message pathway between the brain and the body. When cannabinoids bind to CB receptors in the spinal cord, they dull pain throughout the whole body which is ideal for pain management.

How Eating Marijuana Differs from Inhaling It

Consuming marijuana edibles will result in different sensations within the body. This is because cannabinoids must travel through the stomach then the liver which then transforms the chemical THC into 11-hydroxy-THC (which is more psychoactive than THC). The process not only takes longer to accomplish, but also results in a longer high that involves both the brain and the body.

Though only 6% to 10% of cannabinoids will be absorbed when eaten (compared to 50% to 60% when smoked), some foods that are high in "healthy fats" can help

Cannabis is a complex plant containing over 400 chemical compounds. More than 80 of these chemicals are cannabinoids, or special chemicals that can interact with cannabinoid receptors within the body. Whether consumed through inhalation, ingestion or topical application, cannabinoids found in marijuana will bind to these receptors and cause a variety of reactions.

How does marijuana affect you? We'd love to hear about it.

Photo Credit: Chuck Grimmett (license)

Abby Hutmacher Abby Hutmacher

Abby is a freelance writer and founder of Cannabis Content, a marketplace where marijuana enthusiasts can create and sell digital content to businesses in the cannabis industry. Follow Cannabis Content on Facebook and Twitter, or visit CannabisContent.net to learn more.

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