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Marijuana Chemistry Explained

The reason that marijuana has not yet been accepted by the DEA as a medicinal drug is because of its complex structure and the difficulty of determining the positive and negative effects of these components when not in isolation. Almost all marijuana available today is derived from two particular species of cannabis - the cannabis sativa and the cannabis indica.

Active Chemicals present in cannabis

Both species contain a special group of chemical compounds present only in cannabis plants. This group of compounds is known as cannabinoids, and there are 66 known cannabinoids today. Of these, the compounds that are the most psychoactive include THC, CBN and CBD, each present in varying amounts in the two species of cannabis. These chemicals are part of the natural defense system of the cannabis plants.

The active ingredient in cannabis sativa that gives marijuana its characteristic as a euphoric mood enhancer and stress reliever is THC or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. This is one of the few cannabis components (of more than 400 chemical components of the plant molecule) that have been successfully isolated and synthesized.

Cannabis indica, on the other hand, has a balance of moderate THC and higher levels of the compound called cannabidiol (CBD). This compound produces a sedative effect, and by itself, it lacks the psychoactive nature of THC.

How does THC work?

THC works by interrupting normal reception in the neural pathways. In more scientific terms, when THC is inhaled, it finds neurons that contain cannabinoid receptors. It then binds with the receptors and the binding causes a change in the cell's activities and in the signals that the cell sends to its neighboring cells.

THC has several neurological effects, but the most common is a quick release and intake of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine which triggers adrenaline and causes a 'high'.

Where are cannabinoid receptors located?

There are cannabinoid receptors present in certain specific parts of the brain, such as the cerebral cortex (which controls memory, perception, language etc.), the hippocampus (which deals with emotion, memory and spatial orientation), the basal ganglia (which deals with motion) and the cerebellum (which controls coordination, balance and movement).

Effects of Marijuana

The effects of marijuana are felt immediately when smoked, as soon as THC enters the blood stream, and then is distributed to various parts of the body. THC attaches itself to the CB1 and CB2 receptors for instance. This results in loss of balance and difficulties in coordination. It can also impair short term memory. However its effects on the part of the brain that controls vomiting also makes it a potential drug for treating nausea and loss of appetite. The effects of smoked marijuana can last up to an hour and a half.

If it is eaten, it takes longer to manifest effects, but these effects can last longer up to four hours.

Storage of THC in the body and difficulty of monitoring

If smoked, the THC that remains in the blood has a half-life of about nineteen hours, and biologically produced 11-hydroxy-delta-9-THC produced in the liver has a half-life of 50 hours. THC is highly fat soluble, which means that it is stored in the liver and slowly released. This means there is no easy way to gauge THC levels in the body and monitor its effects. As a result, at this point it's impossible to know the possible effects of this stored THC on the body's organs and the brain. This is why researchers are as yet reluctant to approve cannabis for medicinal purposes.

How does CBD work?

So far, research has revealed that CBD doesn't appear to have any of the unpleasant side effects of THC that are related to the psychological and psychomotor effects of THC. Some studies have suggested that when present in combination with THC, CBD may even reduce THC levels in the brain. Instead, it is believed to have a nature similar to anti-psychotic drugs. There is far more research necessary in this field before either cannabis sativa or cannabis indica can be legally approved for medical use.

Negative Effects of Smoking Marijuana

Smoking marijuana has its negative effects which are likely to far outweigh any possible medical benefits. When compared with tobacco smoke, marijuana smoke was found to contain the same gaseous components and toxins that harm the respiratory system. The relative concentrations of these compounds are also similar. Moreover, both marijuana and tobacco smoke have similar tar components, many of which are carcinogenic. The only difference between the two is that cannabis doesn't contain nicotine, and tobacco doesn't contain cannabinoids.

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