Where does cannabis fit into a wellness lifestyle? With legalization on the horizon in Canada and cannabis-related products on the rise in the wellness world (hello, CBD!), we’re taking some time to delve a little deeper into the topic to find out.
Enter Lauren De Freitas, a graduate student at the University of Toronto within the Institute of Medical Sciences whose research focuses on CBD’s potential to mitigate THC-induced harms. She currently conducts her research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and also works part-time for Beleave (a licensed producer of Medical Cannabis) as Head of Patient Outreach.
In her first article for Well TO Do, she gets super science-y on us as she explains why the compound the wellness world loves for its non-psychoactive effects (like stress and anxiety reduction) might also help make cannabis consumption safer for the casual user.
Cannabis: Can we Minimize its Harms while Maintaining its Benefits?
The liberalization of cannabis is becoming more widely accepted, with Canada getting ready to legalize cannabis after August of this year. Expect that to be a pretty momentous occasion as Canada currently has the highest rates of cannabis use in the Western world – with 10-15% of the general population and over a half-million Canadians reporting daily cannabis use (1,2).
With much ambiguity around the mechanisms of action, long-term consequences of use, and increasing potency trends worldwide, it’s important to understand whether or not we can make cannabis safer by increasing or decreasing different chemical compounds within the plant, with one of the most important ones being – you guessed it – CBD.
Endocannabinoid System 101
Cannabis affects us through a system known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which, surprisingly, was only recently discovered in the 1990s. The ECS helps to maintain “homeostasis” or balance in the body. It’s responsible for regulating stress and emotion, energy, appetite, inflammation, brain plasticity, our sleep-wake cycle, addiction, and much more.
The ECS is comprised of ‘cannabinoid receptors’ located on cells throughout the body, known as CB1 and CB2. We produce natural chemicals in our body that bind to these receptors, known as “endocannabinoids” that are responsible for regulating these physiological processes. This makes the ECS a critical target to assess different chemicals that can mimic our natural “endocannabinoids” to help alleviate various symptoms and conditions.
Role of Cannabinoids: Can we make cannabis safer?
One significant class of compounds in cannabis is cannabinoids which interact with our ECS in a similar way to the endocannabinoids that we produce naturally in our body, targeting and triggering similar bodily processes.
However, while the endocannabinoids we produce are meant to maintain balance throughout the body, adding “external” cannabinoids to the mix (through consuming cannabis) can increase or decrease these effects out of balance (such as energy, appetite, mood, etc.). These outcomes we experience all depend on the specific makeup of the cannabinoids within specific cannabis strains.
There are over 113 identified cannabinoids within Cannabis sativa (3), the two most well-known and studied being delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (which you know as THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). These two cannabinoids, along with others, predominantly exert their effects on the ECS through activation of CB1 receptors within the brain (4) where many of the benefits, as well as adverse events, are experienced.
THC is responsible for the psychoactive effects or “high” that users typically experience. It is a partial analgesic, muscle relaxant, and has 20 times the anti-inflammatory power of aspirin and two times that of hydrocortisone (5). On the flip side, THC has also been shown to produce acute impairments in executive functioning, memory, concentration, performance measures (i.e. driving), and increases the risk for the development of psychosis and dependence (6).
Potency, determined by THC content, has been on the rise over the past century. Some strains such as sinsemilla or ‘skunk’ are among the most potent varieties of cannabis and typically contain concentrations greater than 20% of THC with virtually no CBD. In fact, about 91% of THC-dominant cannabis products sold by Health Canada regulated Licensed Producers (LPs) in 2017 contained <1% CBD (7).
So What Does That Mean for the User?
Consumption of “skunk” cannabis is associated with increased paranoia, psychosis and greater severity of dependence, typically seen in chronic, daily and intensive use that starts early in adolescence. However, differing cannabinoid compositions, or differing ratios of CBD to THC within cannabis, do not produce the same effects.
CBD, in contrast to THC, is non-psychoactive and has no adverse effects when extracted and administered on its own. This wellness world darling is loved for its anti-anxiety, antipsychotic, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties that can be accessed when applied topically (lotions, oils, etc) and when consumed orally (CBD lattes anyone?).
CBD has been a relatively new and exciting chemical compound used for its ability reduce social anxiety, alleviate pain, decrease spasticity in multiple sclerosis and minimize symptoms of psychosis in individuals with schizophrenia when administered on its own, without THC.
Why THC Should Swipe Right on CBD
Clinical trials even point to CBD’s efficacy in mitigating some of THC-induced harms. The strongest evidence for CBD’s effectiveness, though, is in its ability to reduce paranoia and psychological effects of THC.
Interestingly, increasing the concentration of CBD does not alter feelings of intoxication that users typically seek and enjoy. In fact, a randomized controlled trial revealed that CBD was able to normalize emotional processing when combined with THC while not compromising the feeling of being “stoned” (8).
In one study, a group of users were followed over time as they smoked their own chosen cannabis and showed that the group that smoked strains with higher CBD had decreased memory impairments and lower deficits in immediate and delayed recall. Moreover, the strains high in CBD were able to modulate the “wanting” and “liking” of cannabis without compromising the “high,” essentially meaning that users felt “high” during periods of intoxication but did not crave or have any particular liking towards cannabis while intoxicated. This was not shown in individuals using strains with low or no CBD who did also crave cannabis in addition to feeling “stoned,” giving CBD potential implications for addiction treatment (9, 10).
More research is required into CBD’s potential protective effect over THC, as no “safe” dose or ratio of CBD:THC has been determined as of yet.
Current Legal Status of Cannabis and Upcoming Legalization
Cannabis oils and dried flower have been legalized for medical purposes in Canada since August 24, 2016. However, cannabis still remains a Schedule II drug under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, meaning that possessing and selling cannabis for non-medicinal purposes is still illegal everywhere in Canada. This includes any extraction of cannabinoids that do not produce psychoactive effects including hemp-derived CBD and cannabis infused-creams and topicals, for example.
Although infused-creams and topicals are rarely potent enough to cross the blood-brain-barrier and cause cognitive or psychoactive effects, and despite no psychological or cognitive impairments reported to date from consuming hemp-derived CBD, the government still considers these products illegal because they consist of cannabinoids, namely, CBD.
Licensed Producer, Beleave, is currently working with several universities across Ontario to develop and test genetic breeding models that will tailor specific cannabinoid and other chemical profiles to produce optimal outcomes while minimizing adverse effects. They are also working to provide an exciting cannabinoid “fingerprinting” method that will allow both patients and recreational users to access their detailed cannabinoid and terpenoid content of each product they purchase. These powerful analytical techniques and chemometric tools will be vital in moving the science forward in correlating cannabis with its optimal effectiveness.
For those looking to decrease the adverse effects of their medical or recreational cannabis use, choosing strains with higher CBD concentrations and less than 15% THC concentrations, as well as determining which terpene profile benefits you most, will be important in experiencing all the benefits cannabis has to offer while reducing any unwanted harms.
Have questions about cannabis you want Lauren to answer? Comment below or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Health Canada. “Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey (CADUMS).” (2008).
- Statistics Canada. 2012. ‘‘Canadian Community Health Survey—Mental Health (CCHS).’’ Ottawa: Statistics Canada. At http://www23.statcan.gc.ca/imdb/
- Aizpurua-Olaizola, O. et al. (2016) Evolution of the cannabinoid and terpene content during the growth of Cannabis sativa plants from different chemotypes. J. Nat. Prod. 79, 324–331
- Andre, C. M., Hausman, J. F., & Guerriero, G. (2016). Cannabis sativa: the plant of the thousand and one molecules. Frontiers in plant science, 7, 19.
- Russo, E. B. (2011). Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid‐terpenoid entourage effects. British journal of pharmacology, 163(7), 1344-1364.
- Niesink, R. J., & van Laar, M. W. (2013). Does cannabidiol protect against adverse psychological effects of THC?. Frontiers in psychiatry, 4, 130.
- Mammen, G., de Freitas, L., Rehm, J., & Rueda, S. (2017). Cannabinoid concentrations in Canada’s regulated medical cannabis industry. Addiction, 112(4), 730-732.
- Hindocha, C., Freeman, T. P., Schafer, G., Gardener, C., Das, R. K., Morgan, C. J., & Curran, H. V. (2015). Acute effects of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, cannabidiol and their combination on facial emotion recognition: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study in cannabis users. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 25(3), 325-334.
- Morgan, C. J., Freeman, T. P., Schafer, G. L., & Curran, H. V. (2010). Cannabidiol attenuates the appetitive effects of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol in humans smoking their chosen cannabis. Neuropsychopharmacology, 35(9), 1879-1885.
- Morgan, C. J., Schafer, G., Freeman, T. P., & Curran, H. V. (2010). Impact of cannabidiol on the acute memory and psychotomimetic effects of smoked cannabis: naturalistic study. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 197(4), 285-290.