Cannabis 101: The Science Behind Your High

Photo Credit: Joshua Jordan

California’s new law legalizing cannabis has changed the game in terms of recreational drug use. People 21 and older can now buy cannabis at local dispensaries all around California where laws permit it.

While there are few public areas in which it is legal to light up, it’s now just as easy to take a few grams of it home and smoke it as it is to buy wine to drink at dinner.

Though under federal law, cannabis is still listed as a Schedule I (illegal) drug, enforcement is carried out at the discretion of the attorney general. Under President Obama, the attorney general was told not to enforce the federal law against cannabis, instead leaving it to the discretion of the states.

In contrast, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rescinded the Obama-era decision to leave cannabis legality to the discretion of the states, leaving open the possibility that the federal government will start taking some course of action against those in possession of cannabis.

The new law and Sessions’ decision have begun forming another chapter for cannabis, which has had a turbulent history in the United States.

Though times may be changing, the mystery and allure of the multifaceted plant remains intact — perpetuated by an unfortunate lack of research and public awareness concerning the nature of cannabis.

The limited amount of research on cannabis is not for lack of trying. The combination of the classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug and the fact that there is only a single federally approved dispensary — which provides strains weaker than what is typically available on the street or legally elsewhere — make pursuing research in cannabis very difficult.

In an effort to unveil some of the science behind the substance, the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley hosted a monthlong series of lectures on the “Science of Cannabis.” Lecturers were drawn from a broad swath of the cannabis industry, from company executives to cognitive scientists.

The Daily Californian attended three (out of five) lectures, which thread a narrative that follows cannabis from its cultivation in the fields through its genetic testing and characterization and into the bodies (and brains) of its users.

Myths of cannabis cultivation

When many think of marijuana cultivation, they imagine potted plants growing indoors under strung-up UV lamps. But what many users don’t know is that this image — a result of the plant’s prohibition forcing illegal growers to stay off the grid — has left behind some myths surrounding how high-quality marijuana is grown.

Amanda Reiman, vice president of community relations for Flow Kana and secretary of the International Cannabis Farmers Association — gave a talk that tackled some of the myths surrounding cultivation.

Myth 1: Sun-grown cannabis employs the clear-cutting of fields and the use of rat poisons as pesticides.

These environmentally damaging practices are specific to illicit cannabis farming. Prior to the legalization of cannabis, farmers would leave behind trash as they ran from state officials, but farming no longer needs to be hidden and can take place on boutique polyculture farms.

Myth 2: Quality cannabis is cannabis that is grown indoors.

Reiman contends that cannabis cultivated outdoors is not only of higher quality but is by far the best practice for the environment.

“There was a study done in 2011 by Dr. Eva Mills,” Reiman explained in her talk, “that said the U.S. cannabis production and distribution had energy costs of $5 billion, creating 17 million tons per year of greenhouse gas emissions, which is equal to the emissions of 3 million average-sized cars.”

Not only is growing outdoors more environmentally friendly, it might lead to better therapeutic benefits as well.

“The development of cannabinoids and terpenoids is going to bring you the best medicine, and that development happens best under full-spectrum sun,” Reiman said. “I’m not saying that indoor is going to be a nonmedicine or not provide people with relief, but I think when we’re trying to look at a full expression, you really want a full spectrum of light hitting that plant.”

Myth 3: If cannabis is grown outside, people will feel intimidated consuming it.

The notion of “reefer madness” is deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric of the United States and contributes to the fear of cannabis being grown outdoors as well. Whether cannabis is grown indoors or outdoors will not influence those who do not want to consume it.

Reiman and other advocates for cannabis reform are focusing on the creation of policy that encourages farmers to cultivate sun-grown cannabis and dispelling the myths of cannabis cultivation.

“At the end of the day,” Reiman said, “when you get in your Tesla and drive to your solar-powered home, why would you be smoking cannabis grown indoors?”

Who’s in the family? The genetics of green

After cannabis has been grown and is packaged to be sold to recreational and medicinal users alike, one question remains: Which strain should a customer buy?

Just about anyone who has had some sort of dealings with cannabis will tell you that there are three categories used to separate the various strains: indica, sativa and hybrid. These categories have existed for decades now and are still used by official cannabis growers to label their products.

Broadly, the historical system defines indica as strains of cannabis that have short, broad leaves and produce a sedating, relaxing effect, whereas sativa strains have long, narrow leaves and produce a stimulating, exciting effect. Hybrid strains are typically marketed as either a 50/50 mix, indica-dominant or sativa-dominant.

The problem is, that’s all bogus.

Mowgli Holmes — co-founder and CEO of Phylos Bioscience — argues against relying on these definitions. His Feb. 8 lecture on the genetics of cannabis breeds at the UC Botanical Garden touched upon the difficulties that arise when trying to analyze the genealogy of cannabis.

“There’s a problem in the cannabis world where no one has any idea what they’re smoking,” said Holmes during his lecture. “All the names are wrong, there’s no parliaments — it’s just very confusing.”

The reason for this confusion arises from the way cannabis has been grown over the last several decades.

Cannabis agricultural practices stand out compared to more traditional commercial products such as corn. Typical priorities for more mainstream crops include yield, harvest optimization, chemical traits and pest resistance. Cannabis growers, on the other hand, have two things in mind: diversity and THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) levels.

“Plant breeding is evolution on turbo,” said Holmes, “but it’s also sort of like arranged marriages. People see things they like, put them together and see what they get.”

Since the 1960s, cannabis growers have been mixing different bud strains for reasons ranging from increasing THC levels to producing a specific, desired effect such as heightened creativity or a remedy for restlessness. This has resulted in what Holmes called “the poly-hybrid soup.”

“That’s just this big mess of genes, and that’s not how usually plant evolution happens in the wild or when humans are messing with it,” Holmes said. “It’s pretty unusual that all these varieties would be gathered from everywhere and then all mixed together.”

When dealing with plant genealogy, a linear family tree is typically the final result. This hasn’t been the case with cannabis. But there’s no need to imagine the nonlinear genealogy of cannabis — Phylos has created an interactive galaxy tool that depicts the unconventional evolution of cannabis using samples collected from almost every country in the world.

In reference to the incredible diversity of weed strains, Holmes asserted that these variations do not indicate different species.

“People argue about this a lot, but it is all just one species,” he said. “There’s just lots of different varieties.”

All of this breeding, however, has diminished any once-existing methods of differentiating between, say, indica and sativa just by looking at a cannabis plant. Virtually all cannabis produced by growers today is a result of hybridization.

But bud is still sold under the labels of indica, sativa and hybrid. The reason? It sells.

It’s the same reason that cannabis strains tend to have outlandish names like “Skunk,” “Blue Dream” or even “Cat Piss.” Such names say little about the strain’s actual effects and are, above all, a marketing strategy.

There is a way, however, to tell whether a strain will produce the “indica” or “sativa” effect. It has to do with the terpenes found in cannabis — the most common of which are myrcene and limonene. According to Holmes, strains high in myrcene will be sedating. Conversely, strains high in limonene will be stimulating.

The only way to assess what particular terpenes are contained within any given strain is to test it in a lab. Companies such as Phylos Bioscience and Steep Hill Labs — headquartered right here in Berkeley — are private laboratories that offer their services to cannabis growers so they can have their strains tested and reliably inform their customers about what exactly they are consuming.

Holmes made sure to point out that while these are the two “major” terpenes, there are others that play a role in what the effect on any given individual will be. Myrcene and limonene are a starting point, but there is still uncertainty and a reluctance to rely completely on the analysis of a strain’s chemical makeup.

In a comment about the work that Phylos has been doing by mapping out the genetics of cannabis, Holmes noted that there is still a substantial amount of research left to be done.

“It’s not telling the evolutionary story that we want,” he said, “but … what it is doing is helping to make it clear for the industry today what people are smoking.”

The chemistry of your kush

Stepping out of genetics, the chemical interactions that cannabis produces in the brain are becoming increasingly critical to understand in the light of its widespread legalization and usage.

As UC Berkeley professor David Presti — a neurobiologist, psychologist, and cognitive scientist who teaches the popular course “Drugs and the Brain” — explains, “(Cannabis) is a really complex chemical factory.” Its primary psychoactive ingredient, Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (more commonly known as THC) is one of at least 113 cannabinoids identified in cannabis.

Cannabinoids are unique molecules only found in cannabis that give the plant its unique psychoactive and medicinal properties. Apart from THC, the other most abundant cannabinoid is Cannabidiol (CBD). Studies have attributed cannabidiol to the plants’ analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anticarcinogenic, aphrodisiac, antibacterial, antifungal and bronchial dilator properties.

Additionally, studies have recently identified that cannabis, like many other plants, contains terpenes and terpenoids. These are isoprene molecules (five-carbon chains) that are also responsible for the plants’ medicinal functions as well as its aromatic properties.

Presti cited the discovery of terpenes as one of the hottest topics in cannabis research and said science has a long way to go before it can catch up to what herbalists have long known and appreciated about their presence in cannabis.

Bud and the brain

Because cannabis has such complex chemical structures, the chemical interactions in the brain and nervous system that occur when you’re blazing it are, not surprisingly, just as complicated.

Cannabinoid receptors are the only receptors that bond to the molecules found in cannabis, and they appear to be more abundant than any other neurotransmitter in the brain.

THC is a molecule that sticks to these receptors. When you take in THC by smoking, it mimics an endocannabinoid our body naturally produces, anandamide, which is nicknamed “the bliss molecule.”

THC interferes with the natural refractory period that occurs after a neuron has just fired — instead of becoming unresponsive, neurons fire continuously, and cell activity becomes magnified. The result is an amplification of both internal and external mental phenomena.

In short, the sounds and sights around you and your internal thoughts and emotions all become intensified.

But what does the data say about the most commonly cited “side effects” of cannabis use — impaired memory, judgment and cognitive function, decreased motivation, and the infamous charge of “brain damage?”

According to Presti, the science hasn’t exactly been conclusive.

A paper published in 2016 by the National Institute on Drug Use, “Effects of Cannabis Use on Human Behavior, Including Cognition, Motivation, and Psychosis” found that there is acute memory and learning impairment associated with cannabis use; however, it was unable to according to Presti “unambiguously establish whether cannabis is a cause, consequence, or correlative” in regards to motivation and educational underachievement.

Additionally, there is a consistent association between adolescent cannabis use and the development of psychosis, but there is controversy over whether this risk can be directly attributed to cannabis use or if genetic predisposition plays a role as well.

There is one thing that Presti is sure of, however: The claim of brain damage is nothing more than hot air (like the kind coming out of your bong). There have been no brain imaging studies with documented results of neurological damage.

Presti doesn’t recommend getting stoned before taking a test because of the impact on memory, but you can, as far as science currently suggests, blaze without fear of killing brain cells.

Like many of the symptoms mentioned, however, the effects — particularly the long-term effects — cannabis has on the brain have been severely under-researched.

The case for cannabis research

The legalization of cannabis in California affects more than just small-scale farming communities. In attendance of the UC Botanical Garden lectures were individual cannabis users, Central Valley almond farmers and health advocates for communities in the inner city of San Francisco. Students, recreational users and industry members alike were interested in what the lecturers had to say.

Daisy Ozim — founder of Resilient Wellness in San Francisco, which works to bring health equity to marginalized communities and end the cycle of intergenerational trauma — was in attendance.

“I’m interested in the psychological and healing effects that cannabis can have,” said Ozim after the lecture. “The legislation of cannabis can be very beneficial to the community that I work with and I was interested in seeing the new availability and quality of it.”

According to a 2011 UC San Francisco study, cannabis is effective in supplementing opiate painkillers — which often fail to completely rid patients of their pain — but does not carry the same addiction and health risks.

But even studies like this have failed to reach any substantial conclusions because they are small-scale and circumstantial. Questions remain unanswered, especially when it comes to potential long-term effects of the drug.

As it stands now, there is no consensus regarding whether or not long-term cannabis usage can impede neurological development — and until a wide array of scientists have easier access to realistic strains of the drug, little progress can be made.

Because reliable medical literature concerning cannabis is scarce, many doctors hesitate to turn to it as a legitimate form of therapy, especially in its traditional cigarette form.

Yet certain aspects of cannabis make it an attractive medical therapy. For instance, overdose is virtually impossible — according to a 1988 DEA ruling, a cannabis user would have to smoke somewhere between 20,000 to 40,000 times the amount of THC contained within a standard joint before the dose can be deemed lethal.

The addictive properties of cannabis, meanwhile, are highly contested. In his presentation, David Presti emphasized that “cannabis is a pharmacon” — meaning that while it may be a medicine, it is also a poison. While discussing the addictive liabilities that come with cannabis use, Presti acknowledged that he has “seen many students over the years crash and burn from extensive use of cannabis.”

A science ahead of its time

The history of cannabis as a substance associated with the taboo nature of 1960s hippie culture and hip-hop have placed it on science’s backburner for a long time. Proposition 64 has only just gone into effect, and scientists and users alike now wait for more data to emerge.

Cannabis is already extremely accessible in the United States, particularly in California. The logical next step is to research, in depth, the “blunts of Skunk” that won over voters enough for them to legalize it.

Societal attitudes towards cannabis are changing along with the legislation in place. It’s not unreasonable to remain hopeful that further research will become easier to conduct with the loosening of the currently strict regulations, thereby making this enigmatic substance easier to understand.

Now that cannabis is becoming a commonplace consumer item, it’s high time we try to understand what we’ve gotten ourselves into.