The Neurological Effects of Marijuana: What You Should Know Before Consuming Cannabis

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On October 17th 2018, the sale and consumption of recreational marijuana was officially legalized in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, 42.5% of Canadians ages 15+ have consumed cannabis at least once in their lifetime. So while this is great news for many, it is important to understand what cannabis is and the neurological effects that it may have on you. Marijuana, commonly known as weed and/or pot, is a psychoactive drug derived from cannabis plants. Cannabis can be inhaled through smoke and vapors, ingested through edibles and capsules, sprayed and dissolved under the tongue (sublingual), and topically through bath salts, lotions, and oils. The three main types of cannabis plants include Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica, and Cannabis Ruderalis. Along with physical differences, the effects of each type of plant varies.

Cannabis Sativa

  • Appearance: Light green in colour, tall and thin, with narrow leaves

  • Effects: Causes a stimulating and uplifting effect (head buzz)

Cannabis Indica

  • Appearance: Dark green, short and thick, with wide leaves

  • Effects: Causes a body effect that is relaxing and calming

Cannabis Ruderalis

  • Appearance: Light and dark green, small size with fibrous stem and varied sized leaves

  • Effects: Minimal effect in its pure form, often used to form a hybrid of Sativa and Indica

How Does Cannabis Affect the Brain?

What many people do not know is that the key psychoactive component in cannabis is a cannabinoid called Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). When a person consumes marijuana, THC travels throughout a person’s brain and secures itself onto cannabinoid receptors across the brain. Ultimately, the THC pushes out endocannabinoids which causes a disruption in the regulation of the nervous system.

The following 8 brain structures are packed with cannabinoid receptors which make them vulnerable to THC.

1) Nucleus Accumbens

  • Function: Motivation and reward

  • THC effect: Euphoria

2) Cortical Structures

  • Function: Executive function, perception, movement

  • THC effect: Change in judgement, altered perception

3) Basal Ganglia

  • Function: Control of movement

  • THC effect: Slow reaction time

4) Hypothalamus

  • Function: Appetite, sexual activity

  • THC effect: increased appetite

5) Cerebellum

  • Function: Coordination

  • THC effect: Impaired coordination

6) Spinal Cord

  • Function: Pain signals

  • THC effect: Decreased pain sensitivity

7) Hippocampus

  • Function: Memory formation

  • THC effect: Impaired short term memory

8) Amygdala

  • Function: Emotional response, fear

  • THC effect: Paranoia, fear

In addition, there is a common misconception that marijuana is completely harmless and cannot be detrimental to your health. The National Institute of Drug Abuse states otherwise. Animal research along with human studies have provided a considerable amount of evidence that exposure to marijuana during development can cause long-term damage to the brain. These impairments may even be permanent, which is why you should not be consuming cannabis if you are under the age of 19 (unless prescribed by a medical doctor and used for medicinal purposes).

Outcomes and Impact

Now that you’ve learned a few things about cannabis, it is your job to spread this information with others. If you are over 19 years of age and are planning on consuming cannabis, please do so responsibly. We know that the basal ganglia, cortical structures, and cerebellum are all affected by cannabis. This means your perception and judgement may be altered, you may have a slow reaction time, and your coordination may be impaired. Therefore, if you consume cannabis, please do not operate a vehicle under any circumstance. Remember, you are not only risking your safety, but the safety of others as well.

Dr. M. Arnold Muller

Dr. M. Arnold Muller

Dr. M. Arnold Muller is a licensed School and Clinical Psychologist currently based in Toronto, Ontario, with 31 years of practice experience in two countries. Prior to his time in Canada, he spent the first half of his career in South Africa. Dr. Muller has a Ph.D. with specialization in Psychotherapy from the University of Pretoria, and a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology. He also has a second Masters Degree in Practical Theology from the University of Stellenbosch.

Dr. Muller has worked in many settings including school boards, addiction centres, correctional institutions, the military, churches, and private practices. Spending time in these organizations has allowed him to gain an astounding amount of experience in psychological assessment, diagnosis, and treatment plan preparation and application.

Dr. Muller also has training and exposure to Neurofeedback Training, Somatic Experiencing, crisis intervention, conflict resolution and managing cultural differences. In his spare time, you can find him hiking, travelling, working on his photography, poetry, and spending time with his family and friends.

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