Perhaps you've smelt the distinctive odor of its smoke drifting through the audience at a concert. Maybe your friends have tried it and have told you all about what it was like. Or perhaps you've even tried it yourself.

In your eyes, it's as a social drug that's pretty harmless, but yet your parents and teachers say it's dangerous. So what's the big deal with Marijuana, anyways? What really happens to you when you smoke pot? And is it really all that dangerous? Could it be actually helpful? To find out, read on...

Pot, Marijuana, Refer, Bud, Ganga — whatever you call it, it's all essentially the same thing — clusters of dried flower buds from the plant Cannabis sativa.

These buds contain a high concentration of a particular family of chemicals known as Cannabinoids which produce a psychoactive effect when consumed. It is likely that the Cannabinoids are meant to fulfill some sort of defensive role to the plant — one member of the plants arsenal of chemical weapons with which to deter predators or maybe to encourage cross pollination.

Did You Know?
Evidence of the inhalation of cannabis smoke can be found as far back as the Neolithic age (8000BC to 4500BC), as indicated by charred Cannabis seeds found in a ritual brazier at an ancient burial site in present day Romania

There are two distinct species of Cannabis: Cannabis sativa sativa and Cannabis sativa indica. C. sativa sativa is what we are familiar with as "hemp" - the fast growing plant that contains no psychotropic cannabinoids, but is rich in strong fibres that are useful for the production of paper and cloth. C. sativa indica, on the other hand, has poorer quality fibers but is the species that is associated with "getting high".

The major bioactive (aka drug) compound in cannabis is 9-tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC. Cannabis also contains Cannabidol (CBD) which, although not psychoactive, seems to moderate the effects of THC. It is believed that CBD interferes with the metabolism of THC, allowing the effects to linger longer.

Did You Know?
THC is converted to 11-hydroxy-THC, an even more psychoactive compound, by the liver. When pot is eaten, more of the THC is converted to this 11-hydroxy THC than if the pot had been smoked, and the effect is harder to quantify and more importantly, to control.

Whether cannabis is eaten or inhaled, THC eventually reaches the brain, where it encounters a cannabinoid receptor known as CB1, as well as the gut, where it encounters a different but related cannabinoid receptor called CB2.

When THC binds to these receptors, the receptor is activated or "turned on". This causes a cascade of events in the body, leading to appetite stimulation (because the stomach relaxes), anti-inflammation (pain suppression), suppression of nausea and that "high" feeling. The "high" feeling is a result of CB1 receptors in the brain being turned on, whereas all the other stuff is more a result of CB2 being turned on in your stomach.

Did You Know?
Cannabidol (CBD) turns on CB2, whereas THC turns on CB1. However, if CBD is taken without THC, it is not really that effective for pain relief, appetite stimulation and etc.

It is the "high" that stands in the way of pot being used for wide-spread medicinal purposes. Inebriation, that feeling of being intoxicated, is an undesirable side effect of taking any drug — it means that the user can't operate heavy machinery or do any activities that may be dangerous under the influence. Inebriation may also lead to dependence, an attachment to the temporary escape.

This is the main danger of smoking pot. The secondary danger stems from the fact that it is often smoked and can therefore contribute to respiratory problems. Still, cannabis has enormous potential for therapeutic drug use when used to treat various conditions since it can stimulate weight gain, suppress nausea and relieve pain.

Learn More!

Information for Health Care Professionals: Cannabis (marihuana, marijuana) and the cannabinoids (Health Canada)

Cannabis and Cancer: Arthur's Story by Pauline Reilly Scribe Publications Pty Ltd. (April 1, 2002)

Pertwee, R.G. Novel Pharmacological Targets for Cannabinoids. Current Neuropharmacology, 2004, 2, 9-29

Kate Woods is a graduate student at UBC who studies the chemistry of various marine creatures. Kate hopes for a long and healthy life, thus she makes sure to eat plenty of veggies - even tomatoes.

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