Is marijuana a depressant or a stimulant? It’s one of the most commonly asked questions about cannabis, but the answer is — well, let’s just say it’s complicated. In fact, at least one textbook notes that cannabis products are “in a classification of their own.”
The truth is that the effect of cannabis on your body depends on a wide variety of factors, including the strain, the situation, and your own personal chemistry. That said, you can learn how different strains of weed affect you with a little education and some help from an experienced provider.
How Drugs Are Classified
There are many different ways to classify drugs, but one of the most common is by their effect on the central nervous system (CNS). Under this system, drugs fall into one of three main classifications — stimulants, depressants or hallucinogens — but cannabis defies easy classification, as it can produce effects that fall into any of the three. Research on it is still slim, since governments have placed major restrictions on studying the effects of marijuana, but that’s beginning to change.
Cannabis as a Stimulant
Stimulants generally speed up the actions of the central nervous system, including the transmission of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine between the brain and the body. They can increase your blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate, and give you a burst of energy. Some research has found that THC, one of the best-known cannabinoids, floods the brain with dopamine, the brain’s natural pleasure/reward chemical. Researchers believe that may account for the euphoric effects that some people experience with cannabis.
If you’re looking for a mood lift or a burst of creative energy, one of these strains may be just the ticket.
Deadhead OG is a pungent, earthy and piney strain that stimulates the mind while relaxing the body. Strains that are heavy in
pinene and Delta 3 carene may also help stimulate memory and reduce pain.
Cannabis as a Depressant
Depressants have the exact opposite effect on the body — they slow the movement of neurotransmitters between the brain and the body, creating a calming effect on the CNS. The depressant effects of cannabis include relaxation, reduced anxiety and less trouble falling asleep. While researchers are still digging into the complex interactions between cannabis and your body — remember, cannabis is packed with literally
hundreds of organic substances, including cannabinoids and terpenes, and they seem to have a synergistic effect on each other — they have found that
CBD enhances the presence of serotonin, the brain chemical that helps stabilize and soothe anxiety.
In addition to their anti-anxiety effects, depressants are used by many people for their sedative effect to help them sleep. Strains of cannabis that are high in THC can be very
effective in making you sleepy, and may also help reduce nightmares and provide more restful sleep.
Cannabis as a Hallucinogen
Hallucinogens disrupt the brain’s messenger system, resulting in — as the name suggests — hallucinations. While actual
hallucinations are rare, and mostly occur in strains with high THC content, cannabis does share some effects common with hallucinogens: altered sense of time and space, for example, and detachment from the self and/or your environment. That may be one of the reasons that it’s being considered an effective aid in
treating PTSD — some therapists find it helps people process traumatic memories without invoking the emotions associated with the trauma.
Things to Consider When Choosing the Right Strain
The most important thing to consider when choosing your strain of choice is this: what effects are you looking for? The strain that turns you into a chatterbox of creative energy may not be the best choice if what you want is to mellow out and sleep. Common wisdom says that indica-dominant strains give you that mellow glow, while sativa-dominant strains spark that creative, social energy — but that’s a bit simplistic. The effects you’ll experience depend not only on the THC and CBD content, but on the various terpenes in the plant’s profile and — as if it wasn’t already complicated enough — on
your own body chemistry.
While many of these
terpenes are present in other plants, their effect on your body seems different or more intense when they are consumed in conjunction with cannabinoids. Scientists attribute this to the
entourage effect, which suggests that the beneficial effect of cannabis derives from the combination of cannabinoids, terpenes and other phytochemicals. As one recent
research paper noted, “the case for Cannabis synergy via the ‘entourage effect’ is currently sufficiently strong as to suggest that one molecule is unlikely to match the therapeutic and even industrial potential of Cannabis itself.” In other words, current evidence suggests that whole flower products are more effective than any derivative.
The Paradoxical Effect
Some people have what’s called a
— stimulants calm them down and sedatives make them more agitated and alert. This is most commonly observed in people who have been diagnosed with ADHD, though researchers are still trying to figure out exactly why and who is affected that way. Consider your own history when choosing a strain of cannabis. If you typically have opposite reactions than expected to medications, take that into account.
Understanding the typical effects of different strains of cannabis and of the most common terpenes can help you choose the right strain for the experience you desire. When you purchase from a trusted dispensary, you can also draw on the knowledge and expertise of the staff to help you make the right choice.
Deb Powers is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Civlilized.Life and other industry publications. She has been writing about alternative medicine, nutrition, and cannabis for more than 10 years.