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Is Cannabis Classified as a Hallucinogen, Stimulant, or Depressant?

October 17, 2021 01:45 pm ET
Is Cannabis Classified as a Hallucinogen, Stimulant, or Depressant?

In 1970 cannabis was federally placed as a Schedule I drug in the US, a category that is tightly restricted and reserved for drugs not medically accepted. When it comes to classifying drugs medically or recreationally, generally there are four broad categories according to the US federal government. Based on their properties and effects, a drug can either fall into opiates and opium derivatives, depressants, hallucinogens, or stimulants. 

According to the US schedule 1 of controlled substances, cannabis is actually in a class of its own called Tetrahydrocannabinols. This class includes isomers which are drugs that have the same chemical makeup as Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), but the chemical molecules are arranged in a different order. 

The tetrahydrocannabinol classification, however, can be easily confused on the schedule with cannabimimetic agents. The funny thing about this is that these agents do not contain cannabis even though they are able to activate CB receptors in the body through the endocannabinoid system (ECS). You may have heard of cannabimimetic drugs that are marijuana synthetics such as K2 and Spice. Please check out our guide on how these synthetic products are dangerous.

Responses to Cannabis Vary Significantly

Ingesting cannabis has a variety of psychological and physical effects that often vary from person to person. It can make some people tired or relaxed, helping them sink into the couch while others get a boost of energy and increase alertness. It can also help to treat mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in some people. In others, it can actually cause an increase in anxiety over time. Patients who are under the age of 25, especially adolescents under the age of 16 or 17 should take extra caution using cannabis. This age group has an increased risk of psychosis and brain volume changes that may be permanent as seen in brain scans that are part of studying this effect.

Cannabis is legally and medically a narcotic because narcotics are defined as any substance that is illegal and induces sleep. It is complex chemically and not yet fully understood, but it does not scientifically function like a typical narcotic. Like alcohol, cannabis can act as both a stimulant and a depressant. 

So What Category Does Cannabis Fit in?

It’s actually quite complicated. A study from Contemporary Drug Problems attempted to answer this question for a variety of street drugs, not just cannabis. They found huge discrepancies in how researchers talk about these illegal substances versus the specific terms that the public does. When specific terms originate from subcultures they are considered argot terms.  

When it comes to cannabis, public terms such as marijuana, “pot”, or “weed” are not necessarily the argot that everyone is using. Instead, researchers found that many cannabis users classify it/name it by how it’s delivered or how it makes them feel. Researchers found that these public terms are not regularly used and instead users reported saying “pass me a one and dutch” instead of saying blunt or asking for a “chaser” instead of a cigarette after they smoke cannabis. This study may feel like it is trivial, but it puts forth the point that everyone, including researchers, the general public, and specific subcultures think about cannabis very differently and even categorize it differently.

Concerning cannabis use, research has indicated that cannabis intoxication definitely hinders attention, long-term memory storage, and psychomotor skills. As a psychoactive drug, cannabis alters mental functioning in some fashion. 

Cannabis classification is a controversial question because it is not merely a stimulant, depressant, or hallucinogen. People respond to cannabis in different ways. While cannabis has depressant, hallucinogenic, and stimulant properties, it does not fit into any one of these categories. Frankly, when it comes down to it, we don’t have a clear consensus on cannabis classification, but we do have a few ideas.

Many Classify Cannabis a Depressant

Depressants are drugs that have a relaxing effect. They may reduce anxiety and muscle tension and make a person feel sleepy. Cannabis is largely viewed as a depressant because it slows down messages that travel between the body and brain. Like traditional depressants, cannabis’ depressant properties can cause sleeplessness, dizziness, and short-term memory loss. 

It’s interesting to note that few scientific studies support this simply. It seems to depend on the amount of THC and cannabinol (CBD) that are found in specific strains of cannabis plants as to the effect. But this research suggests that the lower the dose of THC, the more you feel relaxed. It is important to find your sweet spot.

Cannabis Has Stimulant Properties

Stimulants are drugs that increase alertness and elevate mood often by targeting the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. Stimulants increase alertness, attention, and heart rate. Like other stimulants, cannabis has been shown in some consumers to increase heart rate, alertness, elevate mood, and improve attention. 

Similar to the section above, higher doses of THC tend to induce anxiety. In addition, the euphoric feeling you get from cannabis can vary based on the strain and its cannabinoid and terpene profile. People used to think that the type of high you experience depends on whether the cannabis was a Sativa or Indica, but we now know that the effect comes from a variety of factors that are specific to the strain of cannabis being consumed.

Some Even Classify Cannabis a Hallucinogen

Hallucinogens are a class of drugs that cause profound distortions in a person’s perceptions of reality. These substances are also found naturally in certain plants and fungi. Even though the effects are often temporary, the massive doses of the substance can cause delusions, hallucinations, and alter the sense of personal identity. The substance can also cause hallucinogen symptoms like heightened sensory perception and detachment from self. A heightened sensory perception is a mild form of hallucination that some people may actually find enjoyable.  An example of this is how cannabis users tend to reach for sweet or salty snacks, which seemingly taste better and are more desirable after smoking or taking edibles.

According to schedule 1 of controlled substances, cannabis which is referred to as “marihuana” or “marihuana extract” is legally classified as a hallucinogen. This is dictated in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and governed/used by a variety of federal agencies including the Food & and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Additionally many states follow these guidelines, especially those that have medical and recreational cannabis laws.

Too Many Variables

Facts remain that cannabis induces all three categories of response: a sense of relaxation (depressant effect), mild euphoria or elevated mood (stimulant effect), and heightened sensory perception (hallucinogenic effect). There are many factors and variables to consider when trying to categorize potential responses to cannabis ingestion. The percent of THC in the drug, dosage, and method of administration are also significant factors in how a person reacts to cannabis. Various phenotypes and cultivars of the plant may also produce different effects on the body and mind. Cannabis is made up of several cannabinoids and terpenes, each that will affect how a user feels regarding their attention and alertness.

Additionally, it is worth noting that cannabis, along with other schedule I drugs, have complex histories and nuances that contribute to how they are classified. Classifying these drugs vary based on who is classifying them as well as what purpose they are being classified for. When it comes down to it, it’s ok to classify it based on how you use it, but know that legal and scientific classifications of cannabis exist for a reason.

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Content Medically Reviewed By: Dr. Abraham Benavides, MD
Content Medically Reviewed By: Dr. Abraham Benavides, MD

Contributors: Sarah Walker
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