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It’s Time to Set the Record Straight – CBD Is “Psychoactive”

By Ian A. Stewart

The media loves to say that CBD (cannabidiol) is “non-psychoactive.” The frequency with which this statement is repeated rises with the popularity of CBD. Most commentators who use the term “non-psychoactive” likely mean to say that CBD is “not intoxicating,” which is certainly true. But CBD is psychoactive. 

A chemical is considered psychoactive when it acts primarily on the central nervous system and alters brain function, resulting in temporary changes in perception, mood, consciousness or behavior.CBD does not have the intoxicating effect of THC and does not result in obvious cognitive alterations or withdrawal effects. CBD does, however, cross the blood-brain barrier and it directly affects the central nervous system with resulting changes in mood and perception. For those interested in how CBD works, here is some basic biochemistry. 

The Science of CBD

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) comprises various endocannabinoids − neurotransmitters that bind to receptors throughout the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system. The ECS helps regulate numerous physiological and cognitive processes in the body, such as appetite, pain, stress response, mood and memory. 

The cannabis plant contains dozens of cannabinoids that bind with ECS receptors. The two primary receptors for cannabinoids are called the CB1 and CB2. The CB1 receptors are located primarily in the brain and central nervous system. They help regulate coordination, pain, mood, appetite and certain other functions. CB2 receptors are located throughout the body and are common in the immune system. They primarily affect inflammation and pain.

THC’s power of intoxication results from its ability to mimic anandamide, a naturally occurring endocannabinoid that binds to CB1 receptors in the brain associated with improved mood. THC binds to anandamide’s CB1 receptor even more tightly than anandamide itself, which inhibits the release of other neurotransmitters. This results in an exaggerated mood response associated with feelings of euphoria. 

CBD has a milder and more modulating effect on the receptors as compared with THC. It loosely binds with CB1, which results in gentle stimulation or blocking of the receptor. CBD acts like a modulator that can amplify or decrease the receptor’s ability to transmit signals, similar to a dimmer switch. It is thought that this modulation of brain activity may be the basis for CBD’s ability to reduce seizures and the symptoms associated with mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.

This action also is thought to trigger the body to create more CB receptors, resulting in increased natural levels of anandamide. With more CB receptors, the body becomes more sensitive to natural endocannabinoids already present in the body. This may result in improved mood and pain tolerance without an intoxicating response. 

In addition, CBD modulates other receptors in the body, including those involved with serotonin, which affects mood, and opioid receptors, which provide pain relief. It is thought that CBD may reduce pain by mimicking endorphins without suppressing them. We know that opioids do suppress natural endorphins.

THC and CBD have a synergistic therapeutic effect by working in tandem. CBD modulates the CB1 receptor only in the presence of THC or another cannabinoid that also binds to the receptor. This “entourage effect” means that pure CBD isolate without THC is not as effective therapeutically as CBD in the presence of THC. The intoxicating effect of THC, on the other hand, limits its medical utility.

Cannabis users have long observed that high concentrations of CBD within a cannabis strain have a modulating effect on the strain’s intoxicating potency, even for strains with high levels of THC. This phenomenon has now been clinically confirmed by researchers at University College London, who recently used cutting-edge fMRI technology to demonstrate that high-CBD cannabis strains result in less impairment to brain function than strains with lower CBD concentrations. 

CBD Is Psychoactive

CBD is certainly a mood-altering substance. It has been shown to have moderating effects on anxiety, psychosis, depression, pain, appetite, memory, seizures and other brain activity. It works in tandem with THC and other cannabinoids that act on the central nervous system. CBD does not result in euphoria or intoxication, but to say that it is “non-psychoactive” is technically wrong and misleading to the patient or consumer.

Ian Stewart

Ian Stewart

Ian is a partner in the Los Angeles office of Wilson Elser. He is co-founder and chair of the Wilson Elser Cannabis Law practice and uses his 20 years of legal experience to help clients navigate the legalities around cannabis and hemp. Ian works with licensed cannabis operators to comply with their obligations under the law and to develop risk management best practices. He also regularly consults with insurance companies to assist with cannabis-related underwriting practices and the development of new policy forms.

He is currently Chair of the National Cannabis Industry Association’s Finance and Insurance Committee, as well as Vice-Chair of the California Cannabis Industry Association’s Insurance Committee. Ian received his B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis, and his JD from St. Louis University. He has been with Wilson Elser for the past 18 years.

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