The health and psychological consequences of cannabis use - chapter 4

THIS DOCUMENT HAS BEEN RESCINDED: National Drug Strategy Monograph Series No. 25.

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4. Cannabis the drug

4.1 Cannabis the drug

Cannabis is the material derived from the herbaceous plant Cannabis sativa, which grows vigorously throughout many regions of the world. It occurs in male and female forms, with both sexes having large leaves which consist of five to 11 leaflets with serrated margins. A sticky resin which covers the flowering tops and upper leaves is secreted most abundantly by the female plant and this resin contains the active agents of the plant. While the cannabis plant contains more than 60 cannabinoid compounds, such as cannabidiol and cannabinol, the primary psychoactive constituent is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC (Gaoni and Mechoulam, 1964), the concentration of which largely determines the potency of the cannabis preparation. Most of the other cannabinoids are either inactive or only weakly active, although they may increase or decrease potency by interacting with THC (Abood and Martin, 1992).

Cannabis has been erroneously classified as a narcotic, as a sedative and most recently as an hallucinogen. While the cannabinoids do possess hallucinogenic properties, together with stimulant and sedative effects, they in fact represent a unique pharmacological class of compounds. Unlike many other drugs of abuse, cannabis acts upon specific receptors in the brain and periphery. The discovery of the receptors and the naturally occurring substances in the brain that bind to these receptors is of great importance, in that it signifies an entirely new pathway system in the brain.