Most people know benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax and sleep medications like Ambien and Lunesta are depressants, just as they know drugs like caffeine, cocaine, and amphetamines are stimulants. But what about pot? Is marijuana a depressant? Or is it something else, like a stimulant or hallucinogen? The answer is more complicated than you may think.
Some strains can produce unmistakable sedative effects (like many couch-lock inducing indicas), while other strains can produce effects that mimic stimulants (Durban Poison is known as “the espresso of cannabis” for a reason). To add to the confusion, cannabis can even produce effects similar to hallucinogenic drugs.
So, bottom line, is marijuana a depressant (or something else)? The short answer is that, technically, it’s none of these, but it can act like any of these. Are you confused? You won’t be for long!
If we want to be precise, we should clarify that marijuana (aka ganja, herb, weed, pot, dope, Mary Jane, kush, etc.) refers to the part of the cannabis sativa or cannabis sativa forma indica plant that contains the active ingredients responsible for its therapeutic and intoxicating properties.
The most prominent active ingredients in most marijuana strains are the cannabinoids THC and CBD. However, there are numerous other cannabinoids (like CBG, CBN, etc.) and terpenes (like myrcene, limone, etc.).
Before we do a deeper dive, let’s start with identifying the differences between depressants, stimulants, and hallucinogens.
Depressants: Depressants are drugs that slow down your central nervous system (CNS) and cause symptoms such as drowsiness and relaxation. Common depressants include alcohol, benzodiazepines (e.g. Valium and Xanax), sleep medications, and barbiturates. In high doses (especially when mixed with alcohol), depressants can induce coma or cause death. Unlike typical depressants, it’s virtually impossible for cannabis to induce a coma or cause death.
Stimulants: Stimulants are associated with an increase in alertness and energy. They have the potential to be highly addictive. Commonly used stimulants include caffeine, amphetamines, and cocaine.
Hallucinogens: Hallucinogens can mildly or strongly (depending on dose and type of hallucinogen) alter your perception of reality. Popular hallucinogens include LSD, psilocybin (mushrooms), and MDMA (ecstasy, Molly).
Is Marijuana a Depressant? Weed Can Act Like a Depressant, Stimulant, or Hallucinogen
While cannabis is often incorrectly labeled a depressant, it can actually be a depressant, stimulant, or hallucinogen. (To complicate things more, cannabis can also act as an antidepressant but more on that later in the article.)
It may seem counterintuitive that cannabis could be “all of the above,” but when we consider the fact that cannabis is a highly complex plant with over 100 hundred cannabinoids and dozens of terpenes which can vary wildly from strain to strain and which elicit diverse chemical profiles that can produce different effects from person to person, it makes more sense.
Technically, to categorize cannabis as a depressant, stimulant, hallucinogen, or antidepressant is probably only more misleading than helpful.
It’s more helpful for consumers to consider what variables would cause cannabis to act like a depressant, stimulant, hallucinogen, or antidepressant for them.
There are several factors at play.
Is Marijuana a Depressant? Cannabinoid Ratios and Terpene Content Counts
As we established, the chemical profile (the composition of cannabinoids, terpenes, and other ingredients) varies among subspecies (e.g. indica, sativa) of the cannabis plant and from strain to strain.
Indicas are commonly characterized as producing sedative, heavy body highs, while sativas tend to produce cerebral and stimulating head highs. Hybrids draw characteristics from both. While these distinctions are still meaningful, due to years of cross-breeding, they’re less reliable than when most strains could be neatly characterized as 100% indica or sativa (what are now known as landrace strains).
Ethan Russo, Ph.D., a neurologist known throughout the world for his research in cannabis psychopharmacology, explained to Leafly:
“The way that the sativa and indica labels are utilized in commerce is nonsense. The clinical effects of the cannabis chemovar have nothing to do with whether the plant is tall and sparse vs. short and bushy, or whether the leaflets are narrow or broad.”
Russo has a valid point, however, the imprecision of the indica and sativa labels is a discussion for another time. While imperfect, the labels still provide a useful framework to better understand why different strains seem to have opposing effects.
The science is far from settled, but we do know that THC content doesn’t seem to be a predictor of whether a strain will be stimulating or sedating. Cannabinoid and terpene content seems to be a better predictor. For example, indica-dominant strains tend to have higher levels of the terpene myrcene, which usually ranges between .5% and 3% in indica-dominant strains and less than .5% in sativa strains.
Keep in mind, myrcene isn’t the only terpene in town. Other terpenes can influence the effects of different strains. The terpene linalool, for example, is known for producing relaxing properties, while pinene is known for promoting alertness. However, it’s complicated, and we still need to conduct a lot more research to better understand what role terpenes play in affecting how a strain should affect different users.
Jeffrey Raber, Ph.D., a chemist and founder of the first independent cannabis terpene testing lab, explains:
“Terpenes seem to be major players in driving the sedating or energizing effects. Which terpenes cause which effects is apparently much more complicated than all of us would like, as it seems to [vary based on specific] ones and their relative ratios to each other and the cannabinoids.”
Cannabis can be consumed in a number of ways, including smoking, vaporizing, orally, topically, and even rectally or vaginally (through suppositories). The bioavailability of each method varies, as does the method in which your body processes THC (and other cannabinoids). Which, of course, influences the effects you’ll feel.
For example, when you consume an edible, your body has to metabolize the THC for you to feel the effects. When your body metabolizes THC, much of the dose is destroyed by the high PH in your stomach’s acids. But the surviving portion of THC — which is delta-9-THC — converts into delta-11-Hydroxy-THC, a much more potent form of THC. That’s why edibles tend to be more hallucinogenic and intoxicating than smoking cannabis.
Is Marijuana a Depressant? Stimulant? Or a Hallucinogen? Other Factors to Consider
Chemical profile and intake method are not the only factors that influence what effects you’ll feel from cannabis. Your physiology is a major factor. Everyone’s physiology is unique, and even when given the same exact strain at the same dosage with the same intake method, it will produce (slightly to dramatically) different reactions in different users.
For example, you could have a strain that makes most users relaxed, while the same strain may make a certain subset of users feel anxious and paranoid. While this may seem peculiar, think about someone with ADHD. Many people living with ADHD find stimulants calm their brain and relax them, while most people have the exact opposite experience. It all depends on one’s physiology.
Other factors including your environment and dosage also play into what sort of experience you’ll have from cannabis. If you’re in a lowkey, safe, and comfortable, environment, you’ll probably feel relaxed. If you’re in a high-paced, highly social environment — like an EDM club — you’ll probably feel stimulated. Of course, if you’re highly sensitive to THC, you could feel overstimulated and even paranoid, so you’d probably do better using a strain with a decent amount of CBD (1-3%+) to temper the effects of the THC.
We covered a lot of material that went above and beyond simply (and imprecisely) answering is marijuana a depressant, stimulant, or hallucinogen. The bottom line is that, technically, cannabis is none of these. However, cannabis can mimic the effects of any of these classes of drugs depending on a number of factors, including the chemical profile of the strain you’re using, how you’re consuming it (intake method), how much you consume, your body’s unique physiology, and the environment you’re using it in.
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