In recent years, marijuana has been decriminalized or legalized in many states for medicinal or recreational purposes. Despite this, it remains among the most commonly used illicit drugs in the U.S. Depending on the dose, strain, and individual characteristics, marijuana can induce effects that mimic those of other drugs, such as those that are depressive or stimulating in nature. It can also act as a mild hallucinogen and may, for some, have analgesic effects.
This being said, marijuana is typically classified as a stimulant because it acts on dopamine—many depressants act a bit differently by increasing the amount of GABA, which is responsible for cause sedation and drowsiness. Marijuana works in the brain similarly to alcohol in that it has both stimulant and depressant properties. Its side effects onset just as rapidly but can last longer. It is often smoked or consumed in food such as brownies.
Many of the compounds (cannabinoids) present in marijuana produce effects comparable to depressants. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have delineated marijuana as a psychoactive substance with hallucinogen effects. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), marijuana is the most commonly used hallucinogen.
What Is a Psychoactive Substance?
A psychoactive substance is a drug (or alcohol) that alters the functioning of a person’s brain. It can cause changes in cognitive abilities, perception, mood, level of consciousness or awareness, or behavior.
Marijuana falls into this category because it can lead to disorientation, unpleasant or uncomfortable thoughts, or feelings of anxiety and paranoia with long-term use and in excessive doses. It can also influence a person’s emotions, decision-making, learning, memory, attention, coordination, and reaction time. Chronic marijuana use can also interfere with relationships, work, school, and overall daily functioning.
Because psychoactive drugs are often perceived as rewarding by the brain, they can reinforce drug-seeking behaviors that can lead to abuse, dependence, and addiction.
What Is a Depressant?
Depressants inhibit the central nervous system (CNS) by depressing activity. The CNS is made up of the brain and spinal cord and is a complex network of nerves and cells that transmit signals or messages to different parts of the body. Depressants slow the rate at which nerves in the brain and spinal cord transmit signals by increasing concentrations of the neurochemical gamma-aminobutyric acid.
The three primary types of depressant drugs include barbiturates, benzodiazepines (benzos), and sleep medications. Benzos, such as Xanax and Valium, are intended to treat symptoms related to seizures, anxiety, or insomnia. These medications are beneficial and generally safe when used for legitimate medical issues and taken as directed.
Although marijuana can induce depressant-like effects, it is not a depressant. Instead of affecting GABA, marijuana’s sedating effects are due to the drug’s ability to boost dopamine. A 2016 study in the research journal Nature indicated that although marijuana use initially increases dopamine levels, chronic use ultimately decreases its release in the brain. When dopamine levels go down, people experience lethargy and low energy, consistent with the effects of depressants.
Marijuana and Depression
Evidence of marijuana’s role in depression is lacking—specifically, whether it’s a cause or treatment. Studies have yet to link marijuana use to the development of depression definitively.
The drug’s Schedule I classification has somewhat limited researcher’s work on the subject, but some studies have revealed that excessive doses of marijuana can exacerbate existing depression.
People who already experience depression may use marijuana to numb or dull negative and unwanted thoughts and feelings. Also, individuals who use marijuana may appear depressed due to the drug’s potential to enact depressant-like effects.
Please note that classifying a substance as a CNS depressant is different from the drug’s potential effect on clinical depression. A drug that depresses the CNS doesn’t necessarily cause depression symptoms, such as sadness, insomnia, and lack of interest in activities unless used excessively and chronically over a prolonged period.
Getting Help for Drug Addiction
If you find yourself living with marijuana dependence, you may want to consider getting professional help. Although marijuana is not believed to be as addictive as many other street drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, it can be habit-forming. Indeed, engagement in multiple attempts to quit that failed may warrant medical intervention.
Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery offer a comprehensive approach to substance abuse treatment and partial hospitalization and inpatient programs. We feature a wide variety of evidence-based, supportive services and activities, including psychotherapy, psychoeducation, peer group support, counseling, art and music therapy, mindfulness therapy, aftercare planning, and more.