Is Cannabis A Drug (Reprise)

Perhaps one of the most controversial questions that can be asked of cannabis law reform campaigns is a very simple one: “Is cannabis a drug?” If you dare to ask this incendiary question you will get two widely differing answers: Yes and No.

So, at the risk of starting world war three let’s have a go at answering this question once and for all, but it’s not as easy as you might think and the first reason for that is we are not not consistent in these things.

First of all of course cannabis is the name of a plant and the plant produces active chemicals – the things we call we call “drugs”. Now tobacco isn’t generally thought of as a drug, yet as we know it contains the drug nicotine, but khat is generally perceived as a drug (in this country at least) because it contains the stimulant cathinone. Now it gets muddy because to the people who traditionally use Khat it’s just a plant they chew to help them get through the day, the “drug” connotation is something we (our governments) in the west have put on it in recent years and of course the same is true for cannabis. So why hasn’t that happened with tobacco? Probably the opposite is true, tobacco was familiar to the people who wrote the drug laws. What we’re seeing here is the use of a word which has its roots in cultural norms imposed by laws, which is not a very good start.

So the “no” camp have round one on balance; cannabis, like khat or tobacco is a plant and had it not been for the drugs laws it would possibly never have had the “drug” label attached to it. But that isn’t quite true.

Cannabis is popular with the people who use it for one simple reason – it gets them stoned when they smoke or eat it. So the very people who are often the most vocal in refusing to accept the drug label for cannabis are the most appreciative of its drug effects. Tobacco of course doesn’t get you stoned and indeed doesn’t seem to “do” anything, although as we now know it releases a drug – nicotine – which does produce significant effects on the brain.

So now might be a good time to find a definition of what makes a drug: The Oxford Dictionary defines a drug as:

A medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body:

* a substance taken for its narcotic or stimulant effects, often illegally:

Which is a useless definition because that obviously includes food. The free dictionary defines a drug as

a. A substance used in the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of a disease or as a component of a medication.
b. Such a substance as recognized or defined by the U.S. Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
2. A chemical substance, such as a narcotic or hallucinogen, that affects the central nervous system, causing changes in behavior and often addiction.

Free dictionary is American, but even so defining a substance as a drug because the US government says it is will not win a debate such as we’re having. A chemical that affects the CNS is also very vague and includes many things which we don’t think of as drugs, some of which lead to much more than just changes.

The UN Office Of Drug Control the UNODC doesn’t help much either, while accepting the medicial definition of drug as being a substance with the potential to prevent or cure disease or enhance physical or mental welfare it also tries a definition close to the Oxford version above

any chemical agent that alters the biochemical or physiological processes of tissues or organisms.

which again of course includes foods. Worse it also creates its own definition:

In the context of international drug control, “drug” means any of the substances listed in Schedule I and II of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, whether natural or synthetic.

Wikipedia has a better go at a definition

A drug is a substance which may have medicinal, intoxicating, performance enhancing or other effects when taken or put into a human body or the body of another animal and is not considered a food or exclusively a food.

“performance enhancing or other effects” is rather vague, but it’s no worse than the other definitions and does try to exclude food, but presumably would include vitamins…

This isn’t as easy as it should be, considering we have such draconian laws aimed at drugs and such entrenched ideas about them. chemistry offers perhaps the best definition, if a little strangled by bad proof reading:

A drug is a chemical that has medicinal, performance-enhancing or intoxicating effects when introduced into the body of a human or other animal. Substances which are foods are not considered to be drugs, although active ingredients from foods make be purified (sic) for use as drugs. Also, some chemicals used as drugs are identical to substances made in the body (e.g., insulin, testosterone). The chemical is considered a drug only if it is introduced into the body from the outside, such as by ingestion, injection or topical application.

So that seems the best definition to go by, but as we’ve seen it’s not universally understood and it’s distorted by the definition imposed by the UN and governments which has arbitrarily created it’s own list based on, well, no more than opinion. So:

Under the law, cannabis is a drug, but only because politicians have decided it is.

Law reform campaigners and many cannabis evangelists point out that it is an effective medicine, so on that definition it is also a drug. Here it’s important to mention a big complication which we’ll come back to, which is that cannabis, rather than the individual components within it – is a medicine. Refined extracts also have great medical potential, but so does the whole plant.

But what about the chemical introduced to the body which affects the CNS definition?

About now someone will suggest a solution: Cannabis isn’t a drug, it’s a plant that contains a drug (THC) and this makes sense. Tobacco isn’t a drug but nicotine is, it sounds like the obvious answer. Sadly though, that’s not good enough either.

The cannabis experience isn’t the product of the one THC drug. If you were to take a dose of pure THC the effect is, by all accounts, not nice at all.

BBC 3 shows the effects of pure THC compared with THC and CBD

Cannabis is pretty unique in that it produces two active chemicals, THC and CBD which are almost direct opposites in many respects. THC is the psychoactive chemical long associated with cannabis, CBD is far more subtle and only recently understood to have an important effect on the user. CBD can be thought of as a “balance” to THC and is a very important constituent. This is the rub: The cannabis drug effect is the combined effect of all the active chemicals the plant produces – THC and CBD are the most important but there are a number of other, minor compounds at work to produce the overall cannabis experience. In short, the “cannabis drug” is not THC, it’s everything all at once. This is why different strains of cannabis have such different effects on the user, indeed it may well be true that some strains are harmful for people at risk of mental illness, while others may be beneficial to the very same people.

So where does this leave us? Cannabis is a drug because:

1: The government says so for no good reason
2: Because it’s a medicine in its whole plant form
3: Because the effect of taking everything the plant produces into the body is what gives the overall cannabis experience.

Cannabis is not a drug because

1: The government says so for no good reason
1: Because it’s a medicine in its whole plant form
2: Because the effect of taking everything the plant produces into the body is what gives the overall cannabis experience.

That’s clear then.

So the conclusion to all this is really that cannabis is simply not like other drugs, it is a thing in its own right. It is a drug in the general use of the word and is understood as such even by many of those who refuse to call it a drug but enjoy getting stoned, but it isn’t a (singular) drug. The cannabis experience is something only this particular plant can give, a balance of chemicals specific to individual strains of the plant. The “cannabis drug effect” is many and varied, although specific to particular strains and therefore predictable.

It is correct then to talk of cannabis as a drug because it is taken for its drug effect but that drug effect is the effect of cannabis not the individual drugs it contains. So on balance cannabis is a drug but it’s also important to understand why it is a totally unique substance and for cannabis law reform campaigners understanding this issue is perhaps one of the most important things we need to do.

Cannabis as we all know, is quite unique.



UKCIA is a cannabis law reform site dedicated to ending the prohibition of cannabis. As an illegal drug, cannabis is not a controlled substance - it varies greatly in strength and purity, it's sold by unaccountable people from unknown venues with no over sight by the authorities. There is no recourse to the law for users and the most vulnerable are therefore placed at the greatest risk. There can be no measures such as age limits on sales and no way to properly monitor or study the trade, let alone introduce proper regulation. Cannabis must be legalised, as an illegal substance it is very dangerous to the users and society at large.

18 thoughts on “Is Cannabis A Drug (Reprise)

  1. “Because the effect of taking everything the plant produces into the body is what gives the overall cannabis experience.”

    Not quite true. With any psychoactive compound, culture surrounding it and the expectations of the user creates a lot of variance in the experience. The pharmacological effect often can not easily be seen differentiated from the psychological and social setting in which the drug is administered.

    Basically what I am saying is that Placebo plays a huge role in the effect of these “drugs”. Without taking this into account there is no way we can define the overall experience.

  2. Though, of course it could be considered that the plant produces the culture surrounding itself as well and then affects our body through minds… This seems far-thought though, so I guess I just wanted to elaborate!

  3. Congratulations for taking on this complex subject. I would like to elaborate on one issue, i.e. cannabis is popular with people who like “gettin’ stoned”. Mr Placebo has a point, the “culture surrounding it and the expectations of the user” (“set and setting” etc.) do, in my opinion, bring about the popularity of getting stoned (understood here as a rigid paralyzed inactivity).

    We live in a “culture” of fear and intimidation where troubled people develop a liking for anything which relieves their anxiety. “Getting stoned” means an expected and devoutly wished “comforting” Depression (Deep Prison) probably caused by carbon monoxide and combustion poisons rather than by cannabinoids.

    Such users like Depression just because they like anything which relieves their anxiety. They are not made more anxious by the Depression because, at the same time, the cannabinoids are enlivening their fantasy which embroiders happy meanings about the Depression, how much they enjoy it, how good they feel etc. What they really like and enjoy is being relieved of (or distracted from) the anxiety– that feeling of Security which they have learned to associate with idleness, quietness etc. (that’s what “cultural” expectations do to the mind). The “culture” is the real drug here, along with carbon monoxide etc. which help achieve that well-flavored Depression.

    Those concerned about abuse of cannabis, whether a generation of stoned zombies will be produced etc., should ponder (and teach their children) this aphorism:

    “Ask not what it will do to you (or your head), get busy finding out what you can do with it.”

    I.e. after a toke, don’t sit passively waiting to find out how you will “feel” (fail), get active at your workbench or even just take a walk, and find out what unexpected brilliant ideas turn up and join in with what you have already starrted doing, producing achievements which you can be happy with or even make make money from, i.e. consciously and intentionally live out the vigourous challenging mandate of Cannabis Activism.

  4. Exactly.

    “We believe we can conclude that the real effect of the hashish is neither sufficient to initiate nor to sustain the smoking of hashish in teenagers. The symbolic value in the circle of friends is the essential factor …” -Fekjaer

    Do we need to sustain Cannabis use as a way of authority rebellion and as a way of showing teenagers are grownups by keeping it illegal?

    The excitement surrounding it’s use can make the habit to even become an addiction – exactly like gambling!

    I believe that by far most people do not even actually enjoy the pharmacological effect of cannabis – even those who like the habit of using it.

  5. I don’t think you can say that Mr Placebo, I doubt most people would do something they basically didn’t enjoy.

  6. Interesting. Yeah I understand what you mean and I accept the cultural aspect is possibly a major part of the reason some people use cannabis (and other drugs). But the pharmacological effects of cannabis aren’t something you can dismiss, they are significant. I will concede that some people will persist with drug use – at least in the short term – because of a desire to “fit in” or be one of the scene, but I doubt people would keep doing something they actually found unpleasant.

  7. Ah yes. To keep doing it is addiction – to the culture, group, or maybe even to the pharmacological effect.

    Also there is a widespread thought that cannabis decreases your motivation. Thus to keep using it is a way to keep your standards low and not to be disappointed about it – a way of psychological self-protection. It helps with the anxiety of the future because you handicap yourself – thus one does not have to feel bad about failure. They can keep thinking positively – they would do better if/when they just stop using.

  8. Or actually not addiction to original pharmacological effect, but rather to counteract withdrawal symptoms. Pharmacological effect might not be pleasant, but instant cessation is just “too much”.

    But still, as cannabis is not too addicting per se, it is rather an addiction to the original reasons of smoking behaviour – not an actual physiological addiction.

  9. To the first point psychological addiction – an association of activity and drug use – is fairly common with cannabis users, but a small minority at around 1 in 10 apparently. It’s difficult to see how a psychological addiction can develop with something you find unpleasant though.

    Physical addition to the pharmacological effects of cannabis – such that it has to be taken in order to feel normal – is possible but really quite rare and requires heavy use over a long period, again, not something likely to happen unless it’s essentially enjoyable.

    To the second point, yes, quite possibly in some people although cannabis isn’t the best drug to try escapist use with as it tends to make problems worse, making the user dwell on issues rather than providing s shield against them as with alcohol for example.

  10. “It’s difficult to see how a psychological addiction can develop with something you find unpleasant though.”

    Once again, I did not say they psychologically feel it is unpleasant. I am saying if they were given it without their knowing of what it is, their report would be very different.

    The overall effect of a drug administration often can and should not be seen outside the psychological, social and cultural aspects surrounding it.

    Whatwhat? Why is it worse for escapism? Are you saying alcohol does not make problems worse? I understand your meaning but I totally disagree. I don’t believe there is a real discernible pharmacological effect to use either substance for escapism. It is rather a way to have an excuse to perform – a great way to fuel a procrastination addiction.

  11. Sure, alcohol makes things worse – afterwards, but While intoxicated the user is away from the world. Cannabis is a partial psychedelic and so very different in that respect, it creates thoughts which if unfocused can be very unsettling. Someone with a problem who gets stoned is likely to have a very unpleasant time while high and become very much more aware of their problem as a result.

    Cannabis is not the best drug to take if you want to hide form life.

  12. So, you are actually saying the actual effect of cannabis is depressing, ESPECIALLY in a negative state of mind. The actual effect of cannabis is mild (depressant), but placebo affected by setting is strong.

    Alcohol or benzodiazepines do not have an anxiolytic effect if the user does not know he is receiving them. The real pharmacological effect (gabaergic) is very mild, but placebo is strong.

    Your views are your views which seem to be affected by the culture surrounding the use of the mentioned substances.

    Do you have double-blind vs no-treatment group studies to prove alcohol somehow efficiently works to “take the user away from the worlds”? Or the same kind of studies that show how cannabis or it’s components somehow given in a double-blind vs no-treatment group setting somehow makes those psychological changes?

    Or a study that shows these components were given to volunteers without their knowing and such occurences happened?

  13. No I don’t – not to hand anyway. But I feel safe ins saying that alcohol is a disassociate drug and cannabis isn’t.

    I don’t use cannabis incidentally.

    Feel free to use the search on UKCIA to dig out a lot of information about it’s effects though.

    I don’t deny the placebo effect though, but what I am saying is it’s not the only thing at play here, nor probably the most potent.

  14. Cannabis isn’t disassociate? Why is the effect often called “being stoned”? Because you are so aware of your surroundings?

    You walk in to a bar and order a drink to become less social and less interested about your surroundings?

    Or do you think no one uses Cannabis to “relax and forget their troubles”, or for stress reduction?

  15. Anyway, thank you UKCIA for this longish debate. I enjoyed it and being able to share my views. We basically came to the same conclusion – “I don’t deny the placebo effect though, but what I am saying is it’s not the only thing at play here, nor probably the most potent.”

    Still, my last post was to challenge your view on the effect of Cannabis. Our views are very objective.

    I am claiming mine is pretty objective though as I don’t claim to enjoy the actual effect myself but I still have been using a lot of cannabis _in the past_. Still, does claiming something like that make me an idiot besserwisser? 🙂

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