Updated on May 5, 2020.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
You probably know that marijuana is excellent medicine for patients with pain, nausea, spasticity, and a whole host of other conditions, and that some people use it to relax. But did you also know that its effects on the user can vary quite a lot? That’s because marijuana, or cannabis, is a plant with a wide array of naturally-occurring compounds and big differences between products and ways of consuming.
Here are some of the factors that come into play in how marijuana affects you.
THC vs CBD
Tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, is responsible for many of marijuana’s therapeutic benefits. It’s also the compound that gets you high. Cannabidiol, CBD, on the other hand, comes with its own suite of medical uses but isn’t psychotropic. In other words, CBD doesn’t get you high.
Some medical marijuana patients use THC-rich products and are therefore likely to experience the euphoria or “stoned” feeling along with the medical benefit. Other patients—including some people with anxiety, sleep issues, and certain pain conditions—use low-THC, or CBD-only, products and aren’t likely to experience a high.
Some people use CBD and THC in combination (such as 1:1 or 10:1 ratios). Since CBD tends to lessen the psychoactive effect of THC, these patients and consumers probably won’t feel as much of the euphoria either, as long as their overall consumption is moderate.
How you take it
Whether by smoking, vaporizing bud, or using a vape pen, inhalation is the quickest-acting method—but also the quickest one to wear off. Depending on your experience with the plant, you’ll only feel the peak effects of inhaled cannabis for 1-3 hours.
Sublingual sprays and tinctures come next; their effects can hit you anywhere between five and 30 minutes later, and tend to last about four hours on average.
Edibles take longer to kick in (30 minutes to two hours) and—depending on your experience and tolerance level—tend to last four to eight hours. For those with sleep issues, this long-lasting effect is a real plus. But for patients who want more short-lived daytime relief—not so much. As long as you don’t go overboard on edibles, they tend to yield a relaxing and mellow “body high.”
And marijuana topicals can provide excellent pain relief for muscles and joints, but they won’t get you high at all—even if you’re slathering on a topical with a lot of THC in it.
Dose and Potency
Cannabis flower varies from five to 30 percent THC content—and you bet that the potency of your product will affect how you feel after using it. One puff of a high-potency strain could give you the same effect, if not an even more elevated one, than several puffs of a low-THC strain.
But that doesn’t mean that higher-potency cannabis is necessarily better. For instance, many people get plenty of relief and enjoyment from a low to moderate dose of THC.
Edibles are measured in milligrams. In many states, a serving size is five mgs—a good place to start if you’re new. Patients with pain and other medical conditions may wind up taking more than that, but remember to always start low and go slow. And if you’re a patient, be sure to stick to the dosage recommended by your doctor.
If you’re using flower or “bud,” strain will also make a difference. That’s because cannabinoids, like THC and CBD, aren’t the only game in town. Aromatic compounds called terpenes also affect the high—and can influence whether your “sesh” leaves you energized and active, or glued to the couch.
Tolerance, Genes, and Gender
Cannabis newbies are more likely to get high and to benefit from pain relief with a smaller dose of THC than long-time users. That’s because usage over time tends to build tolerance.
There’s also some evidence to suggest that genetic differences determine which part of your brain THC affects, and—potentially—whether the THC high is an enjoyable or an unpleasant experience for you.
The good news is that, while there are many factors influencing how cannabis affects you, these days there are plenty of ways to learn about medical and recreational marijuana, and to find products that are the right fit for you.