If CBD is always called non-psychoactive, why does a top expert in the cannabinoid field say this a misconception?
Cannabidiol (CBD) is referred to as a “non-psychoactive” cannabinoid just about everywhere it is mentioned. However, Dr. Ethan Russo, a long-time cannabinoid researcher, has recently said that this isn’t actually the case.
In a publication reviewing myths associated with CBD, he stated the following:
“CBD is frequently mischaracterized in lay, electronic, and scientific sources as ‘non-psychoactive’ or ‘non-psychotropic’ in comparison to THC…”
Let’s take a quick look at the definitions of these words, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
- Psychoactive: Affecting the mind or behavior
- Psychotropic: Acting on the mind
So anything that can affect your mind can accurately be called psychoactive. It does not specifically mean that it gets you high. Let’s see what Dr. Russo says next:
“…these terms are inaccurate given its prominent pharmacological benefits on anxiety, schizophrenia, addiction, and possibly even depression.”
He accurately points out that CBD can have many effects on the mind. Therefore, we have to admit that CBD actually is psychoactive according to the proper definition of the word. It is really no surprise given there are many different neurotransmitter systems that CBD can potentially interact with.
However, most people think of the word psychoactive as meaning something that gets you high. Although it’s not technically correct, this usage is so common that it cannot be ignored. Since the semantics of the word will inevitably be confusing, Dr. Russo suggests an alternative:
“More accurately, CBD should be preferably labeled as ‘non-intoxicating’, and lacking associated reinforcement, craving, compulsive use, etc., that would indicate a significant drug abuse liability.”
In fact, beyond not having an abuse liability itself, CBD is also being explored for its ability to block addiction to other drugs. I will be writing about this aspect more soon!
Evidence That CBD is Psychoactive
There are many studies we can cite here to show that CBD is psychoactive, but it is always under specific circumstances:
- CBD is psychoactive in people with certain mental health conditions (e.g. anxiety, schizophrenia, addiction)
- CBD is psychoactive in experimentally-induced anxiety (i.e. anxiety that was purposely created in a study to test the anti-anxiety effects of CBD)
- CBD is psychoactive when combined with THC. It modulates certain cognitive and emotional effects of THC. This is part of the “entourage effect” which I will be covering in depth very soon.
What about normal, healthy people with no existing conditions or anxiety? Is there any evidence that CBD does anything to their brain? This question was difficult to answer. Even after reviewing about a dozen studies, I could not find any clear mental effects of CBD in healthy people!
Here are some studies I will highlight to show that CBD does affect the brains of healthy people (although the significance of these is still unclear):
- CBD produces changes in fMRI
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is used to measure activity in different brain regions. According to a 2012 review, CBD induces changes in fMRI under a variety of different conditions (visual and auditory processing, attention tasks, memory tasks, and more). These changes are mostly the opposite of those induced by THC.
- CBD improves recognition of facial emotion
In one study, healthy volunteers were briefly shown a face expressing one emotion. The subjects had to estimate which emotion was shown after vaporization of 16 mg of CBD or placebo. When the emotional intensity of the face was at 60%, there was a statistically significant improvement in accurate assessment of the emotion. However this difference was so small (about 75% accurate with CBD vs. 72% accurate with placebo), that I wouldn’t make much of it.
Evidence that CBD is Non-Intoxicating
Now let’s verify that scientific studies back up the claim that CBD is non-intoxicating. There are several properties that I associate with intoxication, and CBD does not have any of them:
- CBD does not impair psychomotor performance
One study showed that a dose of 320 μg/kg of oral CBD (about 22 mg) had no effect on tests of reaction time, standing steadiness, or motor coordination. Another study showed that 150 μg/kg (about 10 mg) of smoked CBD had no effect on tests of standing steadiness, motor performance, or manual coordination.
- CBD does not impair cognitive performance
A 2017 review paper has looked at the effect of CBD on cognition. Oral CBD at a dose of 600 mg did not produce any impairment in tests of verbal memory, social recognition, or executive function in healthy volunteers. No effect on cognition has been observed in rats either.
- CBD does not have sedative effects
Sedation has occasionally been reported with CBD in the past. However, recent placebo-controlled studies have indicated there is no significant effect on sedation. For example, a 2012 study showed no differences in feelings of mental or physical sedation between a single 600 mg dose of oral CBD versus placebo.
- CBD does not have abuse liability
I have seen no evidence whatsoever that CBD would be abused as a recreation drug. For example, a 2017 study tested doses of oral CBD from 200 to 800 mg in frequent cannabis smokers (a group that surely would appreciate a high if there was one to be found). No CBD dose differentiated from placebo in measures like how high subjects felt or the street value they would assign to the drug.
Should We Call CBD Non-Psychoactive?
We have to be clear what we mean when we saw that CBD is non-psychoactive. According to the actual definition (but not the more commonly used definition), CBD can be psychoactive. However, it is not clear whether this applies in non-anxious people with no health conditions who have not ingested THC.
Given the potential confusion, I agree with Dr. Russo that it is better to call CBD non-intoxicating.
Last modified: June 6, 2017