Does Cannabis Share Psychedelic Properties? A Comparative Study with LSD Reveals Insights

Let’s just say they leave room for debate.

LSD and psilocybin are known for their capacity to enhance the complexity or “diversity” of brain activity. But does THC work in the same way?

Contrary to LSD and what are traditionally termed “classic psychedelics,” THC mimics the action neurotransmitters known as endocannabinoids. These neurotransmitters reversely transmit signals across brain synapses, crucial in controlling neuronal activity. THC’s influence can lead to infamous and revered effects such as euphoria, getting the munchies, and stress relief. But, as Psychology Today asks, as have so many before them, does this mean that cannabis counts as a psychedelic? New research examines the science to find out. 

A recent study spearheaded by Conor Murray at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) explored the impact of oral THC on neural complexity. Working at the University of Chicago, Murray, alongside his team, utilized electroencephalogram (EEG), a non-invasive method to monitor electrical brain activity (it’s that soft helmet-looking device covered in electrodes). The research involved two groups of healthy participants: one ingested THC in pill format, while the other was administered a minimal microdose of LSD in a separate session, which the researchers defined here as a dose small enough to produce subtle, or what Psychology Today describes as “barely noticeable” effects.

By the way, before you read any further, know that this THC wasn’t plant-derived or even your typical tablet. The THC pill utilized by the scientists contained synthetic THC, aka Marinol. This also means that they studied straight-up synthetic THC without the entourage effect of having other cannabinoids, such as CBD and CBN, present. 

Additionally, to assess how both LSD and the synthetic THC stack up against a stimulant drug without perception-altering properties, (they administered a medicinal form of methamphetamine to a third group of healthy participants, described as something akin to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD medications) that does significantly enhances alertness and focus. Within a controlled environment, volunteers were given THC, LSD, and methamphetamine, with some receiving the actual substances while others were given a placebo.

When researchers asked each group how high they got, comparing the substances, the THC session led to the highest level of intoxication, hitting around a 6 or 7 on a scale of 10. The effects of both methamphetamine and LSD were less pronounced (which is what they expected considering the LSD administration requirements stated that the effect be barely perceptible). Additionally, both THC and LSD were found to actually elevate anxiety levels, with THC causing a more significant increase in this regard. Whether THC helps or contributes to anxiety is an ongoing cause for debate. It’s pretty understood that this is both dose-dependent (some people say low doses treat anxiety while others raise it) and on the individual (remember that everyone reacts to THC differently). It’s a hotly debated topic, but as High Times reported, recent research suggests THC helps with sleep in those who take it for anxiety. 

In related news, there’s also evidence that LSD can help treat anxiety, in particular, treating generalized anxiety disorder.  

Regarding their impact on brain function, an unexpected finding emerged when comparing each drug’s influence on neural complexity to a placebo. Only LSD resulted in a statistically significant enhancement in brain activity complexity. Conversely, THC did not significantly change the complexity of EEG signals, with its minor effects consisting of both increases and decreases in activity across various EEG sensors.

Whether or not this means that THC is not psychedelic is still up for debate. The research concludes that the oral THC products do not have psychedelic properties based on the brain activity and a strict definition of what constitutes a psychedelic. First, the changes in the neural complexity that the scientists observed with LSD didn’t correlate with the drug’s noticeable effects, which suggests that the diversity of neural signal changes happen even before one feels like they’re tripping (if they had taken more than a microdose). 

Yet, this scenario could vary if the participants had received a higher dosage of LSD, termed a “microdose,” since other research has demonstrated a line” between neural complexity and the perceived effects of psychedelics at microdose levels.

And, of course, this study looked at Marinol rather than regular cannabis, which must change how we view it. And, as Psychology Today points out, the term psychedelic means to “manifest the mind,” and even that is subjective, and plenty would argue, not solely based on brain patterns, indicating that the debate on whether cannabis counts as a psychedelic will continue.

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