The two main constituents of cannabis, cannabidiol and δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), have opposing effects both pharmacologically and behaviourally when administered in the laboratory. Street cannabis is known to contain varying levels of each cannabinoid.
To study how the varying levels of cannabidiol and THC have an impact on the acute effects of the drug in naturalistic settings.
Cannabis users (n = 134) were tested 7 days apart on measures of memory and psychotomimetic symptoms, once while they were drug free and once while acutely intoxicated by their own chosen smoked cannabis. Using an unprecedented methodology, a sample of cannabis (as well as saliva) was collected from each user and analysed for levels of cannabinoids. On the basis of highest and lowest cannabidiol content of cannabis, two groups of individuals were directly compared.
Groups did not differ in the THC content of the cannabis they smoked. Unlike the marked impairment in prose recall of individuals who smoked cannabis low in cannabidiol, participants smoking cannabis high in cannabidiol showed no memory impairment. Cannabidiol content did not affect psychotomimetic symptoms, which were elevated in both groups when intoxicated.
The antagonistic effects of cannabidiol at the CB1 receptor are probably responsible for its profile in smoked cannabis, attenuating the memory-impairing effects of THC. In terms of harm reduction, users should be made aware of the higher risk of memory impairment associated with smoking low-cannabidiol strains of cannabis like ‘skunk’ and encouraged to use strains containing higher levels of cannabidiol.