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The Complex Relationship Between Cannabis and Mental Health

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cannabis and mental health
PHOTO | Lumppini
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The month of May is coming to a close, and with the end of Mental Health Awareness month comes one of the most difficult topics of discussion among the cannabis industry: Does cannabis improve mental health, or make it worse? Many dedicated consumers and patients would be quick to tell you that the plant has had a profoundly positive influence on their lives. And yet, emerging science on the topic has revealed that cannabis and mental health have a much more complicated relationship than ever predicted.

What is Mental Health?

Before diving into the ways in which cannabis affects mental health, it’s useful to paint a picture of what mental health actually means. For most, mental health means being free from depression, free from psychiatric illness, and perhaps even blissfully happy. Unfortunately, while more people are aware of mental and emotional health than ever before, the concept is still far too often boiled down to either a means of coping with severe mental disorders or as a reinforcement of the idea that you should strive to be happy all of the time.

Both of these popular beliefs are a myth — most people must learn how to develop mental health skills at some point in their lives, and, although it is difficult to admit, being happy all of the time is a scientific anomaly. Contented and peaceful, sure, but moments of blissfulness and pure happiness wax and wane for just about everyone. Of course, this is not to discount the lives or experiences of the many who struggle with severe mental health concerns, such as post-traumatic stress, severe depression, and other psychiatric ailments.

For Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and a world-renowned psychologist, mental health can be broken down into four primary components: mindfulness skills, interpersonal effectiveness, emotional regulation, and distress tolerance. While the names may seem like a mouthful, Linehan believes that each building block is essential for being able to both tolerate and relate to the world in a healthy way.

First, mindfulness is the ability to observe what is happening in the present moment without judgment. Secondly, interpersonal effectiveness relates to your ability to ask respectfully for what you want while setting clear boundaries and saying no what you don’t want. Emotional regulation refers to the ability to feel your emotions without clinging to them or letting them get the better of you. Finally, distress tolerance is the ability to tolerate daily stresses and bounce back from stressful situations.

For Linehan, mental health means practising and maintaining fitness in all four of these skills. Even those with a diagnosed psychiatric disease can still practice these skills to improve their mental health. The therapy was initially designed for those with Borderline Personality Disorder, but the concepts have taken root in the world of psychology and are often readily applied to individuals experiencing all sorts of mental health concerns — from addiction to depression to schizophrenia to struggling with an unexpected life transition.

The Complex Relationship Between Cannabis and Mental Health

So, why bring up Linehan? The definitions of mental health are perhaps as vast as the types of therapies available. As such, there are numerous ways to approach the broad topic of mental health. Most psychiatrists offer a mixture of skill-building and medications in order to treat their patients. Is cannabis a worthwhile therapy for mental health? Well, if early research is any indication, it appears that it would depend on how you use it.

Cannabis for Mental Health: The Pros

For many, cannabis is a go-to remedy for mental health concerns. Whether that means popping a CBD capsule to get through a stressful day or if that means developing a treatment plan to keep symptoms of traumatic stress at bay, cannabis is oft touted as an effective way to improve your state of mind. Cannabis has a long-held reputation as a mood-lifter, inspiring laughing fits, improving sleep, and promoting all-around feelings of well-being.

In patients with serious diseases like cancer, the plant has been proven to reduce pain and improve quality of life, factors which have a profound influence on mental health. There is some early evidence that specific cannabis compounds may be helpful for reducing psychosis related to advanced diseases like Parkinson’s Disease.

Similarly, early experiments suggest that isolated cannabis extracts may reduce agitation associated with dementia. In early clinical trials, CBD treatment has even improved the lives of patients living with treatment-resistant schizophrenia. In the area of post-traumatic stress, cannabis compounds are being studied as uniquely viable treatments for the condition. Amazingly, research suggests that chemicals in the cannabis plant may be able to address possible neurotransmitter deficiencies in PTSD patients.

Further research still explores the ability of low to moderate doses of cannabis medicines to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, perhaps offering patients an alternative to medicines like benzodiazepines, which come with a greater addiction potential and a host of severe side effects. Cannabis, in contrast, has been dubbed as well-tolerated with limited side effects in most of the mental health trials conducted so far.

The Risks of Cannabis For Mental Health

But, is cannabis a cure or a crutch? While a body of positive research on cannabis as a mental health aid exists, the plant cannot simply be lumped into a category as either good or bad. Instead, research seems to indicate that cannabis may be beneficial in some circumstances, but it may also worsen overall mental health in others. In high doses, for example, the primary psychoactive component in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), may increase anxiety and cause panic attacks.

Further, professionals also have concerns about the chronic consumption of high-potency cannabis. Several epidemiological studies have suggested that long-term cannabis consumption, especially of the high potency variety, is correlated with increased rates of depression, anxiety, and poor mental health. While correlation does not always indicate causation, researchers have found that the younger you are when you pick up a regular cannabis habit, the more likely you are to experience negative mental health outcomes.

And then, of course, is the argument that cannabis can cause psychosis in some people. This is not exactly the same Reefer Madness argument that has dominated since the late 1930s. Instead, modern genetic research suggests that cannabis consumption may contribute to psychiatric illness in those with a genetic predisposition, especially in those that heavily consume the plant. In teens and adolescents, regular cannabis consumption was correlated to an earlier onset of psychotic symptoms in those with a predisposition to this type of mental health trouble.

Finally, both cannabidiol (CBD) and medical cannabis consumption show potential in treating some forms of addiction, including alcohol, nicotine, and opioid addiction. Regular cannabis consumers, however, can also develop a dependency on the herb. For some, this dependency can cause symptoms of withdrawal after stopping the herb. For this reason, many health professionals are reluctant to offer cannabis as a mental health treatment.

Everything in Moderation

What Linehan describes in her Dialectical Model of Behavioral Therapy are a series of skills that an individual must learn in order to developmental and emotional resilience. While progressive mental health and medical professionals see cannabis medicines as tools that better enable patients to focus on these skills, the plant itself is not a cure-all for mental health problems. In fact, in some cases, overreliance on the herb may lead to greater problems, such as dependence on the plant in order to cope with stressful situations.

And yet, it is almost impossible to evaluate the subjective benefits of the herb. When consumed in moderation, the cannabis plant has a knack for providing sudden shifts in perspective and for opening mental doors that once seemed impossible. After a stressful day, a little cannabis may feel like a nudge in the right direction — a glimpse into another way of thinking that was suffocated by a sour mood. A time-out from a stagnate way of thinking can be an invaluable source of healing and self-compassion.

Scientists and medical professionals have yet to decide whether or not chronic and continuous cannabis consumption is an effective treatment for mental health issues. When consumed in moderation, with mindfulness, and with proper support, however, it’s difficult to deny that the plant holds real value and has the ability to affect lives in a positive way.

Ultimately, it’s up to the patient and their trusted medical professional to decide when the plant is helpful and when it has become an unhealthy diversion.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health issues, please reach out to Mental Health America or your local helpline.

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THC: This Cannabinoid Is the Reason You Get High From Weed

THC may be best known as a euphoriant that delivers a psychoactive effect, it also offers a multitude of medicinal benefits.

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THC
Mortgage Lifter PHOTO | Courtesy Humboldt Seed Company

Of the 113 cannabinoids that have been discovered in the cannabis herb, none is more infamous than tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Responsible for most of the psychoactivity and euphoria of cannabis, this cannabinoid does more than merely give suburban soccer moms a modicum of stress relief and college students ravenous munchies.

With all due respect to the molecules caffeine and ethanol, probably no other molecule in the history of humanity has been as misunderstood, stigmatized, or politicized as THC. From the reefer madness era of the late 1930s to the stereotype-laden films of Cheech and Chong in the 1970s to more recent movies like Pineapple Express (based on the name of a popular strain of cannabis), the truth about THC and its efficacy for humans often evades laypeople who consume content from only national media outlets.

The medicinal benefits of the molecule are numerous, ranging from relaxation and pain relief to appetite stimulation and sedation (great for insomniacs). Negative effects of this molecule include intense appetite stimulation (with predictable gastrointestinal consequences the following day), dry mouth, potential short-term memory impairment, paranoia and panic attacks (especially with sativa strains), and lethargy (typically in indica varieties).

The Details of THC

While THC may be best known as a euphoriant that delivers a psychoactive effect, it offers a multitude of medicinal benefits that far exceed the fabled “stoner” mannerisms of lethargy and forgetfulness. Despite its delivery of what is sometimes a potent euphoric effect (especially for new consumers), it is impossible to overdose on THC.

Assuming moderate and reasonable consumption levels, cannabis can serve as a positive lifestyle enhancement that delivers stress relief, mental wellness, improved energy levels, and even performance enhancement. Strains featuring relatively potent levels of THC include Blueberry, Ghost Train Haze, Master Kush, Trainwreck, and White Rhino.

Predicting the exact potency and efficacy of a particular strain of cannabis is difficult for a variety of reasons. For example, a theory called the Entourage Effect identifies how other cannabinoids and their aromatic cousins called terpenes can modify the effects of other cannabinoids and terpenes, including buffering or amplifying the effect or potency of THC.

One distinct characteristic of the molecule is tolerance building. While a subjective area of cannabis efficacy, tolerance building for daily consumers can be significant. To combat this problem, some indulge in a decades-long practice dubbed a tolerance break, during which they significantly decrease or cease consumption for between a few days and a week.

The Research on THC

A 2011 study conducted by cannabis research pioneer Dr. Ethan Russo entitled “Taming THC: Potential Cannabis Synergy and Phytocannabinoid-terpenoid Entourage Effects” and published in the British Journal of Pharmacology provides a critical overview of THC’s medical benefits.

Concluded Russo and his team, “THC is the most common phytocannabinoid in cannabis and…is a partial agonist at CB1 and cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2),” pointing out the herb’s myriad medical applications, including “activities as a psychoactive agent, analgesic, muscle relaxant, and antispasmodic.”

Russo’s team concluded that THC also functions as a bronchodilator and neuroprotective antioxidant while featuring 20 times the anti-inflammatory power of aspirin and twice that of hydrocortisone.

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Everything You Need to Know About Microdosing Weed

There are great reasons for microdosing weed including medical conditions that benefit from it, and a few different ways to achieving the perfect dose.

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Microdosing Weed
PHOTO | Gracie Malley

Microdosing is the latest craze in cannabis. It has been utilized for some time, both with cannabis and LSD, but only now is the mainstream getting hip to the low dose strategy. There are great reasons for microdosing weed including medical conditions that benefit from and improve because of it, and a few different ways to achieving that perfectly sensible dose.

Wait, First… What Is It?

Microdosing weed is when a person consumes very small amounts of cannabis in order to receive the benefits of whole plant medicine (THC, CBD, terpenes, etc) while experiencing very little to none of the “high.” It isn’t for those times when you want to get ripped and watch an entire season of Westworld and chow down, it is not going to produce that kind of experience. It is more or less a medical use technique that can be utilized day to day without affecting one’s overall state of mind. It is basically the opposite of a dab or trying to find the biggest pre-roll with the highest THC strain you can.

So Why Microdose?

As cannabis becomes more popular, and more people want to harness its power, the demand for less psychoactive pot rises. Not everyone likes to get the giggles, or the munchies, or the long trains of thought that tend to present themselves when a person gets stoned. Others do enjoy the laughing, eating and philosophizing but need something more manageable during their work day and family time.

Microdosing to the rescue. Now you can get just a little high, without any of the headiness or outward signs that you have been consuming anything at all.

Family reunion? Microdose.

Big meeting at work? Microdose.

Irritatingly long wait at the DMV? You guessed it – microdose.

More seriously, if you work a 9-5 and suffer from back pain from sitting at your desk all day long – you could be microdosing to alleviate those aches and pains without making it obvious that you are medicating with cannabis throughout the day.

Potential Medical Benefits

Unfortunately, because cannabis is a Schedule I drug, the federal government claims that it has no medical value and therefore has not been studied as much as it should be. Most scientific studies on that have been completed on cannabis consumption are animal based. While many of those animal studies can absolutely translate to apply to human beings, it is certainly not the same as results garnered from actual human studies.

There have been studies on the benefits of administering low doses of synthetic cannabis pharmaceuticals in humans. Those results are typically positive in regards to microdosing. However, like the animal studies, results from synthetic cannabis studies do not fully represent the results that could be gathered from studying real, naturally sourced marijuana.

With that said, there are incredible amounts data supplied by cannabis users, and a bevy of recorded favorable results, that go toward proving that marijuana is an effective way to treat a variety of medical conditions. Microdosing can help almost anything that using cannabis will – just in a much smaller and more controlled way. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), insomnia, glaucoma, nausea, wasting syndrome, and moderate pain are just a few of the conditions that can benefit from microdosing weed. However, medical issues like cancer and epilepsy, that are treated with large amounts or very concentrated forms of cannabis, are not necessarily best suited for treatment with microdosing.

Think of it like this… if you have achy muscles you can take an over the counter pain reliever twice a day for relief but if you have severe pain in your joints and muscles that requires a prescription painkiller, the over the counter medicine isn’t really going to make a dent. The same can apply for microdosing. If your condition can be treated throughout the day in small doses, microdosing could be a beneficial, natural way to treat the problem. If you only experience relief from consuming an entire joint or 100 mg edible, microdosing is likely not going to be the best way to alleviate the issue.

Start low and find your sweet spot.

Consumption Options for Microdosing Weed

Microdosing weed can be achieved a few ways.

An oil cartridge and vape pen is one of the easiest ways to consume small, controlled doses of cannabis. A vape pen is discreet, clean, and odorless. Many vape pens have an auto-shutoff after a few seconds, so doses can be regulated with ease.

Edibles are another great way to microdose. Infused food or candy manufacturers have caught on and started producing products in smaller doses in order to service the microdosing market. Edibles of yesteryear could only be found in 50 mg, 100 mg or higher dosages. Now, you can purchase a bag of candies infused with 2.5 mg, 5 mg or 10 mg.

You can also microdose with smoked cannabis, but it is more difficult to do so covertly. If keeping your use under wraps is important, smoking cannabis should be your last choice due to the lingering smell alone. However, a loaded one-hitter or chillum is an adequate way to limit the dose you consume while still benefiting from the plant’s medical properties.

Whether you vape, eat, or smoke cannabis to microdose is up to you. In many circumstances and for many medical conditions, microdosing can be a better option than an all-out cannabis consumption free for all — less fun, sure, but not everyone is after the same experience with weed. As cannabis becomes more widely accepted, so does the trend of microdosing. Give it a shot, see if the shoe fits!

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Why Independent Third-Party Cannabis Testing Is Important

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Cannabis Testing
PHOTO | HQUALITY

During cultivation, the cannabis plant acts like a sponge. It absorbs everything it is exposed to, from pesticides, nutrients, and heavy metals present in the soil. For these reasons, it is essential that reputable and reliable third-party labs carry out cannabis testing to assure safety and efficacy of the product.

Lab testing of cannabis products is an essential part of the regulated market’s supply chain. It detects offensive chemicals or contaminants that can lead to adverse health effects when consumed, while additionally providing cultivators and retailers with efficacious cannabinoid and terpene profiles of legal cannabis products. 

In Canada’s regulated market, batch release quality control testing is required for potency and product safety, so it is necessary to measure substances like pesticides, mycotoxins, bacteria, and molds. Unfortunately, reports on potency and contaminants can vary from lab to lab, while recalls of contaminated products threaten consumer trust of legal products. 

Sigma Analytical Services is a full-service pesticide, elemental, molecular, genetic, and pathogen analysis laboratory for cannabis, hemp, and cannabis-derived products. It delivers reliable science for cannabis products to the cannabis industry and cannabis consumers.

Cannabis Aficionado spoke with Ashton Abrahams, co-founder and COO of Sigma Analytical Services, to learn more about the importance of cannabis testing and Sigma’s strict processes.

Cannabis Aficionado: Tell me about your entrepreneurial journey to cannabis.

I’m a serial entrepreneur with over 20 years of experience in starting and growing several successful ventures. In 2017, when Canada was in the process of legalizing cannabis, my partner and I saw an opportunity to focus on a different side of the new cannabis industry — ancillary testing and quality reassurance requirements. We knew there would be new products in the market, and they would all require testing. So, we started a testing lab that focused on cannabis and cannabis products, and this is how Sigma started.

What sets Sigma apart from other testing labs?

We want to ensure products available in this new market are efficacious and safe, and ensure the levels of both remain consistent. Sigma is the only GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) certified, cannabis-focused lab in Canada and the only cannabis-focused lab with cross-continental operations. We developed and validated our methods back in 2018 and 2019, so we are the frontrunner in Cannabis 2.0 product testing and are set up to test a comprehensive list of cannabis products — including flower, edibles, beverages, and topicals. 

Sigma also has validated methods for quantifying and testing 16 cannabinoids and 43 terpenes — one of the highest in the market — and our analytical and microbiology tests are compliant with Health Canada, EU, and US Pharmacopeia.

Additionally, Sigma was awarded the Best Cannabis Lab/Testing Facility in Canada at the Grow Up 2019 awards.

Inside Sigma Analytical Services’ state-of-the-art lab.

What need does Sigma fill in the global cannabis industry?

Sigma brings reliable science that is already available in food and pharma to the cannabis industry, its products, and consumers.

Cannabis, food, and pharma share certain quality requirements. However, there is a big difference: in terms of quality assurance, food and pharma have decades of testing experience, while cannabis is a new industry, and the science is still being developed. 

What kind of samples do you test?

We have developed and validated testing methods for many different types of cannabis products, from traditional dried flower and oils to Cannabis 2.0 products , such as concentrates, beverages, edibles, and topicals. From a testing standpoint, each and every one of these products is different and can have a different matrix. In turn, we develop a testing  method for each one.

What should customers be looking for to see reassurance that a product’s been tested? 

Make sure their products are purchased through legal channels. It’s the regulatory bodies’ responsibility to make sure the products launched in the market are not just tested, but tested specifically by qualified labs.

Moldy cannabis is a problem in legal markets and there are numerous reports of Health Canada product recalls after customers discovered moldy flower. Can you talk to us about how you test for these pathogens?

From day one, instead of using the traditional culture-based method, Sigma has tested for mould and all microbial contamination using a newer technology called qPCR (quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction). When we first started it in late 2018, nobody was familiar with it in the cannabis industry, so we had to take time to explain to our clients that it was a better, more reliable, and faster process. In the last six months, however, we have seen a huge shift in attitude. Not only have the cannabis producers accepted qPCR, but more cannabis labs are starting to use the technology to test for microbial contaminations.

Cannabis Testing
Moldy cannabis. PHOTO | LabRoots

What are some of the most exciting developments in cannabis testing?

Using qPCR for microbial contamination is very new for the cannabis industry. We’re happy and excited about it because we see the benefits and we hope the whole cannabis industry embraces it. 

Secondly, the challenges of formulating, developing, and testing new products. The developments in the past six months have been really promising.

Thirdly, discovering more about the cannabis plant and what ends up in cannabis products is really an exciting development. As we progress, we are sure to learn more about the effects of cannabinoids and terpenes.

What’s your pinnacle vision of cannabis testing?

There are two sides to it. There is a regulatory side, and there is the testing side. On the regulatory side, it’s about what needs to be tested, and how it needs to be tested. 

A very important part of the quality assurance initiative for cannabis is ensuring the testing sample is representative of that batch. There are different factors in place. Is that batch homogeneous or not? Are the characteristics consistent or not? Cannabis is a plant. It’s an agricultural product. It’s not something that’s coming out of a machine, so we cannot expect all of the plants to have exactly the same characteristics. I believe one key is to limit the size of the batch. Other jurisdictions have clearly defined regulations. For example, in California, it clearly states that each batch cannot be larger than fifty pounds. In the Canadian regulations, there is no definition at all.

Secondly, labs need to get more serious. Some labs are testing cannabis products with outdated instruments or unvalidated methods, meaning their results cannot be truly accurate or reliable. Cannabis labs cannot use a 15-year-old second-hand instrument and expect to get the same results as pharmaceutical labs that use the best, most advanced instruments. Some people might think that testing cannabis products is not as important as pharmaceutical products, but it is just as important.

Cannabis has a very complex matrix which requires complex testing methods. Not all labs have good enough or validated methods. However, I’m optimistic that it’s a matter of years, maybe between five to ten, for cannabis testing to get there.

How is Sigma helping to foster the growth of a responsible and safe legal cannabis industry?

I think everyone active in the cannabis industry has a responsibility to make sure they are doing a good job and providing safe and efficacious products to the consumer. That’s because, if the consumer is not happy with what they’re getting from us, it will translate into unhappiness with the whole legalized framework.

Finally, what’s next for Sigma?

We are going through some expansion at our headquarters in Toronto and we’re about to acquire a lab in British Columbia, which will be our second lab in Canada. Additionally, we have a joint venture in Colombia and are setting up the first GMP certified cannabis lab in South America.

We are also becoming more involved with helping develop formulations for new products, and testing them, especially for the producers that follow GMP requirements either in pursuit of higher quality or for international cannabis markets.

We also recently received our GMP clearance from the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (“TGA”). The approval designates Sigma as an approved testing laboratory for Canadian companies to introduce their products into the Australian cannabis market.

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