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Cannabis Column | June 26, 2022

Is cannabis an opioid?


Are you wondering, "Is cannabis an opioid?" If so, you’re not alone. The opioid epidemic has a lot of people being more cautious and asking the same question.

After reading this article you’ll know the difference between cannabis vs. opioids. You’ll also be able to answer the question "Is marijuana an opiate?"

Is marijuana an opiate?

To be able to answer the question "Is marijuana an opiate" we must first understand what an opiate is.

What is an opiate?

Opioids are a class of pain-relieving drugs that bind to opioid receptors in cells found in the central and peripheral nervous system and non-neuronal tissues. Opioids can be made from the poppy plant or synthesized in a laboratory. Opioids can be legally prescribed medication such as hydrocodone, OxyContin, Vicodin, or morphine, or illicit street drugs such as fentanyl (which has 50–100 times more potency than morphine), heroin, and OxyContin, Vicodin, or morphine taken without a prescription.

The terms opioids and opiates are used interchangeably, but they are different. An opiate refers to a drug derived from opium that targets the opioid receptors in the brain, such as morphine, heroin, or codeine. Opioids refer to all natural and synthetic drugs that act on the opioid receptors.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) shares that opioids impact:

  • The limbic system, the system responsible for controlling emotions. The limbic system responds to opioids by creating feelings of pleasure, relaxation, and contentment.
  • The brainstem, the part of the body that controls things like the body's ability to automatically breathe. The brainstem responds to opioids by slowing breathing, stopping coughing, and reducing feelings of pain.
  • The spinal cord, the part of the body that captures sensations from the body and sends them to the brain. The spinal cord responds to opioids by decreasing the body's sensation of pain, especially after a serious injury.

The Mayo Clinic states that "When opioid medications travel through your blood and attach to opioid receptors in your brain cells, the cells release signals that muffle your perception of pain and boost your feelings of pleasure." 

The feelings of pleasure and absence of pain induced by opioids can cause people to develop dependency and/or addiction. Common opiate side effects include:

  • Addiction and dependence (also referred to as "Opioid Use Disorder")
  • Constipation
  • Death due to an overdose
  • Mental fog
  • Nausea
  • Sleepiness at low doses
  • Rapid heart rate at high doses
  • Respiratory depression at high doses (i.e. slowed or stopped breathing)

Is marijuana an opiate?

No, marijuana is not an opiate.

Cannabis, popularly known as marijuana, is a plant that contains 125 different cannabinoids, with THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and cannabidiol (CBD) being the most well-known and researched cannabinoids. Opioids, on the other hand, are drugs that bind to opioid receptors found in the body.

While both opioids and cannabinoids interact with receptors found throughout the body, they do so in different ways.

Cannabinoids like THC interact with cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2), which are found in the brain and throughout the body. These receptors are part of what's known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a network of receptors and neurotransmitters that play a role in various functions such as pain, inflammation, sleep, mood, and appetite.

Opioids, on the other hand, interact with opioid receptors (mu, delta, and kappa), which are mostly found in the brain and spinal cord. 

Cannabinoids do not bind directly to opioid receptors. However, cannabinoid receptors and opioid receptors are clustered together in the brain, and cannabinoids exert some pain relieving effects through opioid receptors as a result. 

As Jointly discussed in Is Cannabis Good for Pain Relief?:

Research has shown that the endocannabinoid system “acts independently of the opioid pathway to control pain signaling, immune activation, and inflammation.” While the endocannabinoid and opioid pain pathways act independently, scientists have found that CB1 receptors are “found in high concentrations in areas of the brain that modulate nociceptive processing, with a similar distribution to opioid receptors.”

Additionally, we know that “the analgesic effect of THC is, at least in part, mediated through…opioid receptors.”

But at a basic level, cannabinoids like THC bind to cannabinoid receptors while opioids like fentanyl bind to opioid receptors.

Cannabinoids vs. Opioids

Now that we know cannabis is not an opioid, let’s compare cannabis and opioids in more detail.

While both cannabinoids and opioids can be used for pain relief, there are some key differences between these drug types.

Cannabis vs opioids (market size):

  • In 2018 the legal sale of opioids in the United States was valued at $24.4 Billion dollars and had a growth rate of 1.8%.
  • In 2018 the legal sale of cannabis in the United States was valued at $11.3 Billion and had a growth rate of 14.5%.

Cannabis vs opioids (pain relief):

  • Cannabinoids like THC and CBD are thought to work better together than on their own for pain relief. This is because cannabinoids like THC and CBD interact with different receptors in the body.
  • Opioids, on the other hand, work to alleviate pain by binding to opioid receptors found in the brain, spinal cord, and nervous system.

Cannabis vs opioids (side effects):

  • Cannabis is generally well-tolerated with few side effects. The most common side effects of cannabis include dry mouth, red eyes, and feeling tired or "high."
  • Opioids, on the other hand, can cause several serious side effects including respiratory depression, constipation, nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, and death. 

Cannabis vs opioids (overdose and death):

  • It is controversial that it is even possible to overdose and die from whole-plant cannabis consumption. Jason Levine, Ph.D., psychologist, and addiction treatment expert, states that marijuana deaths are typically related to accidents while consuming marijuana not the overconsumption of marijuana.
  • Opioids, on the other hand, are much more dangerous. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) more than 100,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2021.

Key takeaways

  • The answer to the question "Is marijuana an opioid?" is "No, marijuana is not an opioid."
  • Opioids bind to opioid receptors found throughout the body and brain while cannabis binds to cannabinoid receptors in the endocannabinoid system.
  • Cannabis is being used to treat a wide variety of conditions while opioids are mostly used to treat pain.
  • The side effects from overconsuming opioids are much more severe than the side effects experienced from overconsuming cannabis.

So, is cannabis an opioid? No, cannabis is not an opioid. Cannabis is a plant that contains 125 different cannabinoids. Opioids, on the other hand, are drugs that bind to opioid receptors found in the body.

Get started on your cannabis wellness journey

Have you started your cannabis wellness journey? Jointly is a new cannabis wellness app that helps you discover purposeful cannabis consumption so you can achieve your wellness goals with cannabis and CBD. On the Jointly app, you can find new cannabis products, rate products based on how well they helped you achieve your goals, and track and optimize 15 factors that can impact your cannabis experience. These 15 factors include your dose, the environment in which you consume cannabis, who you are with when you ingest, how hydrated you are, the quality of your diet, how much sleep you got last night, and more. Download the Jointly app on the App Store or the Google Play Store to get started on your cannabis wellness journey.

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