In the first study of it’s kind to evaluate sex differences in THC, the key ingredient in cannabis, researchers have found that smoking the concentrated marijuana of today may be riskier for women – due to the hormone estrogen.

Previous studies have found that women are more apt to cannabis abuse and dependence than men. In women, cannabis withdrawal symptoms of irritability, sleep disruption and decreased food intake was found to be more severe. Women also have a higher likelihood of relapsing when quitting the drug.

Yet, despite the differences in how marijuana affects men and women, most THC studies have been done on males, due to their more stable hormones.

The researchers, led by Professor Rebecca Craft of Washington State University have been studying drug sensitivities in females, and in their latest study conducted in rats, she and her team “routinely manipulate hormones and follow females across their cycles to see if their drug sensitivities change along with their hormones. “And they do… very frequently,” she says.

“What we’re finding with THC is that you get a very clear spike in drug sensitivity right when the females are ovulating,” says Prof. Craft, “right when their estrogen levels have peaked and are coming down.” Because the women develop tolerance to THC more quickly, they have increased vulnerability to side effects such as anxiety.

She adds that the dose they used “is the lowest dose anyone has ever used to induce tolerance.”

Marijuana has over 60 compounds called cannabinoids. THC is the psychoactive ingredient that gives users the characteristic high. Cannabidiol and cannabinol occur in smaller concentrations and have medicinal properties.

All three of these compounds are in the most common types of marijuana, but Prof. Craft says selective breeding in modern-day recreational pot has resulted in concentrations of THC that are double or triple those from the 1960s and 1970s.

“Marijuana is very different than it was 40 years ago. It’s much higher in THC and lower in cannabidiol, so a little goes a very long way. We’re more likely to see negative side effects today like anxiety, confusion, panic attacks, hallucinations, or extreme paranoia. And women are at higher risk.”

Interestingly, the “munchie effect,” by which marijuana use increases appetite is the only THC reaction where men show more sensitivity than females, she notes.

Professor Craft and her team are now studying how the effects of cannabidiol can counter some of THC’s negative side effects, so they can understand how medical marijuana can help people with pain.

“These people have pain that lasts for months or years,” Prof. Craft says. “Tolerance develops differently and sometimes you get a lot less tolerance to a drug when people are in chronic pain.”     9/3/14


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