Neuroscience of Cannabis & Sex

AUTHOR: JOSH KAPLAN, Ph.D
ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARI SAPERSTEIN

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The propaganda

In the 1930’s, stories and images of sex-crazed youth were a staple of anti-marijuana propaganda. Sex and rage were intertwined with cannabis in biggest the newspapers across America. There were countless reports of intense lust brought on by smoking reefer, inevitably resulting in violence and assault.

One anti-cannabis article published by William Randolph Hearst ( who, at the time, owned nearly 30 newspapers reaching over 20 million subscribers) read, “… a sex-mad degenerate brutally attacked a young girl… Police officers knew definitely that the man was under the influence of marijuana.”

Today, this statement seems outlandish, but at the time, many believed it plausible that smoking a pure plant could result in “bath salt” like behavior.  The general public was taught to fear marijuana— unaware that it was the same drug as the cannabis plant, which had been used medicinally for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Even to those familiar with the species many names, the science surrounding cannabis was meager. Books published 50-100 years prior were still influencing public thought. One in particular, Hashish and Mental Illness, written by psychiatrist J.J. Moreau in 1845, described cannabis-induced fluctuations of emotions, irresistible impulses, illusions, and hallucinations. If you subscribed to Moreau’s view, a sex-crazed assault seemed completely plausible (note: scientists today remain perplexed by his conclusions. Numerous hypotheses involving mixing other drugs have been proposed and debated to explain these observed symptoms, which are extremely rare or non-existent in cannabis users). As we didn’t know how the effect of cannabis on the brain back then, perhaps it could have made you a sex-crazed lunatic.

The implicit message in the W.R. Hearst’s newspapers was that cannabis lowers inhibitions and promotes the execution of sexual urges through violence. This would seem completely reasonable if you were exposed to Moreau’s teaching (from nearly a century earlier!) in addition to the government-fabricated propaganda. It took an evolved scientific understanding of cannabis to overcome this nonsense.

Emerging from the dark ages

The 1960’s was an important decade for the science of cannabis. In 1964, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary high-inducing cannabinoid, was discovered by Israeli scientists. They still didn’t know how it caused people to get high, but like ethanol in wine, people suddenly knew what was affecting their brain. Could THC cause people to become aggressive and capture “innocent youth victims of a new SEX-CRAZE”, as one propaganda poster reported? It was still unclear. Scientists didn’t know what THC was doing in the brain. Of course, there was no actual evidence that cannabis induced aggression or madness, but to many, that wasn’t sufficient.

Just a few years later, the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic opened and became particularly interested in the interaction between sex and drugs of its patients. Their report exposed cannabis to be a sex-enhancing drug, a position that was confirmed by survey reports on college campuses across the country. None of these reports mentioned elevated levels of aggression or “sex-rage”. But, it took scientists over 25 years before discovering the brain receptor through which THC carries out its effects. After this discovery, it became nearly impossible to take the violence-promoting position.

The discovery of the cannabinoid type I (CB1) receptor along with the identification of the body’s own cannabinoid chemicals (called endogenous cannabinoids) in the early 90’s are what led to the acknowledgement that THC merely modulates a system that’s already in place. This receptor is found throughout the brain and has a general “dampening effect” on brain activity. It has since been determined that this endogenous cannabinoid system, through which THC carries out its euphoric effects, has since been revealed to play important roles in everything from regulating mood to inflammation.

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Cannabis and sex

By combining what we know about the contribution of different brain regions in behavior, and the endocannabinoid system upon them, support for the sex-rage propaganda from the 1930s utterly dissolves. Here’s what we know:

  • The endocannabinoid system is one of the most abundantly-expressed systems in the brain. CB1 receptors are found on brain cells in most brain regions.

  • The net effect of THC is to reduce brain activity. However, because of complex networks of brain cells, this may lead to elevated mood states and heightened sensory experiences.

  • Low to moderate doses of THC reduce the activity of brain regions involved in stress and aggression, leading to a calming effect. In cases when the THC dose is too high, it can enhance the communication coming from the brain’s amygdala, a critical region in the fear circuit. This is what contributes to the anxiety and paranoia when you’re “too high”. However, these doses are also generally sedating, so they wouldn’t lead to aggression or “sex-crazed lunacy”.

  • Additional cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant (there are over 100!), such as cannabidiol (CBD), act on numerous targets beyond the endocannabinoid system to have anxiety-reducing and other therapeutic benefits.

Beyond dispelling the myths of the last century, how does our current understanding of cannabis’ action in the brain inform how it can be used for a healthy sex life? For one, we now recognize that there’s far more to cannabis than just THC, and there’s an extensive array of targets in the brain and body that the cannabinoids act upon to convey their therapeutic and wellness benefits.

CBD’s ability to activate serotonin receptors, which is the same brain chemical system targeted by the well-known anti-anxiety drugs like Prozac, can reduce anxiety to break down the barriers to an intimate relationship. CBD also weakly activates CB2 receptors (the second endogenous cannabinoid receptor to be discovered), which is associated with increased resiliency to life stress.

THC activation of CB1 receptors increases the brain chemical, dopamine, which is involved reward processing and the feeling of “pleasure”. However, repeated high doses of THC can actually lead to a general reduction in dopamine levels, which could hinder the sexual experience. CBD can be used to combat this negative effect of THC, as well as other adverse effects, by blocking some of THC’s actions at CB1 receptors.

Here are some quick tips for introducing and integrating cannabis in your sex life:

  1. Don’t eat it unless you are aware of the specific dosage of the edible and how you react to it before introducing a partner. When you eat THC, a large portion gets processed by the liver before it ever makes its way to the brain. The problem is, some of this THC gets converted to the metabolite, 11-hydroxy-THC, which has stronger effects on your CB1 receptors than THC does. This leads to a stronger high, which isn’t desirable if you’re trying to share an intimate experience with your partner. If you become too stoned, you’re more likely to focus internally (not to mention, sedated!) as opposed to focusing on the needs of your sexual partner(s).

  2. Consider using multiple products with different cannabinoid compositions. CBD could be a good pre-game tool to help relieve stress and anxiety, and when you’re more relaxed, you’re likely to be more open to your partner and engage fully. Once relaxed, a THC-rich product can help heighten the senses (but don’t overdo it!) and increase pleasure. Orgasm can also be enhanced by elevating brain dopamine levels.

  3. If you’re concerned about sexual dysfunction from cannabis use, stick to balanced THC:CBD or CBD-rich products. A recent study from Stanford University of over 50,000 people found that cannabis users had more sex than non-users, but this didn’t address performance quality or dysfunction issues. So regarding cannabis’ long-term effects on sexual dysfunction, let’s just say, the jury is…hung.

The Future

Universities across the world are ramping up their cannabis research programs, and the amount of federal research dollars going toward medicinal cannabis is also on the rise. Some of this momentum stems from amassing evidence in support of the wide therapeutic spectrum of the plant, particularly for traditionally treatment-resistant disorders such as certain forms of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and depression.

The remarkable tolerability of CBD and balanced THC:CBD products, especially compared to many of the available pharmaceuticals, promotes further investigation into how we can maximize the plant’s therapeutic potential. This process has shed light, beyond just clinical disorders, on how cannabis can be used to improve wellness in otherwise healthy individuals. If enhanced, more intimate sex falls into that category, then the benefits of the plant can impact us all.   

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