All drugs change the way the brain works by changing the way nerve cells communicate. Nerve cells, called neurons, send messages to each other by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters attach to molecules on neurons called receptors. (Learn more about how neurotransmitters work.) Drugs affect this signaling process.
When marijuana is smoked or vaporized, THC quickly passes from the lungs into the bloodstream, which carries it to organs throughout the body, including the brain. Its effects begin almost immediately and can last from 1 to 3 hours. This can affect decision making, concentration, and memory for days after use, especially in people who use marijuana regularly.1 If marijuana is consumed in foods or beverages, the effects of THC appear later—usually in 30 minutes to 1 hour—and may last for many hours. Some people consume more and more waiting for the “high” and end up in the emergency room with uncomfortable symptoms from too much THC.
As it enters the brain, THC attaches to cells, or neurons, with specific kinds of receptors called cannabinoid receptors. Normally, these receptors are activated by chemicals similar to THC that occur naturally in the body. They are part of a communication network in the brain called the endocannabinoid system. This system is important in normal brain development and function.
Most of the cannabinoid receptors are found in parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thinking, concentration, sensory and time perception, and coordinated movement. Marijuana activates the endocannabinoid system, which causes the "high" and stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain's reward centers, reinforcing the behavior. Other effects include changes in perceptions and mood, lack of coordination, difficulty with thinking and problem solving, and disrupted learning and memory.
Learn more about how the brain works and what happens when a person uses drugs.
1 Crean RD, Crane NA, Mason BJ. An evidence based review of acute and long-term effects of cannabis use on executive cognitive functions. Journal of Addiction Medicine 2011;5:1-8.