How Does Marijuana Affect Dopamine?



  • Dopamine is a chemical found in the brain
  • Dopamine is responsible for feelings of happiness and pleasure
  • All substances of abuse cause a release of dopamine
  • THC also causes a release of dopamine
  • During withdrawal, dopamine levels will temporarily decline
  • Long-term cannabis use does not impact overall dopamine levels – Despite all the health hazards associated with drug use, there’s no arguing the fact that drugs – including everyday substances like alcohol and caffeine – make their users feel good, at least in the short run.

This reinforcing and addictive quality of drugs can be attributed to an essential chemical in our brain called dopamine. And like all substances that people use for fun, marijuana causes an increase in dopamine.

What is Dopamine?

Dopamine belongs to a class of chemicals known as neurotransmitters. These chemicals are used by the brain to transmit signals.
But dopamine is not just any neurotransmitter. Dopamine is known as the “feel good” neurotransmitter because of its role in feelings of happiness and pleasure. What’s more, all substances of abuse act to increase dopamine, though only temporarily. As a result, dopamine plays a major part in the addictive quality of drugs.

In addition to inducing pleasurable feelings, dopamine also influences the following functions:

  • Mood
  • Sleep
  • Attention
  • Memory
  • Voluntary movement
  • Motivation

Low levels of dopamine have been linked to disorders such as ADHD and Parkinson’s disease as well as problems with addiction (i.e. addictive personalities).

Marijuana Use and Dopamine

Early research seemed to suggest that cannabinoids – the active constituents of marijuana – did not increase dopamine levels like other drugs do.

Although thought-provoking, the findings would later be dismissed as inaccurate and an overwhelming amount of evidence now confirms that THC – one of the cannabinoids found in marijuana – does in fact cause a temporary increase in dopamine levels.

This rise in dopamine is mediated by pathways called CB1 receptors and occurs in a region of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens. Scientists believe that increases in dopamine in this region are responsible for the reinforcing and rewarding properties of all known drugs of abuse.

Cannabis Withdrawal

Withdrawal occurs when a person stops taking a drug after a period of sustained use. The result is a negative emotional state that enforces drug seeking and cravings.

Studies have shown that during withdrawal from many common drugs, dopamine levels fall below their normal (i.e. baseline) levels – contributing to the negative emotional state of withdrawal. This decrease in dopamine has been observed during cannabis withdrawal as well.

Long-term Cannabis Use

Studies have linked the long-term abuse of substances such as alcohol, cocaine and heroin with a decrease in the brain’s overall production and release of dopamine. This is because most drugs cause damage to brain cells that produce dopamine.

Cannabis users can breathe easy, however, as cannabinoids are believed to have the opposite effect. Likewise, a study published in 2012 found that long-term cannabis consumption does not result in permanent changes in dopamine levels.

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