The impact of marijuana on health, development, and happiness has been the subject of scientific study for decades, but it's only included gender as a factor recently, as women become an increasing study group for scientists. (This wasn't just a weed-related problem; as I've written before, women have often been excluded from drug-related testing because their bodies are seen as giving less reliable results.) So we're only at the beginning of understanding that weed affects women and men differently; but it's becoming increasingly clear that there is a gender divide in marijuana's effects and usage. Women use and react to marijuana differently, and it's pretty crucial to understand why.
Suggestions for the source of gender differences in marijuana can get pretty complicated. A 2010 review of sex differences in cannabinoid action (cannabinoids are the active ingredients in cannabis, the ones that cause the high) suggested stuff like estrogen, body fat percentage (cannaboids can hang around in fat, lessening their impact on the system), and certain brain receptors. But various gender differences in reaction to weed might be due to different things, so we'll look at all this stuff in turn.
Here are six ways in which women's reactions to weed differ from men's. It seems that biology, when it comes to lighting up, definitely matters.
1. Women Go From First Hit To Habit Faster Than Men
There's a bundle of evidence that, when it comes to marijuana, women telescope faster than men. "Telescoping" is a term used generally in medical discussions of addiction, meaning the journey from a first introduction (a joint passed at a party) to a serious habit, and how fast that happens. It turns out that ladies, particularly at adolescence, tend to go from first use to habit faster than dudes, and the reasons likely include biology as well as social pressures.
A 2011 study of gender differences in weed use in teens found that young women moved from a puff to regular use much faster than boys, but this "telescoping," according to the University of Michigan, isn't just restricted to marijuana; women also telescope faster than men when it comes to alcohol, opioids, and cocaine. And research into addiction in general shows that women tend to take drugs for different reasons to men: there's science that points to the idea that women often smoke weed for the purposes of mood regulation, or for social reasons, rather than for risk-taking (a common motivation for men).
2. Women With Regular Weed Habits Are More Likely To Have Mood Disorders
An interesting study done in 2013 of people with lifelong, serious cannabis habits ("cannabis use disorder," or CUD) found that there were actually interesting gender differences about usage and mental health. While men with CUD were more likely than women to have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder overall, women were more likely to have a mood or anxiety disorder than dudes. But, more alarmingly, in 2014 a big news flash came: normal or occasional weed use in people aged 18-30 seems to be a particular signal of poor mental health in women.
The scientists doing the 2014 study studied 1,929 people in the age group, and compared their weed use to their mental health scores on a psychological test. Monthly and weekly cannabis use was tied to higher mental health problems, and it was particularly pronounced for ladies. A part of that is likely the tendency we've talked about previously: that women often use weed to help mood and soothe stress.
Cannabinoids have a complex relationship with the brain. A 2015 study found that administering marijuana to stressed rats seemed to reduce mood disorders. But Harvard Health describes evidence that extensive marijuana use may exacerbate depression, particularly in women: an Australian study found that women who smoked marijuana at least weekly were seven times more likely to develop depression than women who didn't.
3. Women's Endocannabinoid Systems Are Different
The difference in mood for women smoking weed may be due to gender differences in the endocannabinoid system. (Try saying that four times fast.) It's a series of receptors in the brain and body that respond to cannabinoids, including those produced naturally in the human system, and we're just discovering that they differ markedly in men and women.
For one, estrogen can interfere with the endocannabinoid system, which may mean cannabis is less effective on women; plus various studies "knocking out" endocannabinoid receptors in mice have shown that eliminating them did different things to males and females. And a study from Northwestern University in 2015 found that the brains of human women reacted differently to men when it came to a drug targeting the endocannabinoid system. It turns out that the genders regulate their endocannabinoid systems differently, which likely explains some of the gender divide when it comes to weed. The endocannabinoid system also seems to be pretty related to mood disorders, so that also may explain why women are more vulnerable to them on weed.
4. Women Develop Tolerance To THC More Quickly
A 2014 study from Washington State University found that one of the big ways in which women react differently to weed is that they can develop a high tolerance of THC very quickly. (THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is what causes the psychological high of weed, complete with relaxation and pain relief.)
The study used female and male rats, and the scientists even tried to make it harder; because they knew females showed more sensitivity to THC, they gave the females a 30 percent lower dose than males. But still, at the end of a 10 day period, the females had a much higher tolerance than the boy rats, and needed a much bigger dose to feel the same effects. If it's the same in humans, it looks like women are able to tolerate it a lot faster than dudes.
That's not necessarily great news. The scientists pointed out that this higher rapid tolerance was probably to blame for one of the other things science now knows about women and weed: that women are more likely to have negative side effects when withdrawing. This study indicates that women may "feel" the impacts of cannabis more than men at first, but that they adapt very quickly and rapidly need more to feel the same hit.
5. Men Are More Likely To Suffer Weed Psychosis
Finally, women have one advantage. Cannabis-induced psychosis (which is rare, and sometimes debated in scientific circles as to whether it's "real") seems to occur more in men than women, according to a 2015 study. There's a bit of an issue with cannabis-induced psychosis, in that it's sometimes difficult to tell exactly what the psychotic person has been taking alongside weed, or if the drug has had some kind of interaction with schizophrenia, instead of producing psychosis by itself. But at the moment, scientific opinion seems to support the idea that weed on its own can cause psychosis in people with no prior history of it, and it looks like men are more vulnerable.
The 2015 study looked at hospital admissions for cannabis-induced psychosis and came up with a pretty shocking statistic: Men admitted for it outnumbered women four to one. And that's not even explained by the higher rates of cannabis usage among dudes; they only outnumber ladies two to one. We're not sure why this happens, but again, it's likely something about the endocannabinoid receptors and how they differ. Scary thought.
6. Weed May Encourage Women To Act More "Masculine"
Some of the latest work on what gender means for weed usage has focused on behavior, and it's come up with some weird stuff. Most interestingly, in 2011, a study covered by Scientific American found that giving young rats something that mimicked the effects of weed (in other words, it activated the cannabinoid receptors in their brains) changed female rats' behavior. In fact, they started acting more like the dudes.
When they were given the drug, the female rats started being aggressive and playing more, much like the males. And the rate of cell division in their brains changed; before the drug, it was going much faster than the dudes', but afterwards, it dropped right down to their rate. The researchers think this means that the endocannabinoid system actually has a role in the development of gender differences in the brain.
So if you're choosing to light up legally on 4/20, make sure you know your science; comparing your reactions to a man's may just lead to confusion. Well, more confusion than normal.
Images: Comedy Central; Giphy