Cannabis, or marijuana as it’s more often called, is among the most popular psychoactive drugs. And it has one of the longest histories of any drug, having been used recreationally and medicinally for at least 5,000 years.

But despite that long track record, misconceptions and questions about marijuana persist. A common one is what type of drug is marijuana, exactly.

There are two ways to answer that question: what the legal status of the drug is and what pharmacological category it belongs in. To try and dispel some of the misinformation that clouds conversations about marijuana, let’s take a look at both questions.

Marijuana’s Legal Status

Under United States federal law, marijuana is prohibited as a Schedule I controlled substance. To fall under this category, a drug must have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”.

It’s a controversial designation. Marijuana is in the same category as drugs like heroin and is subject to tighter control than cocaine or methamphetamine.

This classification contributes to the lack of concrete data on marijuana as well. Thanks to the tight restrictions, clinical research is difficult to conduct on Schedule I drugs.

For one thing, cannabis used for research must be sourced from a single growing facility at the University of Mississippi. So there’s often an insufficient supply for proper studies. Further, this cannabis is of such low quality that any studies using it are thought to be of limited value anyway.

What About States Where It’s Legal?

So if marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, why is it freely available in some states?

Despite its Schedule I designation, 36 states have legalized marijuana for medicinal use. A further 18 have made it legal for recreational use. While this is a clear violation of federal law, the last several administrations have opted not to interfere.

At first, the unofficial policy was to take a sort of “wait and see” approach. States that legalized marijuana were used as a trial to see how that process might work and what problems would arise.

But those policies have been largely unproblematic. And meanwhile, public support has grown. 9 in 10 Americans now favor at least some form of marijuana legalization.

At this stage, the odds of a crackdown on these states are slim, if only because public opinion would oppose it.

So What Type of Drug Is Marijuana?

Drugs types are classified based on their effects.

Depressants slow a user’s brain function. Stimulants elevate mood and increase alertness and energy. And hallucinogens alter the perception of reality, and so on.

But marijuana is difficult to categorize according to this framework. It can produce all the aforementioned effects to one degree or another.

It is most often recognized as a depressant. Many users take it to calm their nerves, as it can promote mental relaxation, sleepiness, and muscle relaxation. And like other depressants, it can have less-pleasant effects like dizziness and short-term memory loss.

Marijuana can also have stimulating effects. On the positive side, it is tied to elevated moods. On the negative, it can trigger feelings of paranoia and anxiety.

And while its hallucinogenic effects are stereotyped as being more potent than they are, they are nevertheless known properties of marijuana use. An altered sense of time or space, a feeling of detachment from the environment or self, and loss of motor control are all hallucinogenic effects that marijuana can cause.

Why Does Marijuana Have Such Disparate Effects?

When you take marijuana, you’re not taking a single chemical compound. Cannabis can contain as many as 450 distinct, naturally-occurring chemicals.

Of these, chemicals called cannabinoids are the active ingredients that we associate with marijuana’s physical and mental effects. In particular, delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is responsible for its psychoactive properties, and cannabidiol (CBD) is an anti-psychoactive.

The way these two primary compounds interact with one another is thought to explain the myriad effects users may experience. Different types of marijuana are often distinguished by the ratio of these chemicals.

Types of Marijuana

Not all marijuana is created equal.

There are three major varieties on the market: indica, sativa, and hybrid marijuana. The first two come from distinct species of the plant, Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa respectively. And hybrid, then, is the result of cross-pollination between the two.

This is important because, beyond coming from separate species, indica, sativa and hybrid differences can impact how a given strain will affect a user due to having variable ratios of THC to CBD.

Sativa, for instance, is reputed to have a more energizing effect, making it more popular for use in the mornings or afternoons. This is thought to be because sativa has a lower ratio of THC to CBD.

Indica is the inverse, with high levels of THC and low levels of CBD. Consequently, indica strains are purported to have a more relaxing effect. In particular, individuals with insomnia may use it as a sedative to help them go to sleep at night.

Hybrid strains tend to be the most common varieties on the market. By selectively cross-pollinating indica and sativa breeds, growers try to create new strains that combine qualities of both species.

For the sake of clarity, their intended effects will usually be described based on what dominating effect they have. A sativa-dominant hybrid strain, for example, will be more likely to produce the energizing qualities associated with a pure sativa strain.

Cannabis as a Lifestyle Choice

When deciding whether marijuana use is a sound lifestyle choice, asking what type of drug is marijuana is only one part of the equation.

Indeed, many people use marijuana with no ill effects. But the sheer amount of information we still don’t know highlights the need for ongoing research. For your part, it’s important for you to discuss marijuana use with your doctor and familiarize yourself with local law before using marijuana.

And to keep abreast of marijuana developments as they emerge, remember to keep up with our latest health and lifestyle news.