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Nicotine vs. THC: Is Weed Really Harmless?

Recreational cannabis is being legalised around the world at a truly rapid pace. In the US, 24 states have legalised it for those purposes, and an increasing number of European countries are considering following in their footsteps. Nicotine, on the other hand, continues to be villainized for the horrible health consequences of cigarette smoking.

Is THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, actually that much better than nicotine, with cigarettes taken out of the equation?

Nicotine vs. THC: Side Effects Comparison 

Both nicotine and THC may elicit a number of undesirable side effects in their users. They may not transpire immediately and aren’t as devastating as in the case of some other frequently used substances, but it’s still important to be aware of these risks.

Nicotine Side Effects 

Nicotine, a stimulant commonly associated with tobacco use, has several potential side effects. While often implicated in the ill effects of smoking tobacco, it’s crucial to understand that nicotine itself does not lead to major health problems like lung disease or cancer.

That doesn’t mean it’s all healthy, though. The key side effects of nicotine revolve around its stimulating attributes. On intake, it elevates your heart rate and blood pressure, which may lead to cardiovascular issues if you consume nicotine on a daily basis for years on end. This heightened stress on the heart may promote coronary heart disease, increasing the risk of fatal heart attacks and strokes later on in life.

Withdrawal symptoms can also be severe for some regular nicotine users. These ramifications include irritability, anxiety, and difficulties in concentrating. Notably, these effects largely come into play due to dependency, which often results from protracted use and not isolated or occasional usage.

However, these harmful effects shouldn’t be entirely attributed to nicotine. It’s most hazardous when consumed as part of a smoking habit, where it is accompanied by hundreds of other harmful chemicals contained in tobacco smoke. Many studies argue that it is primarily these components in tobacco, not nicotine alone, which result in chronic diseases such as lung cancer and emphysema.

THC Side Effects

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), on the other hand, is the element primarily responsible for marijuana’s psychoactive effects. THC side effects diverge from those of nicotine, primarily impacting cognitive and psychomotor abilities rather than introducing cardiovascular harm.

Contemporary research reveals a connection between THC and troubles related to memory, attention, and the ability to learn. Elevation in heart rate post-consuming marijuana poses risks for people with cardiac vulnerabilities. Additionally, it may trigger anxiety and paranoia in some individuals.

Common Misconceptions About Nicotine and THC 

Both THC and nicotine are affected by waves of misinformation that really don’t help the cause of each of these substances. The misconceptions spread around about THC usually have to do with its perceived harmlessness and beneficial qualities, whereas most of the false information about nicotine has to do with how misunderstood this alkaloid is.

In the table below, we’ll go over the most popular myths about THC and nicotine and clarify them.

THC  Nicotine 

Myth: “THC isn’t addictive” 

✅ Fact: While it’s true that THC doesn’t cause physical addiction, frequent users do experience the development of a psychological dependence, which in many cases can be more difficult to break free from than physical addictions.

Myth: Nicotine causes lung cancer” 

✅ Fact: Tar and dozens of other chemicals in tobacco smoke cause lung cancer (and a number of other diseases).

Myth: “Drunk drivers kill people, high drivers miss their highway exists” 

✅ Fact: This common saying insinuates that driving under the influence of THC is perfectly safe. That’s not true. Like alcohol, THC affects your reflexes, reaction time, and decision-making, which means that you should never drive while high on marijuana.

Myth: “Nicotine is as addictive as heroin” 

✅ Fact: While it’s true that nicotine and heroin both affect the brain reward system, studies have proven that nicotine is easier to quit, not to mention far less dangerous than the deadly opiate.

Myth: “THC helps uplift your mood and promotes good mental health” 

✅ Fact: You may certainly feel happy and satisfied while high on THC, but over the long term, it can actually increase your susceptibility to a number of mental health conditions, such as depression, psychosis, or insomnia.

Myth: “The yellow stains on smokers’ fingers and teeth are caused by nicotine” 

✅ Fact: Once again, the main culprit behind these stains is tar, one of the many toxic ingredients in cigarettes.

Myth: “THC is safe to use during pregnancy”

✅ Fact: Cannabis usage during pregnancy and breastfeeding is as dangerous as drinking or smoking cigarettes for the child’s development, especially when it comes to the brain.

Myth: “Nicotine replacement therapies serve to keep you hooked on the substance”

✅ Fact: Smoking alternatives that contain nicotine are meant to make ditching the cigarette habit easier, usually contain far less nicotine, and are designed to facilitate the gradual weaning off the substance.

 

There is no denying that THC has certain therapeutic properties – after all, medical marijuana wouldn’t be a thing if it didn’t. However, getting carried away and proclaiming that cannabis is a “wonder drug” that’s completely harmless and only brings about positive effects may do more damage than good to the cause of marijuana proponents worldwide.

With nicotine, the alkaloid’s ongoing vilification may actually harm the efforts to reduce smoking rates. Placing nicotine as the main culprit behind the negative effects of smoking may reduce the availability of nicotine replacement products for people who want to quit smoking, leaving them with fewer options to easily kick the habit.

THC vs. Nicotine: The Impact They Have On Your Brain

Nicotine’s interaction with the brain can play out differently compared to THC. Both are psychoactive substances; still, scientifically, they diverge in terms of the precise mechanisms of action and long-term effects.

THC and its influence on brain function have been closely studied. Frequent usage appears to modify neural connectivity in brain areas linked to cognitive functions like memory, attention, and learning. Chronic THC users often struggle with weakened short-term memory and difficulty in following detailed or complex sequences of information or instructions.

Additionally, THC consumption might lead to changes in mood regulation – resulting in the intensification of symptoms of depression or anxiety. Even if you haven’t had mental health problems before but are genetically predisposed to them, frequent THC usage may bring about their onset.

Nicotine, comparatively, has been researched exhaustively for its impact on cognition. In contrast to the detrimental cognitive effects associated with THC, nicotine seemingly has a more favourable influence on cognitive function. It aids concentration and attention span, sharpening mental focus. This is why many habitual smokers report the sensation of feeling more alert post-nicotine intake.

Nevertheless, chronic nicotine use can induce neurobiological alterations in the brain. This is particularly true when talking about the brain’s reward system. The way nicotine promotes the release of dopamine leads to addiction and dependency.

The Bottom Line 

Comparing nicotine to THC is an interesting endeavour. One is overly vilified, whereas the other – overly praised. Neither of these extremes is particularly helpful. Both substances have their positive and negative aspects, and both can also serve to the ultimate benefit of society. Discussing them honestly with taking into account all of the available information is paramount if we want them to serve to the ultimate benefit of society.

References 

  1. https://harmreductionjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1477-7517-8-12#Sec7
  2. https://sonomacounty.ca.gov/health-and-human-services/health-services/marijuana-public-health-and-safety/myths-and-facts-about-marijuana-use
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4363846/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC526783/
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