Cannabinoid pharmacology

Pharmacol Rev. 1986 Jun;38(2):151-78.


The pharmacology of the cannabinoids is characterized by at least two very provocative phenomena. First, the multiplicity of effects. As I have mentioned throughout this review, most of these effects are due to actions on the central nervous system. The major problem in the search for a therapeutic agent in this series has been due to the inability to find a cannabinoid with the therapeutic action at doses below those that produce side effects. The high lipid solubility of the cannabinoids allows them to be distributed throughout the brain at reasonable doses. The second aspect of their pharmacology worthy of special mention is their low toxicity. Throughout this review, I have indicated that the minimal effective dose of delta 9-THC for a particular pharmacological effect in animals was higher than that usually consumed by man. Yet, in almost all cases, it was much lower than the dose which produced toxic effects in the same species. These two characteristics of the animal pharmacology of cannabinoids carry over to humans. For instance, each of the cannabinoids tested in man causes many side effects at active doses and lethal effects of overdose by humans are nonexistent or rare. Toxicity following chronic use may be a different issue. A great deal of work has been carried out in an attempt to characterize the pharmacological effects of cannabinoids. It is clear from the material reviewed in this article that most if not all of the predominant effects of cannabinoids in whole animals are due to the direct effects of these compounds on the central nervous system. Our state of knowledge is too limited to rule out the possibility that they also produce effects on certain peripheral organs. It is expected that the majority of these effects will be shown to be due to the interaction of the cannabinoids with the neuronal innervation of the organ rather than directly with the organ tissue itself. Very high doses of cannabinoids just like all active drugs have an effect on many organ systems. These are toxicologic not pharmacologic and are nonspecific. The effects of cannabinoids at the molecular level have been reviewed by Martin (182a) in this series. This type of research is expected to elucidate the mechanism of action of cannabinoids at the cellular level. It is clear that the cannabinoids produce a unique behavioral syndrome in laboratory animals and in man.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aggression / drug effects
  • Analgesics
  • Animals
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Antiemetics
  • Behavior / drug effects
  • Body Temperature / drug effects
  • Cannabinoids / pharmacology*
  • Cannabinoids / therapeutic use
  • Cardiovascular System / drug effects
  • Drug Interactions
  • Drug Tolerance
  • Eating / drug effects
  • Endocrine Glands / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Nervous System / drug effects
  • Reproduction / drug effects
  • Substance-Related Disorders


  • Analgesics
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Antiemetics
  • Cannabinoids