The Effects of THC are not the Same for Women and Men

Francis Cassidy November 10, 2020 1 comment

There’s no denying the effects of THC. But, are we feeling the same thing?

There are several key distinct biological differences between men and women. Emotionally, physically, and psychologically, there are a host of complex differences that manifest as different attitudes, tendencies, and emotions. But, in what may surprise many, these differences also seem to dictate how each gender responds to the effects of THC.

The Effects of THC in the Animal Body

Like much of the research in the medical community, cannabis research traditionally relied on male rodents. The reason for choosing males was to negate the effects of fluctuating hormone levels associated with females, which commonly induce more varied effects across the reproductive cycle of females. This left scientists with data that was less quantifiable and repeatable.

The result is that much of our understanding of the workings of THC relate predominately to the male animal brain. However, a study published in Psychopharmacology (2019), investigated the acute effects of smoked cannabis among both sexes and found that THC affects females quite differently to males.[1]Matheson, J., Sproule, B., Di Ciano, P. et al. Sex differences in the acute effects of smoked cannabis: evidence from a human laboratory study of young adults. Psychopharmacology 237, 305–316 … Continue reading

In the double-blind study, ninety-one cannabis consumers smoked a joint containing either 12.5% THC or a placebo. The study participants were all 19 to 25 years old, and all used cannabis between one and four times per week.

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Once medicated, they completed subjective effect scales and cognitive tests while researchers monitored their vital signs.

Researchers noted that while females smoked for the same amount of time as males, they tended to smoke less. Despite consuming less, they reported no difference in their subjective analysis of the effects on mood or cognition when compared to the men in the study.

effects of thc on women represented by woman holding cannabis leaf

Effects Of THC On Women

While men and women do seem to react differently to cannabis, scientists struggle to find repeatable patterns in the differences between both genders.

A study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology (2010), attempted to quantify the sex differences concerning cannabinoid action. Researchers found some significant differences between both sexes, and the findings suggest that women seem to be more sensitive to THC’s effects on just about every level.[2]Fattore, L., & Fratta, W. (2010). How important are sex differences in cannabinoid action?. British journal of pharmacology, 160(3), 544–548.

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Women appeared to obtain enhanced benefits regarding pain relief, motor activity, depression, and anxiety. They also experience heightened sexual behavior and experience cannabis as a more effective treatment from catalepsy than their male counterparts.

For their part, males tended to experience increased appetite and decreased interest in sexual behavior with lower libido, most likely due to the ability of cannabis to reduce testosterone.

But, while the results from the above study seem clearcut, other studies contradict the findings.

Which Gender gets Better Pain Relief from Cannabis?

A study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence (2016), investigated the analgesic effects of cannabis on men and women. Researchers in the study concluded that when smoked, cannabis provided enhanced pain-relieving effects in men when compared to women.[3]Cooper, Z. D., & Haney, M. (2016). Sex-dependent effects of cannabis-induced analgesia. Drug and alcohol dependence, 167, 112–120. Researchers provided no reason for the differences and highlighted the need for further studies. If anything, this study underlines the importance of including both men and women in clinical trials aimed at understanding any potential therapeutic and adverse effects of THC.

Another study published at Washington State University (2014), found the opposite to be the case. Researchers in this study concluded that women experience greater pain relief from cannabis than men do. However, one important caveat from this conclusion is that women only felt enhanced pain relief from cannabis when their estrogen levels peaked.[4]Hernandez-Avila, C. A., Rounsaville, B. J., & Kranzler, H. R. (2004). Opioid-, cannabis- and alcohol-dependent women show more rapid progression to substance abuse treatment. Drug and alcohol … Continue reading

Sex Hormones and Cannabis Interactions

Women have higher levels of the sex hormone estrogen, and it fluctuates throughout the reproductive cycle. According to a study published in Life Sciences (1994), the number of CB1 receptors varies in function with the amount of estrogen in the brain. Researchers also noted that estrogen increases the amount of anandamide in the brain — the endocannabinoid with a similar structure to THC.

The reasoning makes sense on many levels, higher estrogen levels in women mean stronger perceived effects from THC. But this seeming advantage also has a dark side. When the female CB1 receptors become over-activated due to THC and estrogen interactions, the system tends to fall out of balance. A study published in Behavioural Brain Research (2011), found that adolescent women who consumed cannabis had larger amygdalas than males who use cannabis and non-consuming females. The amygdala is a part of the brain responsible for threat detection and processing fear. Those with enlarged amygdalas often experience heightened anxiety.

Women may Develop Dependency More Easily

The benefits of a stronger medicated effect, with lower dosing, among females may sound like a win-win. But, like many things in life, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

A study published by the International Council on Alcohol and Addictions (2004), investigated whether a cannabis dependency can develop more readily in women. Researchers found that women tend to progress to a cannabis use disorder more quickly than men. Therefore, they conclude that, “there exists a gender-based vulnerability to the adverse consequences.” The researchers didn’t propose a reason why. Others postulate that the reason lies in how sex hormones influence how CB1 receptors express in key brain regions.

What is clear from the scientific studies is that the effects of THC are quite different for men than for women. But just what biological factors underpin these differences is still unclear, something that further research will no doubt clarify.


Author avatar

Francis Cassidy
Francis Cassidy is a freelance writer who writes on a variety of topics. With a particular focus on the cannabis industry, he aims to help ensure the smooth reintegration of cannabis back into global culture. When not writing, he's to be found exploring his new base in British Columbia, Canada. You can follow his other works including his photography on his blog

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1 comment

  1. Sadhu93

    The British study cited is a review of literature… which makes it surprising that the overall number of subjects, from all papers included, still falls well below a statistically valid level. Most of these conclusions are highly speculative and may represent cultural or experimental bias as easily as they do gender differences.