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Science Says Weed Makes Food Taste and Smell Better

Anyone who's ever smoked a joint knows that weed can make you ravenously hungry. But why? According to recent research, THC can make your brain smell and taste food far more acutely while high—meaning there's a scientific basis for the munchies.
Photo via Flickr user Sarah

During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, a little old lady named Mary Jane Rathbun (but far better known as Brownie Mary) began baking cannabis-laced confections and distributing them by hand to the increasing number of emaciated, deathly ill men she encountered in San Francisco General Hospital, where she volunteered. At the height of this underground mission of mercy, she was producing hundreds of "magic brownies" every week in the cramped kitchen of her apartment. She provided them to the sick and dying for free by relying on weed donations from high-minded local pot growers, while paying for flour, sugar, butter and chocolate out of her own pocket with her monthly social security checks.


Since both the state and federal government at the time vehemently maintained that marijuana had absolutely no medical value whatsoever, this simple act of selfless compassion eventually made our hero into a celebrated outlaw—she was arrested three times—but she kept on baking anyway, because she knew then what we all know now. Namely, that marijuana is the world's best medicine if you're experiencing a dangerous lack of appetite.

"My kids are dying," Brownie Mary told the Los Angeles Times in 1995, referring to her AIDS patients, a year before she helped pass the nation's first statewide medical cannabis law. "Why marijuana is not allowed is something I will never understand."

Twenty years later, it turns out that pot's a veritable wonder drug for treating everything from epilepsy, MS, ALS, and Alzheimer's to anxiety and inflammation, but it was most certainly cannabis's profound ability to stimulate the appetite that first got people rethinking the wisdom of our War on Weed.

Dr. Donald Abrams, now chief of Hematology and Oncology at San Francisco General Hospital, initially learned of the plant's powerful medical efficacy back in the 1970s, while still training to be a cancer specialist. With only a few, largely ineffective anti-nausea drugs then available by prescription, and pot-smoking rapidly gaining acceptance in mainstream society, many of his patients reported that they were turning to the herb as a safe, effective remedy for vomiting and weight loss caused by chemotherapy.


Then, in 1989, while working tirelessly on HIV/AIDS research and treatment, Dr. Abrams lost a partner to the deadly syndrome, but not before witnessing firsthand marijuana's unique ability to bring healing, peace, and dignity to those who otherwise suffered terribly. Determined to prove scientifically what he already knew through observation, he designed a study to test whether cannabis improves appetite in patients with AIDS wasting syndrome. Then he spent three years winning FDA approval—only to discover that the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) controls the nation's sole source of federally legal cannabis for research purposes, and it generally refuses to supply any study designed to show marijuana's benefits instead of its harms.

"As an AIDS investigator who has worked closely with National Institutes of Health and the US Food and Drug Administration for the past 14 years of this epidemic, I must tell you that dealing with NIDA has been the worst experience of my career," Abrams wrote in an open letter to Alan I. Leshner, then director of NIDA, upon learning his request for research marijuana had been flatly rejected. "Your lack of any official communication for nine months is unheard of, even in the most cumbersome of government bureaucracies. And the 'sincerity' with which you share my 'hope that new treatments will be found swiftly' feels so hypocritical that it makes me cringe… You had an opportunity to do a service to the community of people living with AIDS. You and your Institute failed. In the words of the AIDS activist community: SHAME!"


Stoned Mice Get the Munchies Of course, you don't have to be gravely ill to appreciate the many pleasures of an increased appetite, as anyone who's ever joined a few friends in inhaling a joint in the alley behind an all-you-can-eat dim sum restaurant can surely attest. In fact, The Weed Eater has long believed that marijuana's enhancement of the gourmand life goes far beyond merely increasing a ganja-smoker's desire for food. About 6,000 personal experimentations have proven emphatically (if only anecdotally) that getting blazed actually makes food smell and taste fucking amazing.

One particularly fond youthful memory involves getting baked on a darkened beach at one end of a long carnival boardwalk along the Jersey Shore, and then walking its entire length with a few equally lit companions, stopping to buy pretty much every deep fried food we could find along the way. While still saving room for Seaside's famous Midway Steak House—located at the dead center of the boardwalk, with the greasiest, cheesiest, onion-iest cheesesteaks outside Philly. Normally, you smelled that place's heavenly aroma a mile away, but on this night, we all swore we smelled it from twice that far. The Weed Eater also distinctly recalls likening the strength of his tastebuds to those of Superman.

And now there's finally some actual hard science to back up such boasting, thanks to a new study published in Nature Neuroscience that found that the brain's cannabinoid receptors "promote food intake in fasted mice by increasing odor detection."


Led by Giovanni Marsicano of the University of Bordeaux, a team of European neuroscientists proved that THC—the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana—fits into special receptors in the brain's olfactory bulb, allowing users to smell and taste food far more acutely while high. Since these scientists study neurological diseases, rather than write a column on the intersection of cannabis and cuisine, their report tends to focus on practical medical applications of this exciting new discovery, rather than its role in giving rise to what the New York Times has dubbed haute stoner cuisine.

"Many feeding disorders [like anorexia] are accompanied by altered perception in general," Marsicano noted. "Smell is particularly linked to food intake and is particularly altered in different diseases…so smell and its regulation by the endocannabinoid system could represent a future target for therapies against these and other diseases."

According to Smithsonian Magazine, Marsicano and his team "began by exposing mice (increasingly used in neuroscientific research because of the surprising amount of cognitive similarities they share with humans) to banana and almond oils as a test of sensitivity to scent. When they did so, the mice sniffed the oils extensively at first, then stopped showing interest in them, a well-known phenomenon called olfactory habituation. Mice that were dosed with THC, however, kept on sniffing, demonstrating an enhanced sensitivity to the scents. These THC-dosed mice also ate much more chow when given the chance, showing an increased appetite."


When a second set of mice—genetically engineered to lack a cannabinoid receptor in their olfactory bulb—underwent the same experiment, THC had no effect on how quickly they habituated to the scents, or their general level of appetite. That suggests that THC's effect on these receptors largely accounts for how we get "the munchies."

Further, when researchers made some of the non-stoned mice fast for 24-hours, their olfactory bulbs actually began to produce large amounts of endogenous cannabinoids naturally, with the resulting increase in sensitivity to food aromas serving as a powerful incentive to seek out nourishment in large amounts and avoid starvation.

Now, if you're thinking: What about an anti-obesity drug that blocks the body's cannabis receptors, so you get a kind of reverse-munchies? That would make a trillion bucks! Well, Big Pharma tried it already. And the result, a drug called Rimonabant, was abandoned a little more than a year into a planned 33-month study due to increased suicide risk in clinical trials.

"Patients taking Rimonabant reported feeling severely depressed and having serious thoughts about committing suicide,"Psychology Today reported. "It was as though the patients had lost their ability to experience pleasure… [Which] tells neuroscientists that our endogenous marijuana system is normally involved, either directly or indirectly, in controlling our mood and allowing us to experience pleasure; antagonizing the actions of this chemical in the brain leads to depression with possibly dangerous consequences."

So, now that we know definitively that marijuana's a natural, health-positive herb that increases appetite, enhances the smell and taste of food, and promotes better moods and higher levels of pleasure, The Weed Eater and his loyal readers have just two questions for the fine dining world: 1) Which restaurant will be the first to hire a full time weed sommelier? and 2) where should we send our applications?