Drug self-administration behavior has been one of the most direct and productive approaches for studying the reinforcing effects of psychoactive drugs, which are critical in determining their abuse potential. Cannabinoids, which are usually abused by humans in the form of marijuana, have become the most frequently abused illicit class of drugs in the United States. The early elucidation of the structure and stereochemistry of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in 1964, which is now recognized as the principal psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, activated cannabinoid research worldwide. This review examines advances in research on cannabinoid self-administration behavior by humans and laboratory animals. There have been numerous laboratory demonstrations of the reinforcing effects of cannabinoids in human subjects, but reliable self-administration of cannabinoids by laboratory animals has only recently been demonstrated. It has now been shown that strong and persistent self-administration behavior can be maintained in experimentally and drug-naïve squirrel monkeys by doses of THC comparable to those in marijuana smoke inhaled by humans. Furthermore, reinforcing effects of some synthetic CB1 cannabinoid agonists have been recently reported using intravenous and intracerebroventricular self-administration procedures in rats and mice. These findings support previous conclusions that THC has a pronounced abuse liability comparable to other drugs of abuse under certain experimental conditions. Self-administration of THC by squirrel monkeys provides the most reliable animal model for human marijuana abuse available to date. This animal model now makes it possible to study the relative abuse liability of other natural and synthetic cannabinoids and to preclinically assess new therapeutic strategies for the treatment or prevention of marijuana abuse in humans.
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