The Ultimate Guide to THC: The First Cannabinoid
The cannabis industry continues to gain momentum worldwide, comprised of different sectors such as recreational, medical, industrial, and ancillary. The largest driver of this global cannabis movement is the medical cannabis industry, which provides patients and consumers with alternative medications for a wide range of conditions, including chronic pain, epilepsy, anxiety, insomnia, and even cancer.
Medical cannabis, also known as medical marijuana or MMJ, refers to any cannabis-derived medications that are prescribed by physicians for a certain condition. While the composition of these medical cannabis formulations can include a wide range of phytochemicals found within the cannabis plant, cannabinoids are the molecules that are the most commonly associated with therapeutic effects. Although there are more than 120 different cannabinoids that can be found within cannabis, the main ones to be aware of are THC and CBD.
What is THC?
THC is an acronym for Δ(9)-tetrahydrocannabinol (more commonly referred to as tetrahydrocannabinol), which is one of the many cannabinoids found within cannabis. Due to its presence in the cannabis plant, it is classified as a phytocannabinoid (found within plants) rather than an endocannabinoid (created within the body).
THC is perhaps the most well-renowned molecule that has been identified and extracted from cannabis plants and for one particular reason - it is potently psychoactive. In fact, THC is the molecule that is responsible for the “high” that is associated with cannabis.
Along with a range of additional phytochemicals, such as terpenes, flavonoids, and other cannabinoids, THC is found in the resin that is secreted from cannabis trichomes and coats the flowers of the plant. The THC concentration of any particular cannabis plant can vary due to different cultivation techniques and the plant’s genetics.
Some strains of cannabis contain as little as 0.3% THC (by weight), and others can contain as much as 27% THC. The average concentration of THC in a strain is 12% THC. Any strain that contains a THC content of 0.5% or lower is considered a hemp plant.
THC was first isolated from the cannabis plant by an Israeli chemist named Raphael Mechoulam in 1964. Mechoulam originally isolated and synthesised THC from Lebanese hashish, which is a concentrate made entirely out of the cannabis trichomes that contain THC and a range of other phytochemicals.
Mechoulam’s work with THC came to be recognised as the beginning of cannabis research, which led to the discovery of other cannabinoids, the cannabinoid receptors found throughout the body, and consequently, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) itself.
THC interacts with the endocannabinoid system, specifically the CB1 receptors, to produce a range of physiological and psychological effects. THC is well-renowned for producing euphoric effects, but it can also affect an individual’s memory, pleasure, movements, thinking, concentration, and sensory perception.
Due to concerns over THC’s psychoactivity and abuse potential, cannabis was made illegal and removed from the medical pharmacopeia in most countries throughout the 1900s. This has led to the stigmatisation of THC, as well as the cannabis plant, leaving behind decades of unanswered questions and misinformation that has influenced public opinion.
But THC is so much more than just a psychoactive compound with abuse potential. It is the cannabinoid that has the biggest role in making cannabis the most popular illicit drug in the world. New research into cannabis and the endocannabinoid system, which was previously hampered by prohibition, is continuing to unveil the potential medical and recreational applications of THC.
The difference between THC & CBD
As they are the two most well-known and abundant phytocannabinoids, you will often see comparisons between THC and CBD (cannabidiol). Although they are almost structurally identical (both contain 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms), they interact with the endocannabinoid system in different ways and have different effect profiles.
Both THC and CBD are structurally similar to the endocannabinoids created within your body. This naturally allows them to interact with the cannabinoid receptors that make up the endocannabinoid system. This activation of the ECS stimulates the release of neurotransmitters in the brain. These neurotransmitters act as chemical signals that can influence pain perception, immune function, stress responses, sleep, and a range of other physiological functions.
The main difference between THC and CBD is how they interact with the ECS. THC directly binds to and stimulates the CB1 receptors located in the brain. This produces a “high” or sense of euphoria. CBD, on the other hand, does not directly stimulate CB1 or CB2 receptors.
Instead, CBD interacts with the ECS by encouraging the body’s natural production of endocannabinoids and by dampening the activity of some cannabinoid receptors, rather than activating them. This dampening effect can also help to reduce some of the unwanted psychoactive effects of THC, such as paranoia or sedation.
As CBD doesn’t bind to the CB1 receptor in the same way that THC does, it does not produce any euphoric effects and does not contribute to the cannabis high. Because of this, you may encounter people saying that CBD isn’t psychoactive. But this isn’t the case - CBD is psychoactive, just not in the same way that THC is.
CBD can have psychoactive effects that aren’t as potent and can also be beneficial. Studies have found that CBD can have anxiolytic, antipsychotic, anti-craving, alerting, and mood-elevating properties. Instead of the term “non-psychoactive,” a better way of describing CBD’s effects is “non-intoxicating”. This is one of the major reasons why CBD is so popular, as consumers are able to enjoy the beneficial effects of cannabis without any cognitive impairment.
Why is THC psychoactive and what does it mean to be high?
In regards to THC, psychoactivity refers to the way this phytocannabinoid stimulates specific psychological responses. These responses are mostly euphoric in nature, but this is not always the case.
The euphoric effects produced by THC are also associated with a neurotransmitter known as anandamide (also known as the ‘bliss molecule’). Anandamide is the endocannabinoid (produced within the body) twin to THC and also binds to CB1 receptors to stimulate euphoric effects.
If you’re a runner, then you’ll already be familiar with anandamide, as it is the molecule responsible for the “runner’s high,” which is a wave of euphoria that occurs after a successful jog. Not only does anandamide have mood-elevating effects, but it also plays an important role in memory, motivation, movement, pain, and appetite. Anandamide’s role in neurogenesis is also thought to be responsible for its anxiolytic and antidepressant effects.
Learning about this molecule has increased our understanding of how THC interacts with our bodies. Because they are identical molecules, with the only difference being their source, it is thought that THC acts in a similar manner to produce euphoria. It is thought THC binding to CB1 receptors also stimulates a release of dopamine in the brain, creating a sense of euphoria and relaxation, or a “high”.
The CB1 receptors located throughout the brain and nervous system also modulate movement, memory, cognition, sensory perception, and time perception. THC overstimulates these functions and others, such as appetite and mood. The sum of all these changes results in the overall sensation known as the “high”.
Although cannabis can affect people differently, some of the most common feelings whilst high include increased euphoria, relaxation, amusement, creativity, hunger, and sensitivity to light, colour, sound, touch, taste, and smell. There is also the potential of encountering unpleasant feelings or experiences, such as anxiety, confusion, delusions, hallucinations, nausea, panic, paranoia, high blood pressure, and increased heart rate.
These negative effects tend to occur more often for those who are inexperienced in consuming THC or when high doses of THC are consumed.
The duration of this high can vary based on a number of different factors. The most influential of these are dose and potency. Another factor that can affect the duration of the high is how the THC is consumed. A 2017 review found that smoking or vaporising THC had a peak effect around 20-30 minutes after consumption and a total duration of 2-3 hours. Ingesting THC (via edibles or otherwise) had a peak effect at 3 hours after consumption (onset doesn’t occur until 30-90 minutes) and a total duration of up to 24 hours.
How else does THC affect the body?
THC doesn’t just bind to the cannabinoid receptors in the brain. There is also a network of cannabinoid receptors located throughout the body that THC can interact with.
For example, THC can interact with cannabinoid receptors found in the immune system. This is why THC can display potent anti-inflammatory effects, but it can also reduce the effectiveness of the immune system.
There are also receptors in the digestive tract that THC can interact with. This can stimulate the release of ghrelin (aka the hunger hormone). The release of this hormone can be a potent appetite stimulant, which helps to explain the phenomenon known as ‘the munchies’. Another benefit of THC interacting with receptors in the digestive tract is a potential reduction of nauseous symptoms.
Two other common effects of THC consumption, and cannabis consumption in general, are dry, red eyes and a sensation known as “cottonmouth”. The red eyes are caused by THC stimulating the dilation of blood vessels in the eye, while the dry mouth feeling of “cottonmouth” is caused by a reduction in saliva production.
Medicinal benefits of THC
The numerous ways in which THC can interact with our bodies means that this cannabinoid also has a range of medical applications. While high doses of THC can lead to adverse effects, low doses have shown promise in being able to manage a variety of different conditions.
The previous paragraph mentioned the interaction between THC and the immune system, highlighting its use as an anti-inflammatory agent. Inflammation is one of the underlying factors in a wide range of different medical conditions, meaning that THC can be beneficial in treating them.
This includes therapeutic benefits for inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis, but perhaps the most useful application of THC’s anti-inflammatory effects is in the treatment of pain. As THC also interacts with the nervous system and has some neuroprotective effects, it is capable of treating pain caused by damage to the nervous system (neuropathic pain), as well as pain caused by tissue damage and inflammation (inflammatory pain).
Aside from reducing inflammation, another way that THC is able to moderate pain is by activating the CB1 receptors in the region of the brain that is critically involved with controlling pain throughout the body.
THC’s euphoric and mood-elevating effects can help to manage the symptoms related to conditions such as depression and anxiety, in the short-term. In addition, because THC can impair memory retrieval and facilitate our brain’s ability to forget, it can be incredibly beneficial for individuals suffering from PTSD. Those who suffer from ADHD have also found THC helpful in managing some of their symptoms, such as agitation, irritability, and impulsivity.
Although it can be beneficial, treating mood disorders with THC can sometimes be a double-edged sword. While THC can provide short-term relief, research suggests that long-term THC use can exacerbate the symptoms of these disorders and even lead to the onset of certain psychological disorders, such as psychosis.
Even though THC itself is a rewarding substance, it has also displayed the ability to reduce the abuse potential of other substances. A 2015 study found that THC appeared to increase the likelihood that an individual will remain in treatment for opioid use disorder. A possible explanation for this is that THC reduces an individual’s motivation to consume other rewarding substances.
THC’s effectiveness as a pain reliever also provides additional abuse reduction benefits, such as providing an alternative treatment to the dangerous and addictive opioid medications that have flooded the pharmaceutical market.
As mentioned earlier, THC also interacts with cannabinoid receptors in the digestive tract. In doing so, THC can stimulate appetite by interacting with the hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin, which are both involved in regulating food intake. This is helpful for individuals who have lost their appetite through disease, medication, chemotherapy, or any other reason.
Another benefit for these individuals, especially those going through chemotherapy, is that THC is extremely effective in reducing nausea and vomiting. Lastly, THC interacting with these receptors can provide benefits to those suffering from GIT diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome.
Some other novel effects of THC include reducing intraocular pressure for those suffering from glaucoma, acting as a sleep aid for those with insomnia, and even inducing apoptosis in cancer cells. As you can see, the list of potential medical benefits for THC is impressive and further research will either consolidate some of these claims or discover new applications.
While THC has a range of different potential therapeutic benefits, it would be irresponsible to discuss them without also mentioning some of its potential adverse effects. Some that can occur in the short-term include an increased heart rate, problems with coordination, dry mouth, red-eyes, cognitive defects, slow reaction times, memory impairments, and an increase in anxiety. This increase in anxiety can especially affect those who are prone to panic or paranoia, so THC is not recommended for these individuals.
As THC impairs coordination, judgement, and reaction times, it can significantly affect driving or any other task that requires a high degree of motor function and concentration. THC can impair these processes for up to 3 hours after consumption, and operating a vehicle while you have any THC in your system is not recommended. The overall risk of experiencing a road accident doubles when a person commences driving soon after they've consumed THC.
High doses of THC may also be connected to negative long-term psychiatric effects. Adolescents are the most at-risk group for these effects, although there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that THC consumption results in the onset of psychological conditions, such as schizophrenia, psychosis, depression, and anxiety. In saying this, high doses of THC can exacerbate the symptoms of these conditions for some individuals.
Due to prohibition, the long-term effects of THC use are still under investigation. Although research is ongoing and inconclusive, there are some potential adverse effects that have been discovered in several studies. Further research is necessary in order to support these theories and determine the overall level of risk.
In one such study, researchers discovered a link between the frequent consumption of high dose THC and structural changes in the corpus callosum of the brain. This structure of the brain connects the two cerebral hemispheres. Other structures of the brain that frequent or long-term THC consumption can alter are the precuneus and fimbria. Impaired function in these areas has a large impact on habits and routines and some have even pondered whether it contributes to a decrease in IQ.
Long-term or heavy use of THC may also lead to the onset of a condition called cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS). This condition is characterised by persistent nausea and vomiting, stomach pain, and dehydration. The most severe outcome of CHS is kidney failure, and the only known cure is the cessation of THC use.
Lastly, the body naturally builds up a tolerance to THC after heavy or long-term use. This means that the longer you consume THC, higher doses will be required in order to achieve the desired effects. The solution to this is to take tolerance breaks, but this may not be suitable for consumers who require THC daily.
Legal status and purchasing conditions
Throughout the global cannabis industry, there is confounding legislation and regulations surrounding the use of cannabis for medicinal and recreational purposes. Because of this, cannabis laws differ between countries with various aspects such as ownership, distribution, cultivation, methods of consumption, and medical usage.
While these laws are complicated and are often subject to change, the United States employs less stringent restrictions than other jurisdictions. However, the use, sale, and possession of cannabis or cannabis-derived products that contain more than 0.3% THC by weight is illegal under federal law in the United States. As cannabis is considered a Schedule 1 drug, under the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970, any cannabis that contains over 0.3% THC is considered to have ‘no medical value’ and a high potential for abuse.
While cannabis use remains federally illegal, with the exception of FDA-approved research programs, individual states have enacted legislation that allows exemptions for various uses. These are mainly medical and industrial applications, but can also include recreational use too. Currently, there are 33 states in the US, in addition to the District of Columbia, that have legalised THC-containing cannabis use, with various restrictions and guidelines.
In the UK, any medicinal cannabis products, including CBD oil, must contain less than 0.2% THC. CBD-containing products are legal in the UK because they are derived either from EU-approved industrial cannabis strains or hemp plants that contain only trace amounts of THC. Any products containing less than 0.2% THC can be purchased legally, and any products with a higher THC content are illegal for sale, consumption, and possession.
The EU also recommends that medicinal cannabis products should have a THC content no higher than 0.2% THC. However, each country still has the right to make their own decisions and enact laws surrounding the inclusion of THC in products. While countries such as the UK and France abide by the EU recommendations, countries such as Switzerland allow the sale and use of products with a considerably higher content of 1% THC. To learn more about the legality of THC in countries within the EU, click here.
Currently, the only FDA-approved medication that contains THC is Nabiximols, which is sold under the brand name Sativex. This medication is a sublingual spray created by the UK-based company GW Pharmaceuticals, to be used in the treatment of multiple sclerosis. It contains fairly equal quantities of two cannabinoids, with each spray delivering a dose of 2.7mg THC and 2.5mg CBD.
Dronabinol, sold under the trade name Marinol, is another FDA-approved medicine that contains a synthetic form of Δ⁹-THC. It comes in a gelatin capsule and is sold as an appetite stimulator, antiemetic, and sleep apnoea reliever. It has been approved by the FDA as a safe and effective medication in the treatment of HIV/AIDS-induced anorexia and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.
Recreational use of THC
Despite its medicinal properties, THC is best known for its recreational applications that revolve around its psychoactivity and ability to induce euphoria. In places where the recreational use of cannabis is legal, such as the US and Canada, the adult-use market is booming and continuing to develop innovative and effective new methods of consumption.
This is evident in some of the cannabis strains that are available from dispensaries in places such as California. Cannabis breeders throughout the legal states of the US and Canada are constantly refining their cross-breeding techniques and selection of plant genetics in order to boost the THC content of different strains. While this is not the case for every strain, the average hybrid strain contains 18.3% THC, with some strains on the higher end registering up to a staggering 28% THC.
These strains are considered extremely potent and are only recommended for experienced cannabis consumers. While the desired outcome of an increased THC content is a boost in the euphoric and relaxing effects of the high, it can also enhance the intoxicating and adverse effects. As such, consumption of high-THC cannabis and products is not recommended for novice cannabis consumers, especially those prone to panic and paranoia.
High-THC cannabis strains aren’t the only choice for recreational cannabis consumers, though. Over the last few years, there has been an increase in the prevalence of cannabis concentrates and edibles on the market. These products are becoming increasingly popular amongst consumers and will continue to be a feature of this market as innovative production techniques are constantly in development.
Put simply, cannabis concentrates are plant extracts that can contain a range of phytochemicals, such as cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids to produce various effects. These extracts can then be refined further to contain only selected cannabinoids, such as THC or CBD.
There are a few different methods for extracting cannabinoids from plant matter. Each has its own pros and cons, but ultimately the same end goal - extract the maximum concentration of cannabinoids possible. The most popular methods amongst manufacturers are supercritical CO2, butane, and ethanol extraction, which can all produce cannabis concentrates with a THC content up to 90% THC or higher, making them ridiculously potent.
Cannabis concentrates are diverse and can come in a range of products such as waxes, oils, tinctures, and edibles. While they can be consumed via ingestion, the most popular method of consumption for recreational use is known as “dabbing”. This process involves super-heating a glass or metallic element attached to an apparatus (conventionally known as a dab rig), placing a “dab” of concentrate on it, and inhaling the vapour that is produced.
It is worth noting that THC is an active compound and the one that exerts physiological and psychological effects upon interaction with cannabinoid receptors. However, the molecule that is extracted from cannabis is the inactive THCA, with the A designating the acidic form of THC. In order for THCA to produce effects, it must first be converted into the active form of THC.
This conversion process is known as decarboxylation and requires heat in the form of combustion or vaporisation to convert THCA into THC. This is why ingesting raw cannabis does not produce psychoactive effects, while smoking it does. In order to make effective edibles, cannabis plant matter or concentrates must be decarboxylated prior to infusion.
Future of THC
While the recreational market is booming in places where it is legal, it could be a while before this industry opens up in other parts of the world. Although significant progress has been made in regards to medical cannabis, the recreational cannabis industry is an entirely different proposition. Governments and legislators are keeping an eye on the North American market to determine whether this industry can be well-regulated, provide significant economic benefits, and mitigate any public health concerns.
In regards to THC, the after-effects of the War on Drugs and cannabis prohibition can still be felt. The use of cannabis has long been stigmatised due to the legality of cannabis and harmful propaganda. This has influenced public opinion throughout the years, as people from all sorts of different cultural backgrounds can negatively associate the use of cannabis with legal troubles and health problems.
As THC is the primary component of cannabis that is responsible for its psychoactive effects, it has copped a lot of the brunt from this negative public perception. There have been concerns that the psychoactive effects of THC have the potential to be harmful and cause mental illness or to make consumers lazy and unproductive. While some of these concerns may hold wait, many other commonly used substances, such as caffeine, also have their fair share of drawbacks and receive much less criticism.
Although there definitely are potential adverse effects when consuming THC, these are typically only observed in the occurrence of prolonged use or high doses. While there are some links to the exacerbation of mental illness symptoms, the claim that THC has the ability to provoke the onset of these conditions is unfounded.
Ultimately, there are some justifiable concerns about the use of THC in large concentrations or over a long period of time. But THC is also capable of providing a wide range of therapeutic benefits as well, with new medical applications constantly under investigation. The presence of THC in medicinal cannabis products hinges on the availability of strong clinical evidence to suggest that it is efficacious and safe in the treatment of a wide range of conditions.
As far as the recreational cannabis industry goes, THC looks like being a mainstay, in large part due to its euphoric and relaxing effects. The viability of this industry is intertwined with the current political landscape, so its timeline is uncertain, however, any progress made in this sector could trigger a knock-on effect in other regions.
The bottom line on THC
THC is one of the major cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant and is responsible for producing psychoactive effects. These effects can induce euphoria and relaxation in the consumer. Along with medicinal benefits, these effects of THC are the main reason that cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug around the world.
While THC plays a large part in the recreational use of cannabis, it can also produce a range of medicinal benefits. This is why THC is sometimes included in all sorts of medicinal cannabis formulations, such as CBD oil. There are even FDA-approved medications that contain THC, such as Sativex, which are used in the treatment of different conditions.
THC can also have adverse effects, especially when consumed in high doses or for inexperienced consumers. It is important to consider all these factors if you’re interested in purchasing any THC-containing products. Currently, these products can’t exceed concentrations of 0.2% THC in most jurisdictions, but further research may open up more pathways for THC in the future. And always remember to consume safely!