How much do you know about THC? We explore the history and science behind the most well-known active ingredient in cannabis.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a place in the world where people aren’t enjoying the benefits of cannabis in one form or another. A guy gets home from a hard day’s work and rolls a joint to relax and unwind. During a party, a group of friends enjoy cannabis-infused baked goods and laugh the night away. Marijuana isn’t just for having fun, though. In another city, a woman uses vaporized cannabis to get relief from the nausea and pain she’s experiencing while going through cancer treatment. Elsewhere, a mother gives cannabis extract to her son in order to control his epilepsy.
Ask anyone what they know about marijuana and they’ll often talk about how it gets people high. They’ll probably laugh about how silly people get when they smoke it or how it gives them the munchies. Less frequently, they may discuss its medical benefits and how it’s being used to help individuals with a wide variety of ailments and chronic diseases.
An Introduction to THC
If you continue your questioning of what people know about marijuana, even folks who don’t use it will typically tell you that it contains THC. Exactly what is THC, though? What does it do?
THC, otherwise known as tetrahydrocannabinol, was first discovered in the 1960’s by an Israeli scientist named Raphael Mechoulam. He was surprised when he discovered that very little research had been done on the mechanisms through which cannabis works. In fact, Mechoulam was amazed to learn that while researchers had discovered the active ingredient in opium (morphine) and cocoa leaves (cocaine), the ingredient responsible for the effects of marijuana was still a mystery.
Mechoulam and his team first isolated CBD, another active ingredient in cannabis. About a year later, they were able to isolate THC, or delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol. These compounds, known as cannabinoids, can be found in the resin produced by the glands of marijuana plants – glands that are typically located around the reproductive organs of each plant.
Wait… What Are Cannabinoids?
Simply put, cannabinoids are the active ingredients found in marijuana. They’re what makes marijuana affect you the way it does. THC is just one of over 480 compounds that are produced by marijuana plants. 66 of these components, including THC, are classified as cannabinoids.
What most people don’t know is that different cannabinoids work in different ways. While THC makes you feel high and hungry, CBD works well to alleviate pain. THCV, another cannabinoid, works well to control neurological issues such as seizures. CBN is useful to encourage bone growth and to prevent the muscle convulsions that are common with conditions like multiple sclerosis.
To cannabinoid newbies, these names probably sound like nothing more than an alphabet soup. For now, all you need to understand is that cannabinoids plug into different cannabinoid receptors in our brains in order to create various effects, whether it’s euphoria, pain relief, anxiety or sedation.
Ok, So What Does THC Do?
THC is the cannabinoid in marijuana that creates the majority of its psychological effects. It does this by behaving like the cannabinoid chemicals that are found naturally in the human brain.
You see, THC plugs perfectly into the cannabinoid receptors that have to do with thinking, remembering things, feeling pleasure, coordination and perception of how much time has passed. When THC attaches to receptors in these areas, it produces the effects that many people associate with being high.
One of the main effects that are associated with THC is intense euphoria. Many people use marijuana in order to feel relaxed and extremely happy. It can also affect visual and auditory perception, making music sound more intense or creating the visual sensation of “trails” behind moving objects. THC can affect short-term memory, and can also alter users’ ability to move and think they way they normally do. When under the influence of THC, people may struggle with concentration and time perception.
The affects of THC vary from person to person. While some experience only positive effects, others don’t tolerate THC very well. Especially at higher doses, THC can cause tachycardia, or an elevated heart rate. This is particularly distressing to those who suffer from anxiety disorders, as such individuals tend to be very sensitive to any increase in heart rate. This is why marijuana can induce anxiety attacks in those who are prone to them.
Strength and Strains
Another thing that many people don’t know is that THC content can vary from one marijuana plant to the next. This is why someone can smoke a one kind of bud and feel super-mellow but try a different strain and feel as though they’re on another planet. This is because THC strength is determined by how marijuana is grown.
Your average marijuana user won’t need to know the specifics of how breeding affects their product’s THC levels, but it’s still interesting stuff. You see, just like most human males, male cannabis plants are always thinking about finding a female with which to reproduce. If left to their own devices, the male cannabis plant will fertilize the top of the female plant. However, if a grower isolates the female plants away from the males, leaving the female tops unfertilized, the result will be sinsemilla, a variety of marijuana that has an extremely high THC content.
Growers debate about whether marijuana grown in natural light or artificial light is stronger or if hydroponic versus “bush” weed creates any variation in THC content. While it’s uncertain whether one strategy works over another, it is true that different strains of weed have higher THC levels than others. Many people using cannabis for medicinal purposes tend to look for low-THC, high-CBC strains in order to receive relief without the intense psychoactive effects.
THC as a Medicine
As medical cannabis becomes legal and easily available in an ever-growing number of areas around the world, people are discovering that THC has more uses than simply creating a high. THC is a particularly useful treatment to quell nausea and stop vomiting. Because THC gives people the “munchies”, it’s also excellent as an appetite stimulant. These effects make it a particularly helpful medication for those undergoing cancer treatment or those who are living with the effects of AIDS.
After it became apparent that THC had valid medical uses, researchers went to work in order to isolate it and reproduce it in a form that could easily be prescribed. The result was dronabinol (marketed in the U.S. and Canada as Marinol). The release of dronabinol meant that patients with a prescription could have access to medicinal THC even in areas where cannabis wasn’t currently legal. Because dronabinol comes in pill form, it’s more convenient than smoking marijuana to receive a THC dose.
The development of Marinol hasn’t all been good news, however. While synthetic cannabis medications seemed like a promising choice for people suffering from a variety of ailments, these pharmaceuticals come with an assortment of problems. Many people complain that drugs such as Marinol don’t work as well as traditional methods of ingesting medical cannabis. While Marinol can take over an hour to take effect, smoking or vaporizing cannabis works in mere minutes. When it does begin to work, the psychoactive effects of Marinol are often quite intense. For some, the predetermined THC dosages in Marinol prescriptions are too strong. They prefer the old method of simply inhaling enough cannabis smoke or vapor to provide relief for their condition.
In fact, Mechoulam and other researchers insist that whole-plant cannabis is often more effective because its many active compounds work better together. Isolating them simply doesn’t produce the same effect, they believe. Mechoulam refers to this phenomenon as the “entourage effect”.
While THC’s benefits in regards to nausea and vomiting are well-known, researchers are still working to see if the compound might be used to help people with other conditions. Evidence has shown that THC may be a promising treatment for people with multiple sclerosis, as it can help with spasticity, pain and spasms. Scientists are investigating whether it may be of help to those with neurodegenerative disorders. Currently, there is inconclusive evidence that THC is helpful in treating things like Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. There has also been insufficient evidence to show whether or not THC works as a treatment for diseases such as Tourette’s or epilepsy.
Positive Effects of THC
As researchers work to find out if THC can be a useful treatment for specific diseases and disorders, scientists are also discovering how it affects the brain on a cellular level. As discussed earlier, THC works by mimicking the cannabinoids that are naturally present in the human brain. What does that mean for our brain health? Does THC help or hurt it?
While many drugs inhibit the brain’s ability to make new cells, studies have shown that THC is capable of stimulating brain cell production (or neurogenesis). Researchers tested this theory using HU-210, a synthetic substance that is 100 times more powerful than standard THC. They believe that further research could provide helpful treatments for those with mood disorders such as depression. Medical professionals currently believe that in many people, depression can be triggered when not enough new brain cells are generated in the hippocampus.
Another positive finding is that THC may be neuroprotective. This also differs from many other drugs that damage, rather than protect brain cells. A 2013 study by scientists in Tel Aviv showed that THC was useful for protecting brain cells from damage due to lack of oxygen, toxic drugs or seizures. While past studies had used high doses of THC given within a short period of time, this study found that low doses given over a period of days was also effective.
Researchers also found that mice subjected to brain injury fared better weeks later if they had been dosed with THC before or just after their injury. Scientists are continuing to work to see if THC may prove to be a good preventative drug for individuals who are at a high risk of brain injury (such as epileptics, those with a high heart attack risk or people who are about to undergo cardiac surgery in which the blood flow to the brain could be interrupted).
Risks Associated with THC
While experts investigate the positives of THC, scientists and healthcare professionals have also raised concerns about the negative impact it can have when used irresponsibly. Because it impairs movement and thinking, THC is well-known to impair motor skills. This can lead to intoxicated driving among those who are unaware or unconcerned about its affects. Cannabis should be treated like alcohol or other intoxicants and driving while under the influence must be discouraged.
Those with mental illnesses are also prone to negative effects from THC. Mental health professionals suggest that those with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia have a risk of symptom relapse while under the influence of THC. As discussed above, strains of marijuana that are high in THC can exacerbate anxiety and panic in those who are prone to it. It’s important for users of any products containing THC to keep their mental health status in mind when educating themselves about the potential side effects.
A major concern with all drugs is the potential of overdose. Is it possible to overdose on THC? The answer is yes, but with a caveat. An overdose on most other substances – alcohol and prescription medications among them – raises the concern of death. There has never been a documented death as the direct result of marijuana overdose. One can overdo it, however. A rapid heart rate, feeling disoriented and anxious, shortness of breath, paranoia and vomiting or nausea are all symptoms of a THC overdose. The effects can last from a few minutes to several hours.
As studies continue, We will work to update readers on the latest in news related to THC and other cannabinoids – particularly in regards to the world of medical cannabis. With all that’s been discovered so far, we know that scientists have only scratched the surface.