What is Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)?


Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of the many compounds, in addition to Cannabidiol (CBD), that is found in the marijuana plant and other varieties of cannabis.

You will find our article titled What is Cannabidiol (CBD)? very helpful with understanding CBD.

Most people recognize it as the chemical that produces the “high” when using marijuana or THC-infused products. With a little research the picture was obviously a bit more complex.

It turns out THC is a very complex compound with a wide variety of potential uses. It even has a long history in various cultures, going back thousands of years. 

If you’re curious about where THC comes from and how it affects your body, here is everything I have discovered.

What Is THC?

What is tetrahydrocannabinol? Abbreviated as THC, it’s the main psychoactive compound in marijuana. It’s responsible for the psychological effects that come with smoking marijuana, but it may also play a role in reducing pain and provide additional therapeutic uses.

The compound was first isolated by Israeli researchers Raphael Mechoulam and Yechiel Gaoni at the Weizmann Institute of Science in 1964.

A year later, scientists totally synthesized the compound. It is in its synthetic form that THC has appeared in commercially available medicines, such as dronabinol.

Where Does THC Come From?

THC comes from cannabis plants, including marijuana and hemp. However, marijuana contains a higher concentration.

The North American Industrial Hemp Council states that industrial hemp only has a THC content of 0.05% to 1%. Some strains of marijuana contain as much as 30% THC.

Currently, there are three species of plants belonging to the cannabis genus:

  • Cannabis sativa
  • Cannabis Indica
  • Cannabis ruderalis

Some debate whether to categorize these plants as separate species. However, cannabis Indica often has the largest concentrations of THC, while cannabis ruderalis only contains trace amounts. Most commercially grown hemp comes from the Sativa variety.

The Effects of THC on the Brain

THC binds to the cannabinoid (CB) receptors in our brains, affecting our senses and experiences.

Users tend to report feeling mild euphoria and sedation, along with a few potential side effects, such as increased appetite and paranoia.

These effects occur due to the way that THC interacts with the endocannabinoid system. The discovery of this system came twenty years after scientists isolated THC.

In fact, scientists named the endocannabinoid system after the cannabinoids found in cannabis plants.

The endocannabinoid system affects a wide variety of physiological functions, including:

  • Appetite
  • Pain
  • Sleep
  • Mood
  • Memory
  • Inflammation

When THC binds to the CB receptors, it slows communication between the cells. By inhibiting communication, THC effectively blocks pathways, resulting in a variety of positive and possibly negative physiological changes. Some of the discovered effects include:

  • Euphoria
  • Reduced nausea
  • Increased appetite
  • Decreased pain sensitivity
  • Impaired memory and coordination
  • Slower reaction times
  • Panic or paranoia

As multiple areas of the brain contain the endocannabinoid system, THC has far-reaching effects. It also affects people differently, as with any compound that interacts with the brain.

Some people experience additional side effects, such as hallucinations or delusions. However, a study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology suggests that other cannabinoids, such as CBD, may counter some of the negative effects of THC.

Medicinal Benefits of THC

While various cultures have used marijuana medicinally for thousands of years, researchers discovered THC just over a half century ago.

In the short time since isolating THC, hundreds of studies have explored the medicinal value of this compound. The most-widely recognized medicinal benefits of THC provide relief for the following conditions:

  • Pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Glaucoma
  • Muscle spasms
  • Seizures

Patients have received medicinal marijuana as part of their treatments for cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, Crohn’s disease, and even eating disorders.

While most of the research has focused on THC, CBD may provide many of these same benefits. In fact, CBD may be the contributing factor for some of the known medical benefits of medicinal marijuana.

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Recreational Use of THC

As with medicinal use, the recreational use of THC has a long history. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote about Scythians inhaling the smoke of cannabis seeds and flowers to get high.

For most of modern history, farmers have cultivated cannabis plants almost exclusively for textiles and ropes. In the early 1900s, immigrants introduced the practice of smoking cannabis to the American public.

By 1931, 29 states outlawed marijuana out of fear of social unrest. In 1937, the US Federal Government made cannabis, including hemp, illegal.

In the past several years, several US states have passed laws legalizing recreational marijuana. Almost every state allows for medicinal marijuana. With these changes in laws, THC is becoming more readily available to the general public for both recreational and medicinal uses.

The Risks and Dangers of Using THC

While THC has many medicinal and recreational uses, it also brings a few potential risks and dangers. For example, research suggests that THC may increase the risk of relapse in patients suffering from schizophrenia.

As mentioned, THC can also cause panic or paranoia in some individuals. During a severe reaction, some users experience hallucinations, which may lead to further panic.

These severe reactions appear to be infrequent and researchers believe that those with existing mental health issues are at greater risk.

Besides rare mental health issues, there are additional dangers to using THC, including limited cognitive thinking. A study completed by the University of Montreal found that teens who started smoking around the age of 14 were less likely to perform well on cognitive tests compared to non-smokers.

Another risk is the delayed motor reflexes and reaction time that comes with THC use. These effects are short-lived, but users may have impaired driving skills while under the influence of THC.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that THC is the second-most commonly found substance in impaired drivers after alcohol.

To reduce the risk of THC-related car accidents, doctors advise patients not to drive while using medical marijuana.

What Is the Difference Between CBD and THC?

Cannabis plants contain both tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), along with over a hundred other cannabinoids.

Both substances interact with the CB receptors in the brain. However, they provide different effects.

CBD is a non-psychoactive chemical. It does not produce the “high” associated with THC. It offers more of the medicinal benefits without the negative mental risks.

THC binds with the CB1 receptors, which produces a sense of euphoria and the potential negative psychoactive properties, such as paranoia, delusions, and hallucinations.

CBD does not bind with the CB1 receptors in the same way as THC. It may even prevent THC from fully binding with these receptors, helping to counter the psychoactive effects.

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CBD also comes in higher concentrations in hemp compared to THC. In the United States, farmers can now legally harvest hemp, paving the way for more CBD use and research, while the THC found in marijuana remains a controlled substance in many regions.

What Does the Latest Research on THC Say?

Due to recent legal changes concerning cannabis, researchers now find it easier to explore the potential medicinal uses of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The latest research has continued to verify existing theories while other research has helped dispel misconceptions about THC.

At the 2018 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, researchers from around the globe came together to discuss the newest findings. Some of the latest research indicates that exposure to THC at an early age may stunt brain development related to learning, making memories, and forming habits.

Summary – Researchers Continue to Explore THC

THC is an interesting compound. More people are starting to use marijuana and THC-related products, such as edibles. Yet, there’s still a lot of unanswered questions.

It seems that researchers are just beginning to gain a better understanding of THC and how it affects people.

This unique compound may offer pain relief and help reduce nausea, but also possesses several potential side effects, such as dry mouth and slower reaction times. Some people may even experience hallucinations. Luckily, those seem to be extreme cases and the latest research suggests that CBD may help counter some of the negative effects while promoting more of the good stuff.

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