What is THC? The effects & potential benefits of Tetrahydrocannabinol
05.09.22 - 4 min read
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If you’re new to the cannabis world, there’s a good chance you have some curiosity about THC (or Tetrahydrocannabinol), the most common cannabinoid found in plant.
THC is responsible for many of the state-altering effects so commonly associated with cannabis use. Newcomers tend to have plenty of questions about this psychoactive cannabinoid, and there’s no shortage of misconceptions surrounding it—which is exactly why we’ve created an in-depth, fact-fueled introduction to THC.
Our guide to THC will cover everything you need to know, from what THC is and how it interacts with the body to the legality and potential benefits of this cannabinoid. Ready to dive in and learn? Let’s go!
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is perhaps the most well-known chemical compound in cannabis. It’s responsible for many of marijuana’s mood-altering effects.
More specifically, it falls into a category of chemical compounds called cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are a family of compounds that interact with the endocannabinoid system in our body.
While THC may likely be the most famous cannabinoid, there are actually as many as 100 that have now been identified. And while THC is sometimes thought of as synonymous with the effects of marijuana, it’s not the only compound in marijuana that has an effect.
Ready for a little THC science? (It’ll be fun, we promise!)
The chemical formula of THC is C21H30O2. That means each molecule of THC has 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms and two oxygen atoms.
But while each molecule of THC has the same components, there are several different versions of the compound. We call the different versions isomers. Basically, these variations of THC have the same “ingredients,” but they’re arranged differently. That means the chemical structure is different, and more importantly, they interact with receptors in your body differently.
Why does that matter? Because different types of THC can have different effects. Below, we’ll walk you through the main types of THC.
Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) is the predecessor of THC. THCA itself is not a psychoactive substance, but it’s a precursor of delta-9 THC, the version of THC that is psychoactive. THCA is abundant in the cannabis plant when it’s fresh, but it progressively turns into delta-9 THC (the psychoactive form) as the plant is dried, smoked, vaped or cooked. [Source]
Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) is another variation of the THC molecule. It is present in some, but not all strains of cannabis. It differs from THC in that the molecule has a propyl (3 carbon) group instead of a pentyl (5 carbon) group. Some research suggests that THCV plays a role in decreasing appetite.
Delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-8 THC) is a cannabinoid that is present in most cannabis strains in small amounts. Like delta-9 THC, delta-8 THC has psychoactive effects but research suggests that it is less potent than delta-9 THC.
Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-9 THC) is the version of THC that is responsible for many of the psychoactive effects of cannabis. It’s also what THCA turns into when it’s dried, smoked, cooked, or vaped. When someone uses the generic term “THC” to refer to the psychoactive cannabinoid, delta-9 THC is most likely what they have in mind. [Source]
Delta-10-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-10 THC) is another isomer of THC and is psychoactive as well. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that while its effects are similar to those of delta-9 THC, it’s less potent.
So how does THC actually have its effect on someone consuming cannabis?
Well, it happens through a complex biological process—but the good news is we can give you a simplified explanation.
Let’s step back a second take a super quick look at how the nervous system works.
The nervous system is basically a person’s command center. It includes the brain, the spinal cord, and all the other nerves that run through your body. The brain sends signals to the rest of your body through the nerves. In turn, your body sends signals back through the nerves to the brain. This conversation of signals between the brain and the body is what keeps you regulated, functioning and (most importantly!) alive.
It turns out that humans have an entire endocannabinoid system built into the nervous system. It’s critical to human functioning. This system is a vast network of receptors that are packed throughout our brains and nervous system. These receptors work just like the other ones in that they are specialized in recognizing certain kinds of chemical signals.
But the receptors in the endocannabinoid system are specially designed to recognize cannabinoids. There are two types of receptors in ESC: CB1 receptors and CB2 receptors.
Scientists are still trying to understand the full effects of the endocannabinoid system, but we know that it plays a role in controlling the level of activity from other neurotransmitters.
How does that work? It amplifies some brain signals traveling through the body, and sometimes it turns down other messages. More specifically, endocannabinoid receptors seem to play a role in regulating body temperature, hunger, alertness and a number of other factors. [Source]
The human body produces its own cannabinoids to work with the cannabinoid receptors throughout the body. The cannabinoids that we produce internally are called “endocannabinoids.”
But there are many cannabinoids also found in the cannabis plant. THC is one of them. Since the chemical structures of cannabinoids in marijuana are so similar to the endocannabinoids produced naturally in our body, they can connect to our cannabinoid receptors and influence our nervous system.
THC is known to bind both with CB1 and CB2 receptors and as a result, create a number of effects on the nervous system, from mind-altering ones to potential pain management. [Source]
That’s why cannabis is a “psychoactive” substance: it has an effect on how our brains and nervous systems work. It can affect our sleep, how we behave, our memory and many other cognitive functions.
Simply put, the full extent of THC’s effects is not fully understood. While there is a significant body of research that can point us towards the possible benefits and applications of THC, there’s still plenty more to learn.
In this section, we’ll highlight the effects of THC that are supported by evidence—but keep in mind the science on THC is constantly evolving.
Another caveat: it can be tricky to untangle the potential benefits of THC from other cannabinoids.
That’s because when you consume cannabis, you’re typically not consuming just THC. You’re consuming a product made from the entire plant which will almost always contain a number of other cannabinoids besides THC.
In this section, we’ll focus on what we know about THC itself, though these effects might also be influenced by other cannabinoids like CBD.
Here is a short list of the possible benefits of THC that have the best research support:
If THC is the most well-known cannabinoid, cannabidiol (CBD) is probably runner-up. Let’s take a look at some of the most important differences between the two.
THC can take many forms. Besides the actual marijuana flower, there are a ton of products that contain THC. Some of the most popular THC products include:
You can find all of these in our RISE Dispensary menu.
It’s important to remember that laws regulating cannabis use and THC products are hyper-local: they depend on the state and even sometimes the city you’re in. They also change regularly. So before using or possessing cannabis, get familiar with the laws in your area.
As of now, 18 US states have legalized the recreational use of cannabis, and 37 have legalized the use of cannabis for medical purposes.
Several others have legalized some products, like CBD products with less than 0.3% THC content. See our state-by-state legalization map for more details on marijuana laws in different states.
Note that even though state laws in many states have legalized the use of cannabis, U.S. federal laws still prohibit virtually all cannabis products through the Controlled Substances Act.
Yes, medical marijuana usually contains at least some THC. However, some products and some strains of marijuana may contain less THC than others. You can check the label of the cannabis product you’re planning to buy to see its cannabinoid profile. Don’t forget to consult an expert to find the perfect product for you.
Yes, THC is responsible for the state-altering effects of marijuana. THC is one of the cannabinoids that has the greatest psychoactive effects.
It really depends on a variety of factors, like how much is used, the method of ingestion, the quality of the product, and the concentration of THC. (Not to mention that THC impacts each individual differently.)
THC is still detectable in the body even after the effects disappear.
Again, how long it is detectable depends on many things, including the method of consumption and how frequently you use it. As a rough guideline, THC is typically detectable:
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