THC: The Complete Science Behind Tetrahydrocannabinol

Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol is indisputably the most well known component of the cannabis plant, and these three letters — THC — are recognizable almost as the iconic leaf of this dear plant of ours.

A lot of people still associate tetrahydrocannabinol only as the main culprit behind marijuana intoxication, and perceive this enigmatic compound just as a tool for getting high, but luckily the truth is an utterly different story.

We’re going to shed some light (actually a lot of light) on this perplexing subject, because a complete understanding of THC is one of the most important things in canna-education, so if you consider yourself a true cannabis aficionado, pay close attention.

To properly start this off, we need to figure out what THC really is, and what is the function of this compound within the plant itself.

What is THC?

Tetrahydrocannabinol is the most abundantly prominent cannabinoid (an active chemical compound unique to cannabis) found in the cannabis plant. Most of the plant’s THC is located in trichomes, which are based on the flowers of fully grown females.

THC trichomes

Adult male plants also have a concentration of THC, but in very negligible quantities, so in order to fully feel the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol, fully developed female plants must be used.

The way THC, and the majority of other cannabinoids work their magic (there are around 100 unique ones identified currently), within our body is by interacting with our internal endocannabinoid system, which in favor causes a wide range of psychoactive and medicinal effects. But we’ll get to all that later.

You might be wondering why does cannabis even have these cannabinoids in the first place?

It’s quite fascinating that these cannabinoid compounds which have such a powerful and wide-ranging effect on us humans aren’t needed for the growth, reproduction, or general development of the cannabis plant at all.

Of course they have an alternative function, which is to protect the plant from any outside attacks, acting like a vigorous immune system.

These types of chemical compounds are known as secondary metabolites, and in cannabis specifically, they are in charge of guarding the plant from herbivores, pests, viruses, bacteria and all other parasites.

Another captivating function of THC is that it decreases the effects of the sun’s harmful UV radiation, because of its powerful UV-B absorption. This is quite convenient, as the majority of THC cannabinoids are located on the trichome glands of the flowers, which are found on the outer surface of the buds.

What’s also very important about THC is the story of its uncovering, so we’re gonna spend a moment getting acquainted with that.

Discovery of THC

The cannabis plant was greatly underinvestigated (at least from an official modern medical standpoint), before one man came along.

This figure, also dubbed as “The Godfather of THC”, is Raphael Mechoulam, now a well-established and famed Israeli organic chemist.

At the start of the 1960s, Raphael was working as a researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. Mechoulam had a deep-rooted fascination with the cannabis plant, and at the same time was quite appalled that there weren’t any serious studies being done on this plant which he knew was used as a medicine in many cultures for a really long time.

He decided to take matters into his own hands, and through a connection of the Weizmann institute’s director he was able to get his hands on a 5 kilos of impounded Lebanese hash from Tel Aviv’s police department.

As he shared in his interviews, during the bus ride from Tel Aviv to Rehovot he was fearful because this was such a large quantity of hash (this was an under-the-table type of deal), but fortunately nothing bad happened during the transportation of the specimen.

Raphael Mechoulam

After getting the required material for researching, Rafael and his team first successfully isolated another important cannabinoid, the non-psychoactive CBD, in 1963.

One year later, tetrahydrocannabinol was discovered, with the researchers mapping its structure, and were now able to synthesize THC.

Once these breakthroughs have happened, Mechoulam no longer needed to use back doors to get the hash required for his work, because the Israeli Ministry of Health supplied the acclaimed scientist with all the necessary testing material.

Another great feat of Dr. Mechoulam was the discovery of our endocannabinoid system, which plays a very notable role in dictating pain, memory, mood and many other processes in humans.

Endocannabinoids (cannabinoids that are produced naturally within our bodies) were also encountered, and the most important of them was anandamide.

Anandamide is an internally created chemical compound, and its purpose is to help us to get rid of all unneeded information that our minds collect during each day. There are most likely a lot more functions that anandamide performs, but science is still having a rough time figuring that out.

This might seem strange at first, but just think about it, if we were to remember everything all the time, our brain would very soon be filled with all kinds of unnecessary and useless info.

Anandamide is there to filter all the important stuff from the unimportant, so we can remember the things we actually should keep.

Besides the difference in function, anandamide and tetrahydrocannabinol are different in one more crucial way, and that is how long they affects us.

Anandamide lasts for a very short period of time which is measured in minutes (it’s around long enough to connect to the undesired cell for suited for “deletion”, after which it breaks down), unlike THC which can affect us for several days.

Just as endocannabinoids cause different reactions to our endocannabinoid system, the exact same system is activated and affected when we consume the cannabinoids indigenous to cannabis.

We’ll cover the wide range of effects that the THC compound creates a bit later in the text.

An interesting information regarding Dr. Mechoulam is that he claims he never tried cannabis on his own, refusing to compromise the validity and integrity of his research.

“I have never used it,” he said. “As I did research and we had an official supply of cannabis, obviously if we had used it for non-scientific reasons if people had come to know about it that would have stopped our work. Basically, neither I nor my students were interested.”

How THC engages our body

Now that we’re familiar with the endocannabinoid system (or the ECS) and our internal endocannabinoids, we can go further into depth on how THC (and other cannabinoids from marijuana) engage this cell network.

Parts of the ECS that are in charge of reacting to stimuli are called cannabinoid receptors, and once THC reaches these receptors they become influenced by the cannabinoid.

Once altered by THC, they “inform” other parts of the ECS to perform various chemical processes inside our body.

Cell sites that react to THC are located in three important sections of our brain:

  • The hippocampus – which is a short-term memory part of the brain located in the temporal lobe. THC affects the hippocampus which in favor makes us have troubles remembering events that happened recently.
  • The frontal cortex – this is where our thought processes occur, and cannabinoid receptors in this part of the brain can regulate our thought patterns. THC causes the firing of neurons to be quicker than usual, which makes us have a more flowing train of thought, which is closely linked with creativity.
  • The cerebellum – in charge of movement and general coordination, because of this we tend to feel slightly clumsy and uncoordinated when high.

The increased release of dopamine is another crucial factor for THC intoxication, and this chemical is a part of a primal rewarding system for desirable behaviours like reproduction and eating. Dopamine levels spike when the surge of THC reaches the brain, causing us to feel joyous, contempt, and euphoric.

Because of each individual’s unique personal chemistry, these effects can be happen in a lesser, or greater amount.

One of the most important functions of the endocannabinoid system is to mediate absolute harmony within the body, and the proper medical term for this is homeostasis.

While the majority of ECS cells are located in the brain and in the central nervous system, it’s interesting that these cells are also found in many other parts of the body, including our reproductive organs, skin, and our digestive tract.

So to sum it up, once THC reaches these cell receptors of the ECS, this causes a chain reaction that makes various parts of our body perform differently than usual, and also makes us feel quite different than we normally do.

While people usually need some time to get used to the cognitive and behavioural changes that THC creates (because they can be quite overwhelming at first), a whole series of reactions unnoticeable by our mind also happen at the same time.

We’ll cover the complete range of effects in the next chapter.

THC effects

Because the plethora of THC-caused effects is really profoundly diverse, we’re gonna separate these effects into three stand-alone categories, where we’ll elaborate in great detail the short term, medicinal and long term effects of tetrahydrocannabinol.

Before we start I should mention just a couple of general positive effects, which include:

  • Better mood
  • Anti-pain
  • Relaxation
  • Anti-stress
  • Being more social

Short term effects

Under short term effects we’ll encompass all the immediate effects that happen very shortly after THC intake, no matter if it’s ingested by smoking, vaping, dabbing, eating edibles or applying topicals.

Even though medicinal effects also start happening almost instantaneously once THC enters our system, they’ll be detailedly covered in the next passage.

A person’s unique individual chemistry is essential for the perception of the effects of THC, so one user might experience some of them in a far greater amount than somebody else. You can easily figure out how your body reacts to THC after a couple of sessions.

Another factor is the strain of cannabis used, as well as the concentration of THC of that particular strain, and the quantity of other cannabinoids present in the strain in question.

Here are the main short term effects:

  • Euphoria
  • Uncontrolled laughter
  • Feeling uplifted and energetic
  • Sense of relaxation
  • Increased appetite (so-called munchies)
  • Increased heart rate
  • Red eyes
  • Dry mouth (so-called cotton mouth effect)
  • Feeling drowsy and dizzy
  • Relief from pain (ovde cucin clanak o bolu)
  • Feeling of being heavy (not like gaining weight, but more like a sensation of increased gravity)
  • Decreased spatial memory (you’ll get lost more easily)
  • Decreased body temperature
  • Anxiety and paranoia (these issues tend to happen more to people who are very sensitive to THC, because of their unique chemistry, as we mentioned above)

THC benefits (medical)

Cannabis is slowly but surely gaining the attention of the entire world as the number one plant which can help humanity (and animals) with such an astonishing number of different diseases, ailments and conditions.

THC as the main cannabinoid of cannabis plays a crucial role in many of these issues.

Probably the most amazing use of THC is in its battle against cancer cells. The animal clinical tests have shown that the THC compound makes causes cancer cells to commit autophagy (or cell “suicide”), and this way stopping the proliferation and growth of tumors.

Also the anti-inflammatory qualities of THC makes this natural chemical a great aid for a wide range of modern diseases that have a root cause in inflammation (the majority of autoimmune diseases, depression and neurodegenerative illnesses).

Another very current subject related to this is the synthetic THC currently being sold and heavily advertised in the US. Because the cannabis plant and all of its cannabinoids occur completely naturally, they cannot be patented and monetized, the big players of the pharmaceutical industry found a way to surpass this by creating synthetic THC. This allows them to create a separate market, and synthetic THC can now be obtained with a prescription across the entire United States.

This of course is quite beneficial and convenient for patients who live in the states where medicinal cannabis isn’t legalised (yet), but in this situation the hypocrisy of modern society is just so evident.

Big Pharma corporations create an artificial version of something that already exists abundantly in nature, and influencing governments to make this “spin-off” version legal while at the same time slowing down the legalisation of the real thing.

And if you’re uncertain why, the answer is profit.

We’ll cover this controversial issue hopefully very soon down the road, but for now let’s return to THC and all the diseases and conditions it helps battle and prevent.

To further inspect how THC helps with each individual disease click on the belonging link, and now let’s check out all of the long-term effects of tetrahydrocannabinol.

Long term effects of THC

The area of research for the long term effects of THC (and cannabis in general) is still quite limited, which doesn’t really come as a surprise, because as the body of evidence expands more and more people will figure out that this amazing plant offers so much, and takes so little from us.

The scientific studies conducted so far frequently offer conflicting results, which only confirms that the body of work needs to expand in order for us to get a better comprehension for the long term effects of THC.

But just as you probably suspected, this all-natural and supremely beneficial cannabinoid has an overabundance of pros, and very few cons.

Here they are.

Issues with bronchitis

This is not a problem which is directly connected with THC, but rather with smoking cannabis. Even if you’re smoking only pure pot with organic rolling papers, over an extended period period of time you’ll most likely develop some sort of lung irritation.

This actually has nothing to do with THC (or weed for that matter), but is a problem with inhaling burned organic matter, which upon combustion releases unhealthy carbon particles. These issues can be avoided by changing the way you consume cannabis (vaping/edibles the best options for lung-health), or just by taking breaks from smoking.

Increased tolerance

If you frequently consume large quantities of cannabis, your body becomes more tolerant to THC and other cannabinoids. This means you’ll need to consume larger amounts of cannabis to achieve the same effect, and for genuine pot-lovers this is a very frustrating occurrence.

The best (and only) way to decrease your tolerance levels is to take a lil break from THC and the gang, and your sensitivity to cannabinoids will quickly recover.

General lack of interest

This is another issue that’s bound to happen to users who excessively consume THC, and the feelings of apathy and emotional numbness can really interfere with your everyday life. You can fix this issue very easily by giving your body a brief period of time to recuperate from all the excess THC.

Possible problems for those predisposed for psychotic disorders

This particular study showed that people who have a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis can develop first symptoms more rapidly by frequent THC compsuntion. This is definitely a very bad thing, so if you’re in the risk of such illnesses, you should probably stay away from tetrahydrocannabinol.

Altercated memory

One particular study found that users who frequently enjoy THC experience a slight decrease of verbal memory over long periods of time. This may sound somewhat frightening, but the research showed that (on average) hard-core stoners lose only one word over a period of five years, so this decrease in memory isn’t something that should really concern you.

It’s important to note that it’s utterly impossible to have a THC overdose.

The thing that differentiates cannabis (and THC) from other more powerful substances for instance opioids (or heroin), is that the receptors of the ECS aren’t stationed in the brainstem parts controlling breathing. Because of this too much THC cannot be detrimental to any of our vital organs.

Scientists have calculated that a person would have to consume 40,000 times more THC than an usual dose (a joint) to overdose on it, which is just undoable in reality, so you can relax and be certain that you’re absolutely safe no matter how much THC you’re ingested.

Another calming information is that this particular study showed no measurable brain damage from THC in adults.

How to consume THC

This section is going to get a bit sciency, but it should be quite fascinating for cannabis devotees.

All marijuana strains and species contain tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, or THCA, and we can consider that THCA is the THC compound, but in its raw natural form.

In its raw form, THCA cannot bind to the receptors of the endocannabinoid system, because it has one atom of carbon that’s stopping it to fit to the receptors of the ECS.

This is why nothing happens when we eat a bud.

In order for us to feel the effects of THCA, heat needs to be applied to cannabis, which removes the excess carbon atom from the THCA compound, and transforms it into the good old psychoactive and medicinally beneficial THC.

This process is called decarboxylation, and it functions exactly the same no matter if you’re smoking, vaping, making canna-butter or consuming more potent forms of weed.

We’ve detaily covered decarboxylation in a separate article, so if you want to find out more about this subject, check it out.

THC and CBD

Even though these are the two most prominent cannabinoids found in cannabis, they share very little resemblance. THC is found in much larger quantities than CBD (or cannabidiol), and unlike THC, cannabidiol doesn’t create any mental effects (it’s completely non-psychoactive).

These two chemicals also have a different way of interacting with our bodies.

THC produces its effects by binding to the receptors of our endocannabinoid system, and these receptors, once affected by THC, inform other parts of the ECS to perform various chemical tasks within the body.

CBD, on the other hand, has a completely divergent approach. It restricts the FAAH (fatty acid amide hydrolase) enzymes which are in charge of destroying our internal endocannabinoids (including anandamide), which then boosts the quantity of our endocannabinoids.

Besides the FAAH restriction, CBD also affects us in a couple of completely diverse ways, from activating our 5-HT1A hydroxytryptamine serotonin receptors (wonderful for anxiety), and TRPV1 receptors (great for mediation of pain perception, body temperature and inflammation).

CBD also diminishes the psychoactive effects of THC, which in favor facilitates the medical benefits of tetrahydrocannabinol, because large doses of THC are known to cause feelings of paranoia and anxiety.

Combining these two cannabinoids is amazing for serious illnesses and conditions, because they play so well off each other.

Read next: CBD: the Complete Science Behind Cannabidiol (Feat. Martin A. Lee)

Categories Basics

A passionate cannabis enthusiast ever since his late teens, Marco usually writes about 420 culture, health and weed basics. You can find him discussing various conspiracy theories with his peers.

2 thoughts on “THC: The Complete Science Behind Tetrahydrocannabinol

  1. Very informative article. Thank you for sharing. I’m wondering how much per day someone should take the CO when fighting cancer or perhaps to control pain associated with cancer.

    • Hey Louise, I’m really glad you found it educational.
      Regarding the cannabis oil, we’re going to release a new article soon which is about Rick Simpson and his potent oil, and there you’ll have all the precise information on how to make and administer CO.
      You’ll need 60 grams of oil, which should be administered over a 90 days period.
      This is the dosage info:

      First week (3 doses a day)
      Every 8 hours, take a half-grain of rice sized dosage, and replay this process every day in these first seven days.

      Weeks 2-5 (doubling every four days)
      While also using the oil three times a day, with eight hours apart, gradually increase your dose by doubling the amount after every four days. People usually need three to five weeks to get to the optimal one-gram-a-day dosage. Once you’ve reached the one-gram-a-day plateau, you’ll be using this dose until the end of the therapy.

      Weeks 5-12 (gram a day)
      Consuming one gram a day is around 8 or 9 rice-sized drops every 8 hours, and in this phase people tend to mix the RSO with their food or drinks, because the taste can be a bit bitter, but it all depends on your own personal sensibility.
      The even increase in dose over the first couple of weeks is mainly there to get you gradually used to the oil, and the side effects that include sluggishness and daytime sleepiness should stop after the first three or four weeks. But they aren’t anything to be troubled about, because the deep sleep caused by the oil is a crucial part of the curing process.

      Hope this helps, and if you require anything else, please let us know.

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