THC is a Medicine
Debunking Myths about the Main Cannabinoid
Cannabis has grow in popularity and acceptance in recent years as more states begin to legalize recreational use and access to medical marijuana. The 2018 Farm bill effectively legalized CBD and hemp across the country, which has been both a blessing for those who need CBD for wellness support as well as a cause for mass misinformation about CBD's range of medical benefits & the true nature of the main cannabinoid of cannabis, THC.
Many people now believe that CBD is the only “medicine” of cannabis and THC just gets you “high” without providing any other benefits. However, not only is THC a medicine in and of itself, it may actually be a more effective medicine than CBD alone for conditions commonly treated by cannabis.
THC can have a host of medical benefits even at low, non-psychoactive doses. This means THC can be used as a medicine even without an intoxicating “high” when dosed carefully & used in conjunction with other cannabinoids & terpenes of cannabis.
In fact, in most cases, the combination of THC & CBD will be more effective for medical needs than either cannabinoid would in isolation!
THC 101 - What is THC, and What Does it Do? THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol, and it is the major cannabinoid produced by cannabis - especially the high-potency cannabis found at legal dispensaries across the US. THC was first discovered by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam and his research team in Israel in the 1960s. However, it was not understood how THC was interacting with our brains until the 1990s, and there are still some unanswered questions today.
THC and CBD are very similar-looking molecules but they interact with receptors in our brain in quite different ways to product a variety of effects - the main difference being that CBD does not induce a “high” and is therefore non-intoxicating. However, it is technically incorrect to say that CBD is “non-psychoactive”, as it does interact with our nervous system and can induce feeling of mental and bodily calm.
THC and CBD interact with our brains so well because cannabinoids from cannabis are extremely similar to 2 naturally occurring neurotransmitters in our body, which scientists have termed the “Endocannabinoids”.
These two molecules, called “Anandamide” and “2-AG” for short, bind directly and indirectly to specialized receptor cells called Endocannabinoid Receptors CB-1 and CB-2 to help “modulate” or balance a host of processes in the body. THC consumption also causes a flood of dopamine in the brain, strengthening euphoria and mood enhancement brought on by interactions with the CB receptors of the ECS. CBD does not seem to have this dopamine effect, another reason for its lack of euphoria.
Hemp and cannabis have both CBD and THC, though hemp plant material is legally required to contain 0.3% THC or less by weight to be legally classified as “hemp”. Any stronger of a THC percentage concentration, and the hemp becomes classified as drug cultivar cannabis, or “marijuana” as it’s known in pop culture.
This THC percentage is really the only difference between hemp and “marijuana” - both are technically the plant genus cannabis, both can be descended from either modern “Cannabis Indica” or “Cannabis Sativa”, both produce THC & CBD at varying percentages, both contain minor cannabinoids, and both produce similar terpenes. Cannabis & Hemp are functionally the same plant! Scientists still aren’t 100% sure how or why THC evolved in the cannabis plant initially - though many believe THC plays a role in the cannabis plant’s defense mechanisms and maintaining healthy balance in the plant tissues. This may explain why THC can offer so many medical benefits for humans as well!
THC & CBD both start off their lives in the cannabis growth cycle as CBG or cannabigerol, a minor cannabinoid from which all other cannabinoids are formed. As the cannabis plant matures, CBG is converted to the acidic forms of THC and CBD that are found in cannabis and hemp plant material, THC-A and CBD-A. We’ll focus on the progression of THC from here on out to explore the nuanced effects of THC metabolites. When heat is applied to cannabis material, THC-A converts to Delta-9-THC, the form that causes a “high”.
This heat could come from a lighter when smoking cannabis flower, a vaporizing device, or by baking cannabis for making edibles to decarboxylate or “decarb” THC-A into Delta-9-THC. This activated Delta-9-THC is what is usually being referred to when you hear “THC” referred to in conversation, and on product packaging information.
Another common THC conversion comes with aged cannabis material - the THC to CBN conversion. CBN is a minor cannabinoid that is thoughts to produce feelings of sedation and drowsiness. This THC-degradation cannabinoid is gaining popularity for those looking to use cannabis for sleep. Where and how THC is metabolized, and THC’s mechanism of action in our body, depend on the method of cannabis consumption - be it inhalation (whether smoking or vaporizing), eating edibles, using tinctures or soft edibles under the tongue for sublingual absorption, or any other unique cannabis consumption method you might try. When THC is processed by the digestive system & liver, a large percentage can be wasted out before entering the bloodstream. However, the form of THC that does enter the blood, 11-Hydroxy-THC, is much smaller and can therefore more easily penetrate the brain to interact with the CB1 receptors, inducing a strong high that can feel psychedelic at high doses. The Delta-9-THC that was eaten & broken down to 11-Hydroxy-THC then turns into Nor-9-hydroxy-THC - this form of THC is stored in the body’s fat cells after circulating through the bloodstream, and is slowly re-released into the blood over time. This is the form of THC that is detected in standard drug tests.
Medical Benefits of THC + CBD and How to Use them THC seems to offer many powerful medical benefits that are often unfortunately overlooked because of its intoxicating effects. One of the most promising applications of THC both in isolation or combined with CBD might be use in treatment of PTSD, an area currently being researched in more detail.
THC is a vasodilator, leading some scientists and healthcare practioners to explore the impacts of THC on blood pressure and using THC for inflammation condition symptoms. THC is itself a powerful anti-inflammatory which studies have found more effective than even aspirin.
The noted ability of both THC and CBD to provide muscle relaxation & potential against nerve pain might be especially helpful for senior citizens and older adults dealing with arthritis, back pain and other chronic pain conditions. An extremely common condition that leads folks to cannabinoid medicine is sleep disturbances or disorders. Both THC and CBD can have some unique effects on our sleep cycles which may be positive for improving the quality of your rest, such as impacts on sleep onset (when you fall asleep) and your dreams.
There are even reports of THC and full spectrum cannabis products being used successfully in the integrative medicine approach to cancer management. Dr. Donald Abrams, an integrative oncologist at UCSF’s Osher Center, discussed how THC, CBD, and full spectrum cannabis can be helpful in the fight against cancer- and chemo-related nausea by both relieving vomiting impulses and stimulating appetite to encourage healthy weight. THC is also able to help support the overall effectiveness of CBD in addition to its own myriad medical benefits - many budtenders will recommend trying a full spectrum product with both cannabinoids for increased medical benefits for patients. CBD will also help dampen the psychoactivity of THC, giving more medical efficacy with less euphoric side-effects for use throughout the day without derailing your schedule.
K. Husnu Can Baser, Gerhard Buchbauer. Handbook of Essential Oils. CRC Press, 2nd Edition. 27 Oct 2015. [eBook]