What Is THC: Inside the Most Controversial Cannabinoid
THC concentration used to be the primary benchmark of cannabis quality, but a new understanding of cannabinoid chemistry and human biology have expanded the spotlight to the rest of the “entourage.” That doesn’t mean THC isn’t still important.
At a time when cannabis cultivators and consumers are so heavily focused on terpene profiles, it’s easy to forget that not so long ago the overwhelmingly preoccupation of cannabis enthusiasts could be encapsulated in three letters: THC.
Tetrahydrocannabinol is just one of the more than 110 cannabinoids found in cannabis, but for decades it was assumed to be the primary psychoactive component of the plant. It was synthesized in 1964 by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, which ultimately led to the creation of dronabinol, a synthetic version of THC best known by the trade name Marinol. Patients who were already using cannabis medicine said the synthetic, THC-only option was less effective and had side effects not associated with natural cannabis.
Raw THC vs. Activated THC
“THC” is a common colloquial catchall, but there are several states of the cannabinoid relevant to the use of cannabis. What many people don’t realize is that cannabis plants don’t produce THC, they produce tetrahydrocannabolic acid, or THCA. This is the non-psychoactive precursor to THC∆9, which is created when THCA is decarboxylated through heat.
This is why consuming raw cannabis, while potentially beneficial in other ways, will not provide psychoactive effects. Many people decarboxylate their cannabis before using it to make edibles precisely to transform THCA into THC∆9, thereby ensuring the edibles will make consumers feel “high.”
THC∆9 is further transformed into THC metabolites, which are produced by the human body when it processes THC, notably 11-nor-9-carboxy THC, which is basically inert but remains in the body for up to three months; it is the primary THC metabolite tested for by most drug tests.
THC & The Endocannabinoid System
Even though the cannabis community’s new obsession is with “the terps,” the legacy of our previous love affair with high THC levels is found in the elevated concentration still found in most strains. But with the widespread popularity of concentrates, high potency is typically given, hence the elevated focus on terpenes.
We now know that the cannabis plant produces phytocannabinoids, which supplement and interact with endocannabinoids that are produced naturally by the human body. The complex neurological network responsible for producing, processing and utilizing these cannabinoids is known as the endogenous cannabinoid system, and it was discovered by the same person who first synthesized THC — Dr. Mecholuam.
There are many distinct physiological processes regulated or affected by the ECS. For example, the endocannabinoid system responds to a physical trauma by suppressing sensitizer and activator release, reducing nerve cell firing and limiting inflammatory response by immune cells near the site of the trauma. These are distinct processes, but they all further the ultimate goal of reducing pain. This is just one expression of the way the ECS is constantly working to maintain balance within your body.
The Entourage Effect
Dr. Mechoulam is also credited with introducing the concept of the “entourage effect,” which first posited that cannabis works in tandem with CBD and other cannabinoids to produce the desirable effects of cannabis. But what is often lost in the new buzz around CBD medicine and CBD-only medicine particularly, is that THC is an absolutely crucial component of that entourage. While it isn’t necessary to consume THC in large quantities, or even necessarily to consume the decarboxylated THC∆9 (though its benefits are numerous), your “cannabinoid diet” should contain some of the foundational cannabinoid THC, even if it’s THCA in the form of a tincture.
THC may not be the primary consideration of most cannabis consumers anymore, but it still serves a vital function in providing the diverse suite of medicinal benefits associated with cannabis consumption.