Tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly known as THC, is the molecule responsible for the hype around cannabis. Whenever there is a debate about the plant, it’s almost always about THC (until recently, when CBD exploded into cannabis-culture). THC is a molecule which historically was controversial, today there is a renewed interest in its colorful effects. More than ever before, people are curious about the intoxicating THC experience.
Over the last few decades, cannabis has gone through a revolution. Through a growing body of research, we have a deeper understanding of THC’s effects. We are starting to understand what happens inside the body when we consume THC, which has led to a shift of perspective. Cannabis isn’t the scary, vilified substance it once was – people are seeking it out, often for the very first time in their lives. With the increased interest comes questions like what is THC, and why does it have such an intoxicating effect in the human body?
What is THC?
There are at least 113 cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, with more being discovered all the time. These compounds, known as ‘cannabinoids’, are responsible for many of the effects of the plant. Each strain contains a unique combination, leading to a unique experience when consumed.
THC is the most famous cannabinoid, and it is classified as one of the two primary cannabinoids (the other being cannabidiol (CBD)). According to the research thus far, THC is the only cannabinoid responsible for the intoxicating feeling associated with the plant. In essence, THC is the “high”. Other cannabinoids and terpenes influence the sensations of the high, but it’s ultimately the THC which delivers the ‘high’ itself.
What Happens to THC in Your Body?
All cannabinoids affect the human body through their interactions with the endocannabinoidsystem. This system works to keep the body (and mind) balanced. The system manages your appetite, mood, memory, pain, and much, much more.
We’ve got two endocannabinoid receptors, the CB1 receptor is concentrated in the brain and central nervous system, and the CB2 receptors found mostly within immune cells and the digestive tract. Cannabinoids like THC, interact with the CB1 and CB2 receptors by seamlessly integrating into our natural endocannabinoid system.
Usually, cannabinoids indirectly stimulate receptors to turn on or off. THC is entirely different, as it forms a direct bond with our CB1 receptors. The connection is like a hand fitting into a glove or a key into a lock. This bond is why THC, and THC alone, stimulates the high or the altered state of mind.
What THC Feel Like?
All cannabinoids are technically psychoactive. As in, they affect the brain. That doesn’t mean all cannabinoids trigger a high or an altered state of mind, but they can influence mood, memory, or stimulate physiological responses. So far, out of the dozens of documented cannabinoids – THC is the only molecule responsible for the ‘high’ associated with cannabis use.
You could also say that THC is what differentiates a recreational experience from a medicinal one. All cannabinoids may have a therapeutic benefit, but realistically, only THC has a strong recreational use.
It’s a little hard to pinpoint a purely THC experience because people rarely use THC isolates (they’re currently illegal and very time consuming to make). Most often you consume THC alongside a medley of other compounds found in the plant, like secondary cannabinoids (CBD, THCV, and CBG) and terpenes (a helpful introduction to terpenes available here). Each compound plays a role in the final experience. They ‘re all working together to give the strain its individual characteristics.
That said, it’s safe to say that through its direct interaction with the CB1 receptor in the brain, THC does come with a few standard characteristics including stimulating an altered state of mind, elevated mood, increased appetite (commonly known as ‘the munchies’), and more. If you consume cannabis and experience a high – it’s safe to say that THC is involved.
A Brief History of THC
With the focus on THC for the majority of the plant’s recent history, you’d assume that THC was the first cannabinoid isolated by researchers. Interestingly, scientists only successfully isolated THC in the 1940s, after they’d isolated a still little studied cannabinoid called cannabinol (CBN).
We can actually thank the cannabis plant for the discovery of our endocannabinoid system. You know, the integral biological system regulating our mood, memory, pain, and inflammation. Researchers in the early 1990s were looking for the mechanisms behind the effects of cannabis on the human body. In their quest, they stumbled on the vast network of receptors and cells regulating a variety of our bodies systems. cannabis is why it was named endocannabinoid, meaning within (or internal) cannabinoid system.
The Benefits of Full Spectrum Products
As mentioned, THC is very rarely consumed all alone. More often than not, cannabis in either raw or concentrated forms contains dozens of different compounds. It’s why some strains feel sleepy, and others energetic; how some are super-relaxing and others more sociable. Each unique combination of compounds leads to a multilayered experience.
This nuanced experience is due to a theory explored in depth by Ethan B. Russo, called the Entourage effect. The method examines how the recreational and medicinal benefits of the plant are greater (and deeper) than merely the sum of the individual compounds.
The most researched synergistic relationship is the one between THC and CBD. These two cannabinoids work together to influence the final experience. For example, more THC in a product means a stronger high, but add a little CBD, and the high is suddenly gentler with fewer adverse effects. Terpenes are also thought to have an interesting relationship to the final experience, although this research is just getting underway.
Cannabis is No Longer Just About THC
For the longest time, everyone looked for the highest THC levels. It seemed like the sole focus of the industry was to find the most “potent” strains of cannabis with the highest levels of THC. Today, we have a much deeper understanding of what makes cannabis enjoyable, and surprise! THC isn’t everything anymore.
Not everyone can handle high doses of THC. It’s often more pleasurable to find strains with exciting combinations of primary and secondary compounds than to get stuck on the level of THC. Many of the effects you are looking for, like the creativity or relaxation, actually come from the other compounds and not from THC.
Next time you are shopping for cannabis, know that THC plays a key role in the high but it isn’t the complete picture. Ask about CBD content, ask about terpenes, and you’ll get a better idea of how the strain will make you feel.
Ask your budtender to make recommendations based on the type of experience you are looking for. You may be surprised to hear them make suggestions not on the THC levels, but on the addition of other compounds. There is no doubt that THC is a powerful primary cannabinoid, but today we understand there is much more to the plant than just the level of THC.