You may know of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) as the element in weed that, well, gets you high. But the compound THC, one of over 400 found in marijuana, is actually more complex than that. So, what is THC and how does it work? Experts weighed in to give TheStreet the latest scoop on THC’s applications.
What is THC?
THC, also called tetrahydrocannabinol, is the compound in cannabis that is psychoactive and gives you the feeling of being high. However, THC’s chemical make-up, C₂₁H₃₀O₂, is very similar to its counterpart, CBD, which actually combats the effects of THC.
Still, THC mimics the natural chemical anandamide (which is produced in the brain) in structure, altering the function in communication. So, instead of normal brain communication via neurons, the THC compound attaches to the neurons and changes the process.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), THC affects things like thinking, memory, pleasure, movements, concentration, coordination, and sensory and time perception. For these reasons, doing things like operating heavy machinery or driving while under the influence of the drug may be dangerous.
Still, the stigma that THC gets (especially in relation to marijuana use) may not entirely be the whole story. THC actually brags several health benefits that have been shown to help treat depression, PTSD, epilepsy, and even eating disorders.
THC has the chemical formula C₂₁H₃₀O₂, with a molecular mass of 314.464 g/mol. But, it is very similar in structure and molecular mass to its counterpart CBD, which dilutes the effects of THC.
THC brags a variety of uses, both medicinal and recreational.
Among dozens, THC can be used in syrups, edibles, oils used via tinctures, drops, in medicines, and topicals including lotions and balms used for anti-inflammation.
THC and cannabis can also be used on animals like dogs for pain relief and calming anxiety.
Additionally, Marinol, a medication made with synthetic THC, is the only currently FDA approved THC medication.
Currently, THC (more broadly blanketed under cannabis) is legal medically in 29 states, while recreational marijuana is legal in 9 states and Washington D.C.
However, recent reports indicate legalization may begin becoming more widespread.
In fact, this month the New York State Health Department released a report claiming the “positive effects of a regulated marijuana market … outweigh the potential negative impacts,” according to New York Daily News.
Still, THC (within marijuana) is increasingly becoming a hot topic in the discussion for legalization. And, its advocates are coming from high up.
“The process to legalize and properly regulate marijuana should be seriously reviewed and advanced,” said New York Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester) in a statement in 2018. “More and more New Yorkers understand the harm that has been done by criminalizing marijuana, arresting and giving records to millions of our youth, and allowing shadow markets to flourish. We need to start to undo the damage from this misguided policy, and that means advancing common sense legalization efforts.”
However, given the controversial nature of the compound, it is unclear when these waves of “common sense” legalization will occur.
Despite the two compounds having almost exact chemical makeups and being part of those that make up cannabis, THC and CBD act rather differently.
THC is the psychoactive component in marijuana that gives you the feeling of being high – however, CBD acts as a counterbalance to the effects of THC. While THC induces drowsiness and gives you that body-high, CBD can actually increase energy.
CBD can often help moderate THC’s effects by reducing and treat anxiety and stress.
THC Side Effects
Still, despite a variety of uses that have many doctors, producers, and investors optimistic, THC may have some negative side effects that ought to be considered.
In 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a study on the Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids. Among the experts who contributed to the study was Dr. William Checkley, M.D., Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. As an associate professor at Johns Hopkins as well as a pulmonary and critical care specialist, Dr. Checkley claims there may be more negative effects of THC than many experts believe.
“One of the biggest issues with cannabis is when you smoke it. It is not just the drug that you’re smoking in…there are also all different kinds of components that come in with the burning of any substance,” Dr. Checkley told TheStreet. “There is substantial evidence supporting an association between cannabis smoking and respiratory symptoms. And people who smoke cannabis have more frequent episodes of respiratory symptoms and in particular, chronic bronchitis, which is a combination of cough and phlegm.”
Still, the doctor said the study was somewhat inconclusive on the extent of these effects.
It’s clear that if you stop smoking cannabis, your respiratory symptoms can improve,” Dr. Checkley said. “What is less clear is that we couldn’t really separate how it is with people who smoke cannabis frequently or chronically — whether they are high risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is what you see with tobacco smoke.
And that seems to be the general consensus on cannabis-based studies — that they are, to some degree, inconclusive. Still, Dr. Checkley claims the study seemed to dispel some of the common ideas that THC has more beneficial properties than it may actually possess.
According to Dr. Checkley, the study couldn’t find any link between cannabis or cannabinoid use and many of its supposed benefits.
However, the report allegedly found some connection with THC or cannabis use and certain psychiatric conditions.
One aspect of the report showed that there was a strong link between the use of cannabis and the development of schizophrenia,” Dr. Checkley continued. “And also that the use of cannabis was also associated with mania or hyper mania in people that had bipolar disorder diagnoses. And there has also been a small increased risk of depression as well as increased incidents of suicide attempts and completion. And there was also increased incidents of social anxiety disorder.
Other studies done last year have shown similar conclusions, although all remain somewhat skeptical. Results published in the journal Human Molecular Genetics by researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) in Israel may shed additional light on the relationship between THC use and psychiatric problems.
Our research demonstrates that cannabis has a differential risk on susceptible versus non-susceptible individuals,” Dr. Ran Barzilay, psychiatrist at TAU’s Sackler School of Medicine told Medical News Today in 2017. “In other words, young people with a genetic susceptibility to schizophrenia — those who have psychiatric disorders in their families — should bear in mind that they’re playing with fire if they smoke pot during adolescence.
Apart from psychiatric problems and doubt over its benefits for curing symptoms, THC use has also been linked to reduced motor skills, Dr. Checkley says. The study used 21 studies from different countries with a sample size of almost 240,000 participants, claims Dr. Checkley.
One of the things that we found was that some reported cannabis use with traces of THC in the blood or saliva was associated with about… 20% to 30% higher odds of vehicle crash,” Dr. Checkley explained to TheStreet. “And this was pretty consistent, so it didn’t really matter how you looked at the data. And so I think the information there was pretty robust, given the number of studies and given the number of countries, and the number of participants supporting that relationships between cannabis use and the increased chances of being in a motor vehicle crash.
However, despite numerous studies, all of the experts seem to agree that due to cannabis’ classification as a Schedule 1 drug, the limited studies researchers are able to perform leave the substance’s actual effects very much still in question.
In fact, most are optimistic about THC and cannabis’ health benefits.
Forms of THC
THC is often smoked as marijuana (dried leaves of the Cannabis plant), but there are actually a number of different ways that THC can be used. It can be consumed by:
- Inhalation: This is the fastest method of delivery and produces the quickest psychoactive effects, with people beginning to feel effects within minutes. There are a couple of different ways that THC can be inhaled. It may be smoked or vaped, although recent reports suggest that vaping may pose safety risks that need further investigation.3
- Oral Ingestion: THC can be taken by mouth in the form of capsules, edibles, tinctures, or oils. While this method of delivery takes longer to have an effect, the effects tend to last longer.
- Topical application: THC can also be included in lotions, balms, salves, oils, and bath salts that are then applied to the skin. The effects of this method of application are usually localized, which means they are unlikely to have psychoactive effects. However, such products may be helpful for reducing pain and inflammation.
- Sublingual administration: THC can also be consumed as lozenges, sprays, or dissolvable strips that are placed under the tongue.
THC in CBD Products
With the popularity of CBD, there has been a major market shift toward producing a seemingly endless variety of CBD products. Some of these products may contain traces of THC (around 0.3% to 0.9%), depending on how they’re formulated.4
This small concentration is highly unlikely to result in a feeling of high, and some experts argue that the effectiveness of CBD is potentiated by small amounts of THC. However, if you’re looking for a CBD product without any THC, be sure to seek out a source that uses third-party testing to certify the purity of the product.
THC is used recreationally, but it also has a number of medicinal uses as well. Marijuana has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, but research on its use to alleviate and treat illness is still relatively recent.
Some of the ailments that THC may help include:
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Multiple sclerosis
- Muscle spasticity
- Poor appetite
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Reducing opioid use
- Symptoms associated with HIV/AIDS
The FDA has also approved the synthetic THC medication dronabinol (sold under the brand names Marinol and Syndros) and a drug containing a synthetic substance similar to TCH known as nabilone (brand name Cesamet). Dronabinol is used to treat vomiting and nausea caused by chemotherapy and low appetite and weight loss caused by HIV/AIDS. Nabilone is used to also used to treat nausea and vomiting.
THC stimulates the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine in the brain, which is what causes feelings of euphoria. The effects on the body can vary from one person to the next.
People may also experience:
- Altered perception of time
- Feelings of relaxation
- Heightened sensory perception
- Increased appetite
While it can cause pleasant effects, TCH can also lead to adverse reactions as well. People can experience anxiety, memory problems, hallucinations, or delusions in some cases.
There is considerable research evidence that THC is associated with an increased risk of developing psychosis, particularly among adolescents. It is also linked to increased anxiety, learning impairment, and decreased memory formation.
CBD, on the other hand, has been found to counter those effects, reducing anxiety, improving learning ability, and working as an antipsychotic, although much of the research is on animals.8 When taken together, as is the case with marijuana use, CBD seems to reduce the negative effects of THC.
A 2013 meta-analysis, which is a type of study that combines the results of many previous studies, found some evidence that THC may be neurotoxic. There are differences in the brain structure of people who regularly use marijuana who do not have psychosis.
One interesting point underscoring the brain changes: While there is a reduction in gray matter volume in the prefrontal cortex in chronic users, there is an apparent compensatory response. There is a subsequent increase in the density of fibrous connections among remaining neurons, which may cancel out some or all of the neurotoxicity.
Research into the effects of THC (or delta-9-THC) is complicated by many factors, but there is sufficient evidence that THC can be harmful, particularly to younger people whose brains are still developing. They should, therefore, avoid frequent use of marijuana.
Is Delta-9 THC Addictive?
Cannabis is the most common substance misused in the United States, after alcohol and tobacco. Despite the belief by many that the drug is not addictive, THC tolerance and dependence have been widely documented in various studies.
According to the NIDA, about 30% of people who use marijuana will become addicted—and using the drug prior to age 18, when the brain is still developing, increases the likelihood of a marijuana use disorder four- to seven-fold. Similar to other types of addiction, marijuana use disorder involves a preoccupation with the drug, bingeing, and symptoms of withdrawalwhen you can’t use the drug.
Amount of THC in Marijuana
We’re definitely not dealing with the same pot as we were in the past. This is because today’s marijuana is much more potent, with THC levels averaging 9.6%, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). By comparison, in the early 1990s, marijuana generally had a THC level of about 4%.
The strength of modern “high-potency” strains of marijuana, such as sinsemilla (“skunk”), was reportedly at least four times as strong, containing about 15% THC.11 The amount of THC contained in marijuana varies by the way that cannabis is prepared for use, such as leaf/bud, hashish, or hashish oil. THC levels can exceed 50% in products made from marijuana extracts.
History of THC
Cannabis has a long history of use that dates back thousands of years. The first recorded use of cannabis has been traced to China, where it was used for food, textiles, and medicine. Hemp was eventually introduced to Europe, and later to the Americas, where it came to use for both recreational and ritual purposes. Cannabis was first introduced in the U.S. during the 1600s. Hemp was grown to produce textiles and was sometimes even used as legal tender. It was used for a number of medical purposes as well, but its recreational use began to grow during the 1930s and 1940s.
Around this time, anti-drug campaigns began against its use and many states passed laws prohibiting marijuana. The 1936 film “Reefer Madness” portrayed marijuana as a dangerous drug that led to psychosis, violence, and suicide.
In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug, identifying it as having a high potential for abuse and making the drug illegal at the federal level.
The “war on drugs” launched during the 1970s led to the large-scale incarceration of many people for marijuana possession and use. Statistics suggest that the enforcement and penalization of marijuana laws disproportionately target people of color. While drug use has similar rates for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, Black and Latinx people are far more likely to be arrested and jailed for drug offenses. While it is still not legal at the federal level, many states have approved the use of cannabis and THC for medical and, in some states, recreational purposes. You should always check state laws where you live before purchasing any products containing THC.