• Post last modified:August 11, 2022
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Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or simply THC is a cannabinoid found in marijuana that plays a major role in the high that it produces once consumed. Since the 60’s, cannabis consumption has been stigmatized, and for years it has been the subject of controversy which has significantly contributed to how subsequent generations have viewed the plant. However, scientific studies have shown that there is more to THC than the psychoactive effects: the compound has potent therapeutic benefits that could help manage and treat a plethora of conditions. 

As the stigma fades, more individuals are beginning to view Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol from a fresh perspective. Additionally, the willingness of countries and states to shift to more accepting laws has significantly contributed to the increase in demand for cannabis and THC based products.

What is THC exactly? What do we know about this compound? Have scientists explored its full potential? What conditions can it help with? Are there downsides to THC consumption? This piece looks at everything you need to know about THC. 

What is THC?

THC is the main psychoactive phytochemical found in cannabis plants that causes the high that is characterized by alterations in perception, coordination, pleasure response, memory, and the thought process. THC’s chemical formula is – C21H30O2.

Cannabis plants (hemp and marijuana) contain over 400 compounds, including cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, alkaloids, and essential oils. In marijuana, THC is the most abundant cannabinoid, seconded by Cannabidiol (CBD). CBD is another major cannabinoid that has attained mainstream status due to its ability to provide multiple therapeutic benefits without causing psychotropic effects. 

How does THC interact with a consumer’s body?

All animals, including humans, have what is called the Endocannabinoid System. This complex cell-signaling system monitors and regulates key body functions to ensure normal body functions. It comprises endocannabinoids, endocannabinoids, and enzymes that work in unison to regulate learning and memory, sleep, mood, appetite and digestion, pain response, reproduction, metabolism, inflammation, and the body’s immune response. THC interacts with this system by binding with the ECS receptors CB1 and CB2 concentrated in the Central Nervous System and cells of the immune system to provide multiple effects and therapeutic benefits. 

Where is THC found on cannabis plants?

THC is produced by tiny appendages called trichomes that are found on the flowers, leaves, and stems of cannabis plants.

Trichomes produce cannabinoids, terpenes give plants its distinct flavor and aroma, and flavonoids control plant pigmentation and development.

When inspecting cannabis flowers, you will notice a thick, crystalline layer that may be sticky to the touch – this is THC-rich resin produced by the trichomes. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and other phytochemicals are stored on the bulbous heads of trichomes. Most trichomes are concentrated on the flowers, making them the most potent part of the cannabis plant. 

close up of trichomes on a cannabis flower
Magnified view of tirchomes on a cannabis flower

How is THC consumed?

The most common methods of consuming cannabis is by smoking the flowers/buds using either joints or bongs or baking them into edibles. Another method that has become increasingly popular in recent years thanks to the boom in the vape industry, is vaporizing the buds.

However, since discovering several ways of extracting THC, the cannabis market has become flooded with multiple types of THC based products such as oils, tinctures and concentrates. The diversity allows different consumers to enjoy THC’s recreational and medical benefits without being restricted to one consumption method. THC can be extracted via solvent (alcohol/ethanol, CO2, and Hydrocarbons) or solventless techniques (water/ice, heat, and pressure). Below are some other ways that THC is consumed;

Vaping and dabbing: Inhaling THC is the most prevalent method of consuming the cannabinoid. The market is filled with THC-rich oils and concentrates such as THC diamonds and shatter, these can be used for vaping and dabbing. Inhalation provides near-instant effects (10 to 15 minutes) and the highest bioavailability than any other consumption method. The effects, however, do not last as long as consuming edibles.

Capsules, edibles, tinctures, and oils: Another popular way to take THC is via oral consumption. When consumed, these products have to be digested and metabolized which results in a 30 to 90 minute delay before the effects are felt. However, the intensity of effects is heightened, and the duration is prolonged compared to vaping, smoking, and sublingual application. 

Topicals: THC is infused into lotions, balms, salves, oils, and bath salts to provide localized effects/benefits. THC is a potent analgesic and anti-inflammatory agent that relieves pain and inflammation. Although the psychoactive effects are reduced with the application of THC balms and oils, the pain relieving benefits are said to be highly effective making them great for medical use.

Lozenges, dissolvable strips, and sprays: THC can also be administered sublingually (under the tongue) to provide near-instant pain relief or simply recreational high. The onset is fast, although the effects last only between 2 to 3 hours.

bud and dabbing kit
Dabbing kit with cannabis buds

How long does THC stay in the system?

Despite many countries and states relaxing their laws on cannabis, THC is still an intoxicating drug and therefore is treated very similarly to alcohol. Different drugs stay in the system for varying lengths of time. THC is in fact one of the slowest to be fully cleansed from the human body so be careful if you plan on driving, or taking on any role that requires you to be 100% sober. If you have consumed any products containing THC in the last 90 days you could still fail a drug test.

THC is one of the compounds screened during a drug test alongside PCP, amphetamines, opiates, and cocaine. These tests examine hair follicles and bodily fluids (saliva, blood, and urine) for THC metabolites. The duration that THC stays in your system is influenced by several factors, such as frequency of use, the potency of the product, and metabolic rate. The table below shows how long after consumption THC can be detected for each test. 

Type of test How long after consumption can THC be detected?When these kind of tests are typically administered
A urine testAlthough considered an unreliable method of testing, a urine test is the most common way of testing for THC. The test detects THC metabolites for up to 72 hours for occasional consumers. Regular THC consumers could test positive up to 30 days after consumption, while chronic consumers have a 48-day period where tests can turn positive for THC. Urine tests are the most common and you could be asked to take one if you were to take on a job within the health service, government, or even some private sector positions that require a high level of responsibility.
Blood testThis is a more accurate testing method that involves invasively drawing blood to test for THC metabolites. The test can detect THC 12 to 24 hours after consumption for occasional consumers and up to 7 days for chronic THC consumers. This gives an almost instant result and is frequently used when it is important to determine if somebody is thought to be under the influence right now, such as during an accident or before giving additional medication in a hospital.
Saliva testSaliva tests look for THC metabolites within the oral cavity. The test can turn positive up to 48 hours after consumption. This type of test is commonly used by the police if you are suspected of drug driving and can give them an almost instant result.
Hair follicle test This is the ideal test to determine long-term THC consumption (up to 3 months). This is the most thorough method of detection and is the most rarely used. However, if you were applying for a role within the police, government or military you could be asked to take a hair follicle test.

What is THCV?

THCV is a minor cannabinoid that was discovered in 1971. However, it wasn’t until very recently that Tetrahydrocannabivarin came into prominence. The phytochemical is attached to a myriad of effects and medical benefits. Most notably, THCV is referred to as ‘diet weed’ due to its appetite-suppressing properties. THCV and THC have different chemical formulas and almost identical molecular structures except for an additional hydrocarbon chain. As a result of the differences, these two compounds interact with the ECS at different levels to produce almost opposite effects. 

THCV effects

In high doses, THCV provides a stimulating Sativa-like high that keeps consumers focused, energetic, and creative. In low doses, this cannabinoid becomes a CB1 antagonist. When consumed with THC, THCV minimizes THC’s binding affinity to CB1 receptors, resulting in less psychoactive effects. 

Therapeutic benefits of THCV

Research into this cannabinoid is only limited to animal and in-vitro studies, but it shows great promise as a therapeutic agent. A few studies have indicated that THCV may be helpful in diabetes patients as it effectively regulates sugar. THCV displays potent anxiolytic properties without suppressing emotion, which makes it a suitable choice for combating anxiety and PTSD. Another study concluded THCV might combat tremors, brain lesions, and motor control issues associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Lastly, THCV shows promise in supporting the growth of new bone cells, making it essential in treating and managing bone-related conditions, such as osteoporosis. 

Where to find THCV

THCV is found in high amounts in African heirloom Sativa strains like Durban Poison, Power Plant, Swazi Gold, Malawi Gold, and Kwazulu. Unfortunately, these strains are not easy to come by. THCV may also be present in strains that contain African genetics, such as Girl Scout Cookies, Cherry pie, and Durban Cheese. Due to the increase in demand for THCV, breeders are actively trying to create strains with high percentages of the cannabinoid. Ask for analysis reports before purchasing THCV-based products to ensure that they do, in fact, contain the claimed amount of the cannabinoid. 

The relationship between Delta-9-THC, Delta-8-THC and Delta-10-THC

In the past few months, you have probably seen or heard about Delta-8-THC and Delta-10-THC. What are these cannabinoids? And how do they relate to Delta-9-THC?

Well, both cannabinoids are analogues of THC in that they have a similar molecular structure to Delta-9-THC, but with slight differences. Delta 8, Delta 9, and Delta 10 THC have a similar chemical formula – C21H30O2. The difference comes in regarding the position of the double bonds on the carbon chain. Delta 8 has the bonds on the 8th carbon chain, Delta 9 on the 9th, and Delta 10 on the 10th carbon chain.  

As a result of this difference, the cannabinoids bind to the CB1 and CB2 receptors with differing levels of affinity. Delta-9-THC has the highest affinity for the receptors; hence its psychoactive effects are highly pronounced. Delta 8 comes in second with about 50% of Delta 9’s affinity power. This cannabinoid provides a relaxing, sedating, and calming high likened to an Indica experience. Delta 10 has about 70% of Delta 8’s affinity power, making it the least psychoactive. The cannabinoid produces a smooth cerebral high (Sativa-like) without causing anxiety, paranoia, and confusion. 

What is considered high THC?

The answer to this question is relative. This is because the degree of THC potency is subjective to several factors, such as;

  • A consumer’s personal experience with THC
  • Tolerance levels
  • Type of product (flower, concentrate, oils, etc.)
  • Presence of other compounds – the presence of other compounds such as terpenes, CBD, and THCV may influence how THC affects a consumer.
  • Presence of any other drugs or alcohol in the system
  • The setting under which it is consumed

Advancements in breeding and extraction techniques have largely contributed to how consumers view the potency of cannabis products. Back in the 70s, most strains had THC levels ranging between 1% and 10%. Fast forward to 2022, when most strains have soaring levels of 20% THC and above. Strains like Gorilla Glue and Godfather OG have 29% and 34% THC levels, respectively. So, what is considered high THC?

The table below highlights the classification of flower/bud and concentrates’ THC percentage from what is considered low to very high potency.

THC Chart of potency levels

Classification Flower/bud THC percentageConcentrate THC percentage
Low Below 10%40% to 50%
Medium 10% to 20%50% to 60%
High 20% to 30%60% to 80%
Very high 30% and above80% to 90+%

Keep in mind that this is not an absolute classification of potency. Considering the potency-determining factors highlighted above, a novice THC consumer may find 10% to 20% very high, while a regular consumer may find 20% to 30% medium. 

What are the psychoactive effects of THC?

THC interacts with the CB1 receptors to stimulate the part of the brain responsible for pleasure, leading to increased dopamine levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a significant role in the brain’s reward center. THC also interferes with the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is responsible for forming new memories. 

THC’s psychoactive effects include heightened euphoria, relaxation, laughter, intensified sensory perception, focus, and improved moods. THC is also known to cause hunger, so have some snacks ready when you decide to consume this cannabinoid. Most of THC’S effects are positive, especially when taken in proper doses. Consumers who take high doses of THC or those with low tolerance may experience some negative side effects such as;

  • Anxiety 
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Increased heart rate
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Cold sweats
  • Short-term memory loss
trippy cannabis image
Cannabis can cause hallucinations

Can you overdose on THC?

Like any other psychoactive compound, it is possible to overdose on THC. However you cannot overdose in the same way that you can from drugs such as heroine or cocaine. A THC overdose usually just means some negative side effects such as anxiety and hallucinations. Fortunately, it is extremely rare that THC overdoses are ever fatal or cause any long term damage, unless the consumer has underlying health conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, etc. or has consumed it along with other drugs.

As discussed in an earlier section, there are numerous ways to consume THC, one of the most popular methods being edibles. Edibles have a delayed onset (30 to 90 minutes); hence it is easy for consumers to take a higher dose thinking that the previous dose was insufficient, leading to an overdose. Signs of THC overdose include;

  1. Severe anxiety
  2. Panic attacks
  3. Feelings of impending doom
  4. Increased heart rate
  5. Difficulty in breathing
  6. Hallucinations

Unfortunately, it is impossible to immediately reverse a THC overdose. You need to just wait until the effects wear off over time. It is crucial to stay calm and relaxed. Engage in distracting activities, such as watching movies or listening to music, and drink plenty of water. Many users claim that a cool shower can also sober you up and help to relieve the effects. Often though the best way is just to pass time. If you are able to try to just to sleep off the effects. When you wake up you will be left with a slight groggy feeling but other than that you should be fine.

What medical uses does THC have?

THC is far more than a recreational compound. The cannabinoid provides myriad therapeutic benefits through its interactions with the endocannabinoid system. Cannabis plants have been used for medical reasons since 3000 years ago, and the tradition continues. Fortunately for medical patients in the 21st century, THC’s effectiveness is backed by thousands of studies. The list below highlights some of the conditions THC helps with. 

  • Pain and inflammation
  • Ocular pressure (glaucoma)
  • Depression
  • Appetite loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sleep-related issues like insomnia
  • Migraines
  • Multiple sclerosis 
  • Inflammatory bowel syndrome 
  • Muscle spasms

In the US, the FDA has approved the use of THC-based drugs for alleviating a host of conditions. Dronabinol is approved for use in patients experiencing nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy treatments and for HIV patients with low appetite and struggling with weight loss. Nabilone is another approved THC medication that inhibits nausea and vomiting. Nabiximols oral spray was approved in 2012 in the UK for treating and managing pain, spasticity, and multiple sclerosis.

Medical marijuana
Medical marijuana

THC and the entourage effect

The entourage effect refers to a phenomenon whereby cannabis compounds other than THC work together with the cannabinoid to provide heightened benefits to the consumer. The theory suggests that CBD, minor cannabinoids, and terpenes work in synergy to produce better results compared to taking isolates. This theory was first proposed by Raphael Mechoulam in 1988 and further advanced by Ethan Russo in 2011 and 2019. Research into this phenomenon is still limited, and scientists are divided on its existence, although anecdotal evidence from consumers is in support.

Notes:

  1. Compound was tested for inhibition of Adenylyl cyclase in cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1) 2018-10-16 Data published by PubChem.

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