Cannabis is known for its psychoactive side effects that result in a high unlike most other psychoactive drugs, and one that differs depending on the strain of cannabis consumed. Cannabis has the ability to produce more than 400 different chemical compounds. Out of them all, only one of these is responsible for the mind-altering effects that cannabis users crave – tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC for short.
Discovering THC in Cannabis
Since its isolation in 1964, the awareness of the effects and strength of THC has grown immensely and has led to an increased interest in strains of cannabis with higher levels of THC. A stronger strain of cannabis will have a higher level of THC present. These levels typically range from 15-25% on average.
Up until 1964, very little was known about cannabis and its chemical compounds. Dr. Raphael Mechoulam is the organic chemist who is responsible for the isolation of THC from the chemical makeup of cannabis. He also discovered cannabidiol (CBD), the second most important chemical in THC. The successful isolation occurred in 1964 at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. Not only did Dr. Mechoulam discover THC, but his research also helped physiological researchers learn that due to the chemical makeup of THC, there must be a receptor in the human body for the compound to bind to. After Dr. Allyn Howlett discovered the receptors – referred to as cannabinoid 1 and cannabinoid 2 (CB1 and CB2) in the endocannabinoid system – Dr. Mechoulam began to seek out the compound in THC that activated the receptor in the brain in order to produce cannabis’ mind-altering effects.
Explaining the Science Behind it All
This compound is anandamide. Anandamide is a cannabinoid and it is naturally produced in the body to serve as a neurotransmitter. When consumed, the anandamide in the compound binds to the CB1 receptor. This results in the psychoactive effects marijuana creates.
THC is the only cannabinoid that binds to the brain’s receptors to produce psychoactive effects. However, the other cannabinoids in cannabis do have physiological effects that are desirable as well. For example, CBD acts medically as an anti-inflammatory. When CBD is used recreationally in a strain of cannabis with higher THC, it can block the undesirable effects THC can cause – such as acute memory loss.
The endocannabinoid system is majorly responsible for controlling the functions that maintain homeostasis. This includes factors such as, appetite, pain regulation, immune response, and sleep. Due to these effects, people will often ingest THC or smoke marijuana to regulate appetite and sleep habits, increase the immune response, and lessen pain. When ingested, THC has the ability to regulate and improve these functions. However, when there are no ailments to improve, it can result in impairment of daily functioning. The endocannabinoid system involves two important receptors, cannabinoid 1 and cannabinoid 2 receptors. The CB1 receptors are found mainly in the nervous system, and they are the primary receptor for THC. This leads to the psychoactive effects of marijuana. CB2 receptors are found in the immune system, and when THC binds to CB2 receptors, the anti-inflammatory effects take place.
The Biphasic Effect
THC has a biphasic effect on the brain and body. This means that the effects of low doses of THC are opposite to those of high doses of THC. In smaller doses of THC, users will often feel relaxed. Under a higher dose, they may experience feelings of paranoia. THC can also have an impact on your pain levels. With a moderate dose of THC, side effects typically include euphoria, fatigue, decrease of nausea and feelings of pain, as well as a stimulation of appetite. With a higher dose of THC, users often experience hallucinations, paranoia, anxiety, and heightened feelings of pain.
Cannabis has long been popular for the psychoactive high it gives users when used recreationally. However, what many people often forget is that marijuana also has many uses in the medical sphere. THC can mediate many of the uncomfortable effects that come with multiple diseases and ailments. Users often use the substance to help with side effects such as vomiting, nausea, and loss of appetite that come with chemotherapy treatments for cancer, for example. There have also been studies that show that cannabis can reduce intraocular pressure in glaucoma, mediate seizures in epilepsy, and reduce the discomfort of asthma.
Addressing the Risks
It is also important to consider research that indicates that THC can increase risk for ailments as well.
There has been much debate on the relationship between THC and psychiatric disorders. In the medical world it is commonly agreed that the chemical can increase risk of psychosis in already at-risk individuals. This can includes those who are predisposed to psychiatric disorders or have experienced childhood abuse.
In a 2017 study at Tel Aviv University, researchers studied the effects of THC on adolescent mice who were genetically predisposed to schizophrenia. The study compared normal mice given THC, normal mice not given THC, susceptible mice given THC, and susceptible mice not given THC. Results presented that only the susceptible mice developed symptoms of schizophrenia after ingesting THC. Essentially, the study confirms that cannabis has the ability to initiate long-term psychiatric effects in individuals who are susceptible.
There are many factors to take into account when choosing to partake in marijuana use. Whether medicinal or recreational, it is important to understand that THC, as well as the other chemicals present in cannabis, can and do often affect each user differently. It is recommended by researchers and users alike, that when beginning to introduce THC to the body, it is best to start with a very small dosage and slowly increase if desired.