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What is THC? Complete Guide to the Original Cannabinoid

what is thc

Cannabis is a diverse plant consisting of over 100 chemical compounds. Its fibers can even be used to create industrial products such as plastic, concrete, and textiles, but we seem to have fixated on one aspect, THC. The cannabinoid that creates the notorious high has dominated all aspects of the plant for the past century. Why has THC created so much controversy? What sets it apart from all other properties in Cannabis sativa?

The high created by THC is responsible for cannabis prohibition, misinformation, and the sole reason why we are so far behind in research. THC may be only one small part of the cannabis plant but until a few years ago it was running the show. The future of THC is still unknown in the UK. Many believe we are on the verge of ending prohibition, others fear that small amounts of THC in hemp derived products will soon be banned.

THC is a complicated molecule. We are going to break down:

  • THC’s molecular make-up
  • How it is formed
  • Potential for medical application
  • Legality in the UK

What is THC?

The cannabinoid that has caused so much controversy is Delta-9 THC or Tetrahydrocannabinol. It creates the high that has been demonized and disregarded to have no potential for medicinal application.

Delta-9 THC is one of the chemical compounds in the cannabis plant, known as cannabinoids. THC was first discovered by Israeli chemist and medicinal cannabis pioneer, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam in 1964 (1). THC and CBD are the most notable cannabinoids but there are many on the rise such as CBG, CBN, CBC, and most recently, Delta-8 THC. More on the different types of THC later.

The molecular formula for Delta-9 THC is C21H30O2, surprisingly this is the exact formula as CBD (2). We know that CBD doesn’t flood the brain with dopamine and serotonin delivering an instantaneous sense of euphoria, so what makes them so different? THC is structured so it binds with CB1 in the brain and central nervous system (3). This small structural difference gives THC the ability to trigger the notorious high that has caused cannabis so much trouble over the years.

How is Delta-9 THC Created?

All cannabinoids derive from the same molecule, cannabigerolic acid (CBGA). During the plant lifecycle CBGA is cyclized into tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (4). The final form of THC that is desperately sought out by medicinal and recreational users alike is created by decarboxylation.

The raw flower contains THCA. It is up to the user to light it on fire which decarboxylates the compound turning it into THC. Manufacturers can also decarboxylate THCA by adding heat and pressure in a controlled environment.

Analogs of THC

Delta-9’s intoxicating properties have led to the cannabinoid taking over the name THC. When someone says ‘THC’ they most likely mean Delta-9 THC. Other cannabinoids are similar to D9 and have a similar name but different benefits and effects. While compounds like THCV and Delta-8 THC have similar properties, they are considered separate cannabinoids.

THCV is a rare cannabinoid found naturally in some sativa strains but is not psychoactive. It works inversely in some aspects of THC, most notably functioning as an appetite suppressant (5). Delta-8 THC is another analog of Delta 9. D8 is the hottest new trend in the cannabis community, especially in places like the UK without legal access to recreational cannabis but with legal hemp products. The new cannabinoid has gained popularity because of its ability to partially bind with CB1 and produce a nice light buzz. D8 is technically legal (for now) because it isn’t Delta 9.

Administration Methods

THC can be used in several ways. The methods have evolved over the years, but many remain popular with the cannabis community.

Smoking THC in the form of the flower is the oldest method, dating back thousands of years. THC is decarboxylated by lighting it on fire or by vaporizing.

Distillates like Rick Simpson Oil (RSO) have gained popularity in recent years because they deliver the cannabinoids without inhaling hot smoke and have a relatively high bioavailability. Oils are produced by extracting the cannabinoids from the plant using ethanol or CO2. The cannabis oil is mixed with a carrier like a seed or MCT oil.

Medical Applications of THC

For decades, patients have experienced success treating their conditions with THC. Medical cannabis is prescribed to treat conditions like MS, glaucoma, nausea, weight loss, PTSD, wasting syndrome associated with HIV, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and many more (6). The most common condition treated with THC is chronic pain. 

In a 2019 study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, researchers evaluated 1,000 humans taking cannabis for pain. 80% of the patients found it was ‘very or tremendously helpful’ in treating their condition. ‘This led to 82% of these individuals being able to reduce, or halt, taking OTC pain medications and 88% being able to halt taking opioids.’ (7)

Another study reported at the American Academy of Neurology 2019 Annual Meeting that ‘cannabis provided elderly patients with relief from chronic pain, sleep disorders, and anxiety related to diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson disease, neuropathy, spinal cord damage, and multiple sclerosis.’ (7) The medical opportunities cannabis can provide are well known. Dealing with nearly a century of propaganda and misinformation has created a gap between the patient’s condition and the dosage. We don’t fully understand what dose or ratio of cannabinoids is required for each condition.

Legality of THC in the UK

THC remains illegal in the UK if the potency over 1mg per product (8). Many users and even CBD companies are under the impression that the THC potency threshold is 0.2% but this is a common misconception (9).

The UK does offer medical cannabis to patients who have tried other forms of medicine to no avail. Government regulatory agencies have a tight grasp around every aspect of the medicinal cannabis program creating access for medical patients nearly impossible. The program has been called a failure by many advocacy organizations. A report was published in 2019 by members of the Health Select Committee outlining ‘how Britain’s medicinal cannabis legislation has not met promises, with only a handful of patients able to obtain prescriptions since the change in legislation.’ (10)

Removing the Stigma

THC continues to be demonized even in developed nations like the UK. There isn’t a logical explanation as to why THC remains prohibited and nearly impossible to legally access for medicinal purposes when opioids and SSRIs are readily available. The side-effects of THC are minuscule compared to the consequences of opioid addiction.

The only hope for cannabis legalization in the UK is capitalism. Hopefully, the billions of dollars in tax revenue will incentivize lawmakers to deregulate cannabis. We aren’t sure what the future holds for THC in the UK, but we do know that the country is failing to keep up with other countries in the developed world and are suppressing legitimate medicine from its people.

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