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Top 11 Cannabinoids And What They Do

Marijuana is like movies. Sometimes you just want to sit down, suspend your disbelief, and enjoy the ride. Other times, you experience a really cool effect and you just have to know how it was created. Spoiler Alert: this article is about the latter. No, we’re not going to show you how that epic space battle was created. Rather, we’re going to focus on how the cannabis that you know and love does what it does.


Yes, this article is about chemistry. And yes, there are going to be some pretty big words. But before you run away screaming with horrible flashbacks from high school, rest assured that it won’t be that bad. The big words will be abbreviated, you don’t have to memorize anything if you don’t want to, and there won’t be a test at the end. So without further ado, let’s delve into the wonderful world of cannabinoids.

What Are Cannabinoids?

Put simply, cannabinoids are chemicals. More specifically, cannabinoids are chemical compounds that act on the cannabinoid receptors in the brain (CB1 and CB2). There are three distinct classes of cannabinoids:

  1. Phytocannabinoids (found in plants)
  2. Endocannabinoids (found naturally in the body)
  3. Synthetic cannabinoids (manufactured in a lab)

Whether made by plants or by your own body (bet you didn’t know your body did that), cannabinoids are the things that make marijuana the wonder drug that it is. As we’ll see, these chemical compounds are the stuff that gets you high, relieves your pain, and takes the edge off your anxiety. We’ll focus on the phytocannabinoids here since that’s what you’re getting when you light a fat doobie.

THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol)


Its full name is Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol just to make it even more complicated, but everyone just calls it THC. THC is the cannabinoid that has given marijuana its reputation. It’s the chief psychoactive ingredient and is responsible for marijuana’s ability to alter your perception, mood, and consciousness. In addition to its psychoactive properties, THC also:

CBD (Cannabidiol)


CBD is probably the second most well-known cannabinoid right behind THC. CBD has actually gained notoriety in recent years thanks to the myriad beneficial medical effects it offers.

First and foremost, CBD is non-psychotropic meaning that, unlike THC, it won’t directly alter your perception, mood, or consciousness. But what it lacks in psychoactive effects, it more than makes up for in medicinal effects. Chief amongst those medicinal effects are:

CBGA (Cannabigerolic Acid)


CBGA can be thought of as the stem cell cannabinoid for all the other cannabinoids. Through photosynthesis, cannabis plants produce CBGA. CBGA then becomes THCA, CBDA, and CBCA through various chemical processes within the raw cannabis plant. When harvested cannabis is heated, remaining CBGA converts directly to CBG.

Though CBGA is the building block for everything else within the cannabis plant, it still shows some important medical benefits. It is primarily known for its analgesic (pain relief) and anti-inflammatory properties. Other properties include:

THCA (Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid)


Think of THCA as the parent of THC. THCA is the cannabinoid you’ll most readily find in raw cannabis. After the cannabis plant is harvested, and especially during decarboxylation, THCA converts to the psychoactive THC that we all know and love. THCA also offers a few medical effects including:

CBDA (Cannabidiolic Acid)


If we think of THCA as the parent of THC, CBDA, then, is the parent of CBD. CBDA is the main chemical component in raw cannabis. After harvest, CBDA begins to break down into CBD. This process can be accelerated by decarboxylation. CBDA is non-psychoactive and was once thought to be medically neutral, meaning that it didn’t produce any medical effects. Now, though, CBDA is known for its anti-proliferative effects. This means that CBDA can inhibit cancerous cell growth and keep tumors from spreading. CBDA is also useful for reducing inflammation.

CBCA (Cannabichromenate)


CBCA is produced by CBGA in raw cannabis plants. CBCA then goes on to produce other cannabinoids (CBC, CBL, and CBLA) when heated or aged. Like CBDA and THCA, CBCA is the parent cannabinoid of CBC. Again, once thought to have no medical benefits, CBCA has now been shown to offer anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory effects.

CBC (Cannabichromene)


CBC is a cannabinoid that is most frequently found in cannabis varieties grown in warmer climes (the tropics). That doesn’t mean it’s not present in strains grown closer to the 45th parallel (roughly the Washington/Oregon border), only that levels are basically less than 1%. CBC is non-psychoactive but offers the following medical benefits:

CBG (Cannabigerol)


CBG is a cannabinoid found mainly in hemp products. Cannabis strains grown with THC in mind usually contain only very small amounts of CBG (less than 1%). CBG, like CBD, is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid that won’t get you high. Its importance lies in the fact that it inhibits growth in tumorous or cancerous cells. Other medicinal benefits include:

THCV (Tetrahydrocannabivarin)


THCV is very similar to THC in its chemical structure. But that slight difference produces very different effects. THCV is still psychoactive but the high is often described as being a more clear-headed psychedelic effect. Medical effects also differ. They include:

CBDV (Cannabidivarin)


Like THCV is to THC, CBDV is very similar to its chemical sibling CBD. The only difference lies in the shortened side-chain (the zig zags off the right). Only trace amounts of CBDV are found the more common, domesticated strains of cannabis. But relatively high levels have been found in wild strains from northwest India and southeast Nepal. Like CBD, CBDV is non-psychoactive and is primarily known for its anticonvulsant effects and its use in the management of epilepsy.

CBN (Cannabinol)


CBN is found in only trace amounts (basically nil) in live cannabis plants. But when THC begins to degrade (during storage or exposure to light and air), CBN is the result. CBN is only mildly psychoactive (basically nil) but combines with CBD to produce beneficial medical effects, such as:

Other Cannabinoids Of Note

Altogether, there are at least 85 naturally-occurring cannabinoids with more being isolated every day. In fact, the marijuana plant contains over 500 different natural compounds. Those aren’t all cannabinoids but it illustrates the potential that this plant has to revolutionize medicine in this country.

Other, less-well-studied cannabinoids include:

Benefits of these cannabinoids are still largely unidentified but the C-variations all contain anti-inflammatory properties. Delta-8-THC, like its T-based brethren, has been known to exhibit anti-anxiety and anti-nausea effects.

And those are just the phytocannabinoids that occur in plants. Let’s now forget about the endocannabinoids that your body produces. These chemical compounds include AEA (anandamide), 2-AG, noladin ether, NADA, OAE (virodhamine), and LPI (lysophosphatidylinositol). And then there are the synthetic cannabinoids that are produced in the lab. We won’t go into those because we’re sure you’ve had enough big words and strange abbreviations for one day.

Should You Focus On One Cannabinoid And Leave The Others?

The short answer to this question is no. The unique thing about cannabis and its cannabinoids is that the whole produces an effect that is often greater than the sum of its parts. That’s because cannabinoids not only react with the cannabinoid receptors in your brain but also with each other.

So, for example, CBD lessens the psychoactive effects of THC making for a much smoother, more enjoyable ride. Without the CBD to mitigate the THC activity, it would be like flying a biplane through a hurricane. Not smooth and not enjoyable.

Of course, those who look to cannabis for its medical benefits rather than its psychoactive effects, prefer strains with lower THC percentages. That’s because they just want the pain relief or the nausea relief without having to fly in a blue dream for most of the day. Even so, they’re not getting rid of the THC completely, just reducing the amount.
The best thing you can do is try various products to see for yourself whether less of one cannabinoid or more of another is better for you. Everyone’s experience is going to be different because of differences in brain chemistry. You need to find what works for you.

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