There’s no getting high off the good ole green without THC, but what is THC and how does it work?
Most smokers have heard this buzzword before, but not many know its chemical composition or the science behind how THC affects that brain and body. Every cerebral buzz you feel from smoking a well-packed bowl or leisurely spliff is directly proportionate to the cannabis plant’s THC concentration. But why is that?
Let’s light a toke and get ready to tuck in as we unearth the secrets of one of nature’s best beauties.
What Is THC?
Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is a chemical secreted by the glands of the marijuana plant. It is found in high doses around the reproductive organs, as well as in the resin glands of the bud or flower of the female pot plant. Although THC is only one of 85 plus chemical compounds known as cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, THC is the primary psychoactive ingredient. It takes almost all the credit for creating your cerebral high.
Whereas humans use THC to get high, marijuana plants use THC to fend off natural predators like parasites, bacteria and viruses. THC doesn’t produce antibacterial properties in people but, CBG (cannabigerol) a non-psychoactive compound also found in cannabis, does. Dr. Mary Jane always makes sure we get exactly what we need from our weed.
How Was THC Discovered?
It’s no surprise that THC was first discovered during the 60’s. Bulgarian-born chemist Rafael Mechoulam, who wanted also wanted to know what is THC, is now considered the godfather of cannabinoid research. When he first started his studies into the properties of pot, Rafael was faced with a common problem among cannabis smokers: how to obtain a large quantity of marijuana legally. So where did he get his fix from? His friends in the Israeli police. The five kilograms of hash gifted to Rafael by the Israeli police formed the scientific stash that lead to groundbreaking findings in biochemical cannabis research.
Mechoulam was the first ever scientist to successfully separate the THC compound. His pioneered the identification of the structure, psychophysiological effects and synthesis of THC. You may assume it was a love for the good ole green that sparked Mechoulam’s research, but it was in fact his interest in natural medicine. Because of his research into the medicinal properties of weed, people started to see marijuana as a possible form of medication, and not just for recreation.
How Does THC Affect The Brain And Body?
You may be familiar with the feeling you get from ingesting THC, but how familiar are you with what’s actually happening inside you when you light one up?
When you smoke, THC gets released into your blood and swims quickly upstream, reaching your brain in a matter of seconds. THC then mimics cannabinoid chemicals that occur naturally in the body attaches itself to your cannabinoid receptors. These areas are found in the cerebral cortex, cerebellum and basal ganglia and are connected to the processes of thinking, memory, motor movements, pleasure, coordination and concentration.
The reason THC affects these areas so much more than other active cannabinoids like CBD, comes down to shape. Because of its specific molecular structure, THC binds like a bud in a rug to your neurotransmitters – the spaces that carry communication between your neurons. It mimics anandamide (the bliss molecule), which is a natural cannabinoid found in the body.
Once firmly attached, THC takes on anandamide’s role, stimulating the brain cells to release more dopamine. This hormone is what’s responsible for all those good vibes you feel when buzzing. Once pleasantly planted in the brain, THC can cause a range of sensory side effects including euphoria, alertness, calmness, fragmentary thoughts or light-headedness.
Sometimes you may find these vibes so good that they overshadow your short term memory. Ever headed to the kitchen only to forget what munchies you came in search for? THC can be blamed for fuddling with your hippocampus which is the control center for memory. If the THC high comes on too strong, other buzz-killing side effects may also include dizziness, depression, anxiety or fatigue. Physical effects can include pain inhibition, a slowing down of motor movements, dry mouth and an increase in appetite.
Different tokes for different folks, each person will be unique in how THC affects them.
How Potent Is Your Pot?
No two tokes are alike. The strength and duration of your THC hit will depend on the particular marijuana strain as well as on your choice of ingestion. Weed varieties with a THC level of more than 20% are considered particularly potent. Such strains can include the likes of Sour Diesel (15-25%), Yoda OG (up to 28%) and Blue Dream (17-24%). But just as no two tokes are alike, no two crops are alike either. One farmer’s harvest of Blue Dream may have higher or lower THC levels than another’s, as a result of growing conditions, environmental effects or genetic phenotypes. It’s a surprise in every baggie.
How you choose to consume your cannabis will also affect how hard the THC hits you. In its raw plant form, THC doesn’t fit the shape of human neurotransmitters. It has to be heated through either smoking, vaping, or baking to remove an additional carbon group that prevents the binding. Sadly, munching on raw marijuana won’t get you high. You’re better off taking in your THC through one of these three popular pot consuming methods:
There are many ways to inhale the sweet smoke of freshly combusted cannabis: joint, blunt, bong, hookah, bubbler, hand pipe etc. Smoking is arguably the most popular form of pot consumption, and is the fastest way to get a THC fix. When smoking, as much as 50-60% of the weed’s THC concentration can enter the blood plasma and make its way up to the brain in a couple of seconds flat. The high will hit hard but will need to be topped up regularly to keep the buzz going.
Vaping is fast becoming a trend in health conscious cannabis communities. This hand held device heats the cannabinoids to a temperature that’s high enough to release the psychoactive properties of THC, but low enough not to let off the harmful toxins that accompany combustion. Using this method, up to 95% of cannabinoids are ingested as opposed to only 12% when smoking a regular joint. Vaping butane hash oil can also be one helluva headrush as it contains 80% THC. This method is recommended for the seasoned pothead rather than the newbie user.
We all know that eating marijuana creates a stronger and longer buzz than smoking or vaping, but why is that? “In a nutshell, eaten cannabis gets metabolized by the liver, so delta-9 THC becomes 11-hydroxy-THC, which passes the blood-brain barrier more rapidly and has more of a psychedelic effect than standard THC,” says Understanding Marijuana author Mitch Earleywine, “smoked or vaporized cannabis bypasses the liver and doesn’t create the same 11-hydroxy-THC.” When munching marijuana, only 10-20% of the cannabinoids are released at a time but the high can last up to a mammoth 6 hours.
How Is THC Medicinal?
When released in the brain, this psychoactive compound can cause an array of positive symptoms: pain relief, nausea and vomiting calmer, muscle relaxant, mood enhancer, appetite stimulator etc. THC can also be used to treat disorders like PTSD, Tourette’s, insomnia, Asthma and Glaucoma. Some believe that THC containing pill, Dronabinol, is more effective than smoking a spliff, but you’ll have to test that out for yourself.
A lot of research has also been conducted around the medical benefits of neighboring cannabinoid, CBD. Despite lacking the psychoactive ingredient necessary for building a cerebral high, CBD has a host of other health qualities. CBD rich strains cut down the effects of possible paranoia, anxiety and memory impairment that sneak in with a THC rich spliff. This has sparked more studies into the symbiotic benefits of smoking the right ratio of THC and CBD together.
The Final Toke On THC
Most folks know that THC is the main ingredient in any marijuana strain, but not everyone knows what it is and what it does. Some people choose to refuse it has any health benefits, while others swear by the spliff. As with anything cannabis related, THC is a hot topic.
As THC becomes more and more accepted as a member of the medicine scene, new research is pointing to ever surprising benefits of pot. It may even promote the growth of new brain cells! That’s a whole lot of green goodness.
Next time you light one up, ponder on the medical magic of your THC rich pot and enjoy the buzz.