The most important ingredients of the cannabis plant are the cannabinoids, of which the psychoactive THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) with its intoxicating effect is best known. What THC is exactly, how it works, what the difference is to cannabidiol (CBD), and where it is used in medicine, is illuminated in the following article.
Hemp belongs to the botanical genus Cannabaceae (hemp family) and is one of the oldest useful plants on earth. The terms hemp and cannabis are often used as synonyms, but they mean the same thing. The Latin term for hemp is cannabis.
Colloquially, it has become accepted that cannabis refers to THC-rich varieties. On the other hand, the term hemp plant rather describes commercial hemp plants (industrial hemp) with a very low THC content. CBD oil, for example, is extracted from this plant.
Cannabinoids, or more precisely phytocannabinoids ("phyto" translated from the Greek means "plant"), are chemical compounds that occur mainly in the female cannabis plant, or in the resin of the flowers.
The main active ingredient or the best-known cannabinoid from the cannabis plant is THC. This abbreviation stands for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (tetrahydrocannabinol for short), whereas the correct designation is delta-9-trans-tetrahydrocannabinol.
THC: How is THC produced in plants?
Before the plant starts producing cannabinoids, it forms cannabigerolic acid (CBGA), the "mother of all cannabinoids". CBGA deserves this name because it gives rise to other cannabinoid acids, such as tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) or cannabidiolic acid (CBDA). The letter A stands for the word "acid".
Cannabinoid acids are basically an "inactive form" or also "precursors" of cannabinoids. They do not have the same spectrum of action as cannabinoids. For example, no intoxicating effect occurs after the consumption of raw cannabis. Nevertheless, according to various studies, cannabinoid acids seem to have therapeutic potential, although research here is still in its infancy.
THC: How THCA is turned into THC
In order to activate THC, i.e. to convert THCA into THC, a chemical reaction is required. This is achievable with the so-called decarboxylation.
When the harvested plant material is exposed to UV radiation, it happens automatically and the acid or a carbon dioxide molecule splits off. What remains is the THC after decarboxylation.
It is also possible to accelerate this process with heat. Here, the higher the temperature, the faster THCA is transformed into THC. This happens, for example, when smoking cannabis. Temperatures of 400 to 800 degrees Celsius are generated here, so that decarboxylation takes place within seconds.
At such high temperatures, however, there is always the risk that other important ingredients such as terpenes (smell and taste substances) and flavonoids (secondary plant substances) are destroyed. The following methods are much gentler:
THC decarboxylation in the oven (low temperature with a longer period of time).
THC decarboxylation in hot water (plant material in heat-resistant boiling bag)
THC: Difference between THC and CBD
THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and cannabidiol (CBD) have in common that they are both phytocannabinoids from the cannabis plant. They even have the same chemical formula: C21H30O2. This means that they have 21 carbon, 30 hydrogen and two oxygen atoms.
There is only one difference: one of the carbon rings is open in CBD and it is exactly this small difference that is responsible for the fact that THC and CBD have completely different effects. In contrast to THC, CBD does not have an intoxicating effect.
Effect of cannabinoids
After cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) were first isolated from the cannabis plant in the 1960s, this led to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system (abbreviation for endogenous (body's own) cannabinoid system) in the human body, which is part of the nervous system.
The cannabinoid receptors (CB) are responsible for activating the endocannabinoid system. So far, the CB1 receptor and the CB2 receptor are known. While the CB1 receptors are mainly found in the nerve cells and in the brain, the CB2 receptors are mainly found on the cells of the immune system and on the cells involved in bone formation and bone resorption.
So, since cannabinoid receptors are found almost throughout the body, this explains why the endocannabinoid system can affect so many different functions/processes, such as mood, pain perception, sleep-wake rhythm and appetite.
The active substance THC mainly binds to the CB1 receptor and influences the processes controlled by the endocannabinoid system. Among other things, THC causes an increased release of the nerve messenger substance dopamine, which, like serotonin, belongs to the "happiness hormones".
The psychoactive and intoxicating effect depends on various factors such as the THC concentration and the type of consumption (smoking, vaporising, eating). One's own personality and expectations as well as the environment also influence the effect. In this respect, THC can have the following effects, among others:
euphoric feelings ("high") or emotional serenity
Strong mental jumps
short-term memory impairment
Changes in perception (e.g. intense perception of sounds)
Increased need for communication
Exaggerated silliness ("laughing fits")
THC: Side effects
Cannabis use can also cause negative effects. This affects people who use cannabis for the first time and regular users alike. In addition, a high THC concentration in cannabis is often responsible for side effects. These can manifest themselves as follows:
feelings of anxiety and panic
psychotic states (e.g. persecutory ideas or confusion)
Short-term memory disorders/memory lapses
Cannabis can not only affect the brain and the psyche. Physically, the following symptoms often show up:
Dry, red eyes
Nausea and vomiting
tiredness and even lethargy
Low blood pressure
A drug test can detect THC or its breakdown product (THC-COOH). How long THC can be detected in blood or urine depends mainly on the pattern of use, the individual metabolism and the form of use.
THC has good fat solubility and accumulates in fatty tissue. With regular use, more and more THC accumulates in the fatty tissue and is only slowly released into the bloodstream. As a result, the detection time is many times longer than with one-time consumption.
Usually, THC can be detected in the blood for up to five hours and in the urine for up to ten hours.
THC: Fields of application & medicinal use
Cannabis is one of the oldest useful and medicinal plants on earth. Numerous ancient writings contain evidence that the plants and their constituents were used as remedies for a wide variety of ailments and diseases.
In recent years, cannabis research has progressed further and shows the diverse spectrum of effects. In particular, the active ingredient THC and its therapeutic potential have been well studied. Thus, THC is used as a medicine for the following complaints, among others:
Movement disorders and spasticity
nausea and vomiting in the context of chemo/radiation therapy
loss of appetite and cachexia in cancer/HIV patients
The following forms of medicinal products are available for therapy:
Medicinal cannabis flowers for vaporisation: there is a choice of different cannabis varieties in pharmaceutical quality with varying high CBD and THC content.
Prescription medicines: Doctors have the option of prescribing dronabinol (THC) as an oily substance for oral intake. In addition, full-spectrum extracts with varying CBD and THC content can be prescribed. Pharmacists also prepare an oily substance from these.
Finished medicinal products: Sativex oral spray (equal amounts of THC and CBD) as well as Canemes capsules with the active ingredient nabilone (fully synthetic THC) can be prescribed.