When people are growing marijuana for recreational use, most of the hype is around how much THC is in the harvested final product. But what exactly is all the excitement about? What is THC?
In this article we will discuss:
THC, also known as tetrahydrocannabinol, is the famous chemical contained in marijuana that causes the psychological effects that so many people covet. There are actually a number of naturally produced cannabinoid chemicals in our bodies, and THC is not entirely different from those. This is why your brain reacts to cannabinoids — it contains cannabinoid receptors in the area of the brain that is where thinking and remembering occurs, as well as the perception of time and general coordination.
Many aspects of the brain are affected when THC comes in and attaches itself to the cannabinoid receptors. This is why people smoking (or consuming in another way) marijuana will experience temporary changes in memory, movement, thinking, coordination, sensory perception, pleasure, concentration, and time perception. In other words, THC can change the way a person acts. These cannabinoid receptors are not exclusively located in the brain, of course, but are found in nerves elsewhere in the body as well. This is where the benefits of pain relief can come from.
THC is not the only chemical compound that is contained in marijuana resin. The majority of the glands that secrete this resin are clustered around your plant’s reproductive organs; for that reason, their buds are the most potent part of the entire plant. Not all cannabinoids are the same; one example, called CBD, is actually nonpsychoactive. In other words, it achieves the opposite result of THC and even prevents the typical psychoactive effects of THC from occurring.
THC has an interesting reaction to exposure to outside air. When it is exposed, it begins to degrade and after a while, it will be an entirely different cannabinoid — called a cannabinol. This cannabinol has its own set of psychological effects. Sometimes THC is targeted for removal from a marijuana specimen to achieve the desired medicinal effects.
The discovery of THC in marijuana
People prone to asking questions might be wondering how all this research was ever accomplished on THC and marijuana medical benefits when, in fact, marijuana was illegal just about everywhere. Israeli organic chemist Rafael Mechoulam confronted that very problem. You can’t officially study something that you aren’t allowed to possess, after all. So he went to the police.
This, of course, was during the early 1960s, which means that the legal and political environment was not quite the same as it is now. The police had a helpfully huge stash of hash — and they gave five kilograms of it to Mechoulam, and he was able to conduct proper research into the effects of marijuana this way. It is because of Mechoulam that we know about THC (or more precisely known as delta 9-Tetrahydrocannabinol). He found out that this is the main compound in marijuana that causes the desirable psychoactive effects.
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Although THC was discovered as the single important chemical in 1964, it took another 24 years before it was known how exactly it affects the human brain. Everyone knew what it felt like, of course, but no one knew why. Until Dr. Allyn Howlett discovered the binding sites in the brain that THC connects to, of course. Her studies into the brain and its interaction with THC were a huge step in the journey toward a better understanding of marijuana and its effects. Her research uncovered the fact that THC is actually attached to sites in the hippocampus, where memories are formed, as well as the frontal cortex, the place we use to think, and the cerebellum, which controls our movements.
These sites are where the cannabinoid receptors are and, as described below, act as part of a larger endocannabinoid system. The fit of THC to these receptors is perfectly matched to cause a chemical reaction in your brain. This reaction, of course, is the psychoactive effect that marijuana consumers adore.
Why is THC in the spotlight?
Marijuana has, in fact, more than 85 different cannabinoids contained within it, one of which is the famous THC. So what is it about THC that makes it have a stronger psychoactive effect? The shape of it is actually what makes the difference. Because of THC’s unique molecular structure, it is able to fit in with the binding sites (or cannabinoid receptors) that are found in your brain. These binding sites are a part of the entire endocannabinoid system. For this reason, THC is what affects us the most in terms of its psychoactive effects.
How does THC affect the body?
To put it simply, THC naturally causes the brain cells to begin releasing dopamine. That, in turn, causes the user to start to feel a euphoric sensation. It also causes interference in the interaction and processing of information within your brain’s hippocampus, which is where memories are formed. THC can additionally cause hallucinations, thinking changes, and delusions to occur. This is what causes a user’s behavior to be altered.
These psychoactive effects of THC usually just last a couple of hours and will begin to be apparent just 10 to 30 minutes after they are taken into the body. Even once a person no longer feels high, however, they could still have psychomotor impairment for a longer period of time after that.
While THC is the chemical every marijuana consumer wants, it can also sometimes lead to negative feelings including anxiety, issues with short-term memory, sedation, and an abnormal heart rate. Certain other kinds of cannabinoids can actually counteract those negative effects, however, leading to an overall more pleasant experience. The “munchies” also are an effect of consuming marijuana, given marijuana’s ability to stimulate appetite. Of course, other positive side effects include elation, relaxation, pain relief, and other useful benefits for people who need it for medicinal purposes. Its pain relieving effects come from the transmitter release in the spinal cord being altered, thus stopping the pain.
As a pain reliever, the THC found in marijuana operates far differently from opioids, mainly in the way that they attach themselves to your body’s receptors. Opioids such as morphine, heroin, and other poppy plant-derived drugs bind themselves with the brain’s receptors, causing the harmful (but addicting) effects that they do.
To help clarify how actually makes us feel, let’s take a look at the short-term effects of marijuana (how we feel for about three hours after smoking). These symptoms include feeling drowsy or dizzy, have distinctly red eyes and a dry mouth, feelings of euphoria and bouts of giggles, feeling an increased appetite but also an increased heart rate, a confused experience of time, and a lowering of motor functions.
These effects might only start being felt after thirty minutes or as long as two hours if you are consuming marijuana via edibles. These effects will be felt in varying degrees and might vary each time you smoke, depending on the strain, the potency, and what other types of cannabinoids are in the marijuana product. You might also experience marijuana differently from someone else who is smoking the same thing, as everybody is different and therefore your reaction is going to vary to some extent.
What about the long-term effects of THC consumption? Unfortunately, this is under-researched and therefore does not have much conclusive evidence of what those long-term effects might be. At the moment, it is pretty widely accepted that, after prolonged habitual use of marijuana, there is some loss of short-term memory. That being said, there is not a complete understanding of how exactly a long-term use of marijuana affects memory.
An additional long-term issue that could come out of the habitual use of marijuana is more instances of psychotic episodes in people who either have or are at risk for schizophrenia. This is not conclusive, however, and more studies and research will help us understand more in the future.
Why does THC work so well with our brains?
Because THC is the perfect shape to fit into the cannabinoid receptors in our brains, it might seem easy to assume that our brains are actually designed for marijuana consumption. As fantastic as that sounds, it, unfortunately, isn’t true. Half a decade after discovering the way that THC affects our brains, scientists finally found the substance already in our bodies that makes these cannabinoid receptors necessary to begin with.
We actually have our own natural substance that is a bit similar to THC in our bodies already. It’s called anandamide, and it is what the endocannabinoid system in our body uses. It remains a partial mystery about what exactly this anandamide does, but we have gained some knowledge about it already. It, rather surprisingly, helps us forget things.
This trait may seem like an odd one for humans to evolve — why would it be useful to forget? But, in reality, remembering absolutely everything would be counterproductive. Whether it’s all the faces of strangers you saw on the street this morning, all the details of every book you have ever read, or every word of every conversation you have had all day, it certainly would not be helpful or useful to our regular functions and survival. It only clutters up our brains — so that is where anandamide comes in. Forgetting some unimportant details allows us to remember the most important things.
This basic understanding of anandamide is extremely useful in discovering how THC can help us better understand exactly how THC affects us and our bodies, specifically with certain psychological issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or people who have had a trauma and are struggling to overcome the memories they associate with it.
THC vs. CBD
The second most well-known and commonly found cannabinoid in marijuana is likely CBD, which works differently from THC but is still a cannabinoid nonetheless. The main difference between THC and CBD is that CBD does not attach to the same receptors that THC does, and it does not cause the same psychoactive effects.
CBD actually inhibits fatty acid amide hydroxyls (or FAAH), an enzyme that destroys the anandamide that your body naturally creates. Since CBD stops FAAH from destroying the anandamide, meaning its amount will be greater in a body that has consumed CBD. It also might slow the effects of THC that are psychoactive. Like much of the marijuana research more needs to be done before the interaction between THC and CBD can be fully understood.
Risks with THC and marijuana use
There is a reason that marijuana is one of the most commonly used drugs in the world, but of course, there are some downsides to it as well. For instance, it could lead to some mental health issues, such as the triggering of a relapse in people with schizophrenia. Impaired motor skills are also an issue, especially if people are driving within three hours of smoking. Second only to alcohol in frequency, marijuana is a commonly found psychoactive in today’s drivers. Even people using legal medical marijuana should not operate a vehicle unless they have safely established what they can handle.
There may also be other risks associated with the long-term use of THC, but unfortunately, the research on such effects are not complete enough for a proper analysis. Some say it might cause infertility in both genders and might cause problems in airways within the body, but it has not yet been scientifically proven. For younger people, it’s possible that using marijuana lowers IQ levels as well as memory and cognition. According to some reports, this applies mainly to people who were exposed to THC before they were born, right after they were born, or during their adolescent years.
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Another risk that can come with marijuana is overdosing. This is most commonly seen with people consuming marijuana via edibles, as they will consume a much larger dose than they should. Because the effects of edibles are not felt right away, it can lead to a person unknowingly eating far more than they should. Additionally, edibles tend to be extremely potent — and because of the way it is ingested, the effects can actually continue for a longer amount of time and in a more intense way than if you smoked marijuana.
To illustrate this point: if you inhale THC, you might feel the effects for between 45 minutes and three hours. For THC ingested via edibles, however, these effects can last between six and eight hours. For this reason, in 2014 Colorado passed a law that limits the THC levels to 3.53 ounces in marijuana edibles.
THC as medicine
Marijuana has been coveted for its medical applications for thousands of years — and finally, some of the United States are realizing this and embracing it by legalizing medical marijuana. There is also a drug that is made from synthesized marijuana (extracted from marijuana) called dronabinol. This drug is specifically used for nausea and vomiting that comes from many cancer treatments, and it also helps people with AIDS in increasing their appetites.
THC can have such positive effects on the brain cells because it is a neuroprotectant, which means it protects the brain cells from oxidative stress and inflammation. New brain cells can even be newly grown from THC, which is called neurogenesis. This information has been known for more than a decade. It’s the only (mostly) illegal drug that actual promotes neurogenesis instead of inhibiting it.
There are some other proven medical benefits to marijuana use when done correctly. These benefits include improving a sense of taste (which, along with appetite, is very important for people being treated for cancer). For those with a nervous system injury and pain accompanying it, marijuana can provide relief. It can even help relieve pain for people who have recently undergone a major surgery and are undergoing a painful recovery process. Dermatitis symptoms can be lessened through the use of medical marijuana. The chemicals generally found in marijuana can even help to slow down prostate cancer growth. These are just a few of the many possibilities of using medical marijuana.
Other treatments include Alzheimer’s Disease, atherosclerosis, stroke, glaucoma, neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, sleep apnea, ADHD, Tourette syndrome, PTSD, and cancer in various forms.
Although many prefer the more “natural” marijuana for treatment because it is assumed that it is a safer and healthier option, this is not always the case. Every person is different, so what is best for them can vary drastically. That and not all natural things are healthy.
Normal THC levels in marijuana
If you are looking for high amounts of THC in your marijuana, hemp is definitely not the way to go. It has as little as 0.5% THC and is therefore mainly used in the industrial and medical sectors. That being said, there are also other strains of marijuana that have an even lower THC content, sometimes getting as low as around 0.3% THC. For comparison, a more potent marijuana strain would contain as much as 20% THC by weight. Less potent strains have between 1% and 5% THC; hashish contains between 5% and 15% of THC by weight while hashish oil contains around 20% THC.
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The fact of the matter is that recreational marijuana will have varying percentages of THC. The level of THC that is right for you depends on how much you actually like the process of smoking. If you really enjoy the act of smoking, a lower level of THC will allow you to smoke more without feeling unpleasantly strong effects. If you prefer to be healthier or just don’t enjoy smoking that much — or maybe you just want to get high as fast as possible — then a strain of marijuana with higher THC content is a better choice for you.
Now that we know so much about THC and how much of it is in various types of marijuana, it’s important also to learn about how exactly it is activated. This process of activation is called decarboxylation, and it is necessary for our THC experience because regular, raw marijuana plants have plenty of THC, but it’s not in the right shape to react with our brain’s receptors.
This is why smoking is so effective. Once you heat up the marijuana (whether it’s lighting a joint, heating up a pipe, cooking marijuana on the stove, or using a Magic Butter Machine), the THC will be converted into a psychoactive form that reacts with your brain in the way that makes for such a great marijuana experience.
Sources of THC
The most THC comes from plants that have not been pollinated or fertilized, particularly females (known as “sensimilla”). This even goes for some of the stronger strains, such as some strains of tropical sativas; while they are perfectly strong as fertilized, seeding plants, they will be even stronger if they are unfertilized.
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Of course, the way to have unfertilized plants in your crop is to remove the males before they are able to fertilize the female plants. Sometimes even this doesn’t work, however. If female plants get too stressed out, there is a chance they will grow male flowers, therefore, self-pollinating and fertilizing the females around them. The key to a successful sensimilla crop is proactivity and tender loving care.
Getting rid of THC in your body
One big question that many marijuana users ask is how exactly to get all of this THC out of their system. This is usually because employers might decide to test for THC, through urine and other samples. They look for a specific THC metabolite, THC-COOH. The tricky thing is, the amount of time THC remains in your system depends ultimately on how much and how often you have been consuming THC (marijuana).
For people who smoke marijuana occasionally or very lightly, this metabolite should be out of your system between three days and two weeks. For those who use it regularly and heavily, however, things get a little trickier — it will be one to two months or longer before all of the THC has left their system.
THC builds up over time and stays in fat cells, which is why it makes it more difficult for heavy users to clear their system entirely of THC. One way to speed up this process is to simply drink lots of water, which will have the added benefit of diluting your urine and therefore giving you a higher chance of passing the test.
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