What is THC; Explained for Dummies

Did you know that there are currently more than 100 cannabinoids that are known to scientists, and almost all of them occur naturally in the cannabis plant? Some of these compounds have only recently been discovered, but others have been known to researchers for quite some time now. The best-known cannabinoids, and two that you have almost certainly heard of, are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Throughout its life, the cannabis plant produces more than 400 different chemical compounds. But, the presence of just one of these hundreds of compounds has sealed the fate of cannabis for almost a century. All because this one compound interacts with the human body in such a way that it produces psychoactive effects – a “high” unlike any other. As you might have guessed, this compound is none other than THC.

THC, full name tetrahydrocannabinol, is one of 113 active compounds that are found in the cannabis plant. But, there is one hugely important difference that makes it unique among all the rest; it’s the most potently psychoactive. So, what exactly is THC and why does it produce this range of pleasurable, and sometimes undesired, effects? How does it affect the body and what does it do to the brain? Is it safe to use, or is it as dangerous as heroin, as reported by the federal government?

Here’s your thorough and in-depth guide to THC.

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What is THC?

Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is a chemical secreted by the glands of the cannabis plant. It’s usually found in high doses around the reproductive organs, and also in the flower of the female pot plant or resin glands of the bud.

Although THC is one of more than 100 chemical compounds (called cannabinoids) that are found in the cannabis plant, it’s the primary psychoactive ingredient. THC takes almost all the credit for producing a cerebral high.

But while most humans use THC to get high, the marijuana plant uses THC to fend off natural predators, like viruses, bacteria, and parasites. Although THC doesn’t produce antibacterial properties in people, CBG (cannabigerol) is a non-psychoactive compound of cannabis that does.

THC has the chemical formula C₂₁H₃₀O₂ and, believe it or not, it’s very similar in structure and molecular mass to CBD. THC brags a variety of uses for both medicinal and recreational purposes. It can be used in edibles, oils used via tinctures, syrups, in medicines, drops, and topicals including balms and lotions used for anti-inflammation.

THC and the Endocannabinoid System: How It Takes Effect

Understanding the biochemistry of cannabis is the key to understanding what THC is and how it affects us. In fact, the term “key” is a great metaphor when it comes to explaining the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is an expansive system of chemical receptors (locks), and chemicals that bind to these receptors (keys). Some keys will only work on a specific lock, while other keys will fit in multiple locks. The human body has evolved whereby it produces its own keys (endogenous cannabinoids) for those locks.

This is what the infamous “runners high” is all about. The high that is craved by runners is caused by anandamide, which is the key, that binds with cannabinoid receptors (locks) in the nervous system. Anandamide is the natural equivalent of THC.

Amazingly, science has discovered that cannabinoids from the cannabis plant happen to bind to these same receptors. They’re nature’s keys that fit into the locks of the ECS.

When you use cannabis, you introduce cannabinoids into your body, and once inside they are metabolized and enter the bloodstream. From here, they bind to the CB1 and CB2 receptors, which are found in the central nervous system and brain. CB1 receptors are more prevalent in the brain, while CB2 receptors are found exclusively on cells in the immune system. This is why cannabis has significant medicinal uses in addition to its recreational uses.

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Why THC Gets You High

So how does THC make you high? It all comes down to the ECS and its receptors. The CB1 receptors that are found throughout the brain and nervous system regulate cognition, memory, movement, sensory perceptions, and even time perceptions. According to studies, THC “over-activates” functions that are typically regulated by the ECS, such as appetite, perception, cognition, and mood.

Essentially, it’s the combination of all these changes that create the overall effect that we call being “high.” This also explains why everyone’s high is unique – it can vary from being buzzed to baked to far too high. There are various factors at play. While some changes may feel good to one person, they might make another person feel uncomfortable.

When you consume THC, it gets released into the blood and quickly swims upstream, reaching the brain in a matter of seconds. The THC then mimics the cannabinoids that naturally occur in the body and attaches itself to the cannabinoid receptors. The areas it affects are the cerebellum, cerebral cortex, and basal ganglia. These are all parts of the brain connected to coordination, concentration, pleasure, memory, thinking, and motor movements.

Now for the really interesting part. The reason that THC affects these areas so much more than other cannabinoids, like CBD, all comes down to its shape. Because of the specific molecular structure of THC, it binds like a bug in a rug to the neurotransmitters – these are the spaces that transfer communication between the neurons. It mimics anandamide, which is known as the “bliss molecule” and is a natural cannabinoid found in the body.

Once the THC has firmly attached itself, it takes on the role of anandamide and stimulates the brain cells to release more dopamine. This is the hormone that is responsible for all the good vibes you feel when high. Once planted in the brain, THC is able to cause a range of sensory side effects including calmness, alertness, euphoria, or light-headedness.

If the THC high comes on too strong, you may experience other buzz-killing side effects like anxiety, paranoia, depression, or fatigue. Physical effects could be the slowing down of motor movements, pain inhibition, increase in appetite, and dry mouth.

The Medicinal Benefits of THC

Since THC is best known for its psychoactive effects and is the number one choice for those who smoke marijuana recreationally, many people are unaware that it has some incredible medicinal benefits. Here are a few medicinal uses of THC.

Chronic Pain

One of the most popular medical benefits of THC is its pain-relieving effects. From constant neuropathic pain to temporary muscle soreness, the ability of THC to reduce inflammation and stimulate the release of dopamine (like opioids do) make it a very powerful substance for treating pain and associated symptoms.


Inflammation is an underlying factor that complicates or contributes to a wide range of diseases. This means that THC has a role to play in treating all of these conditions. From neurodegenerative disorders like multiple sclerosis to autoimmune diseases to depression, THC has proven its effectiveness as a therapeutic treatment.

Mood Disorders

Not only can THC help people who have PTSD to process and forget traumatic memory associations, but it also has short-term effects that help to improve mood disorders like anxiety and depression.

Digestive Disorders

Believe it or not, even the FDA has recognized the ability of THC to reduce nausea and soothe pain and other symptoms that are related to gastrointestinal distress. Thanks to receptors found in the digestive tract, THC can help people who suffer from severe GI-tract diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Crohn’s disease.

Common Methods of Consuming THC

There are various ways to consume cannabis these days; it can even become confusing trying to decide which one to use. Here are the most common methods of consuming THC:

  • Smoking: There are so many ways to inhale cannabis; joint, bong, blunt, bubbler, hand pipe, etc. Smoking is the most popular form of weed consumption, and it’s the quickest way to get your THC fix.
  • Vaporizing: Vaping is quickly becoming a hot trend in health-conscious cannabis communities. Vaping devices heat cannabinoids to a high enough temperature that is enough to release the psychoactive effects of THC, yet low enough as not to let off any harmful toxins that are associated with combustion.
  • Edibles: As we all know, eating marijuana creates a longer and stronger buzz than vaping or smoking, but why? Weed that is eaten gets metabolized by the liver, so the THC becomes 11-hydroxy-THC which passes more rapidly through the blood-brain barrier and thus has more of a psychedelic effect when compared to standard THC.

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The Legality of THC

Currently, THC, but more broadly described under the spectrum of cannabis, is legal for medicinal use in 29 states. Recreationally, it’s legal in nine states and Washington DC.

The good news is that recent reports suggest that legalization may start becoming more widespread. In fact, according to a report that was published by the New York State Health Department in the New York Daily News, “the positive effects of a regulated marijuana market outweigh the potential negative impacts.”

However, THC is still a hot topic in discussions for legalization. It’s unclear how long it will still be until cannabis, and more specifically THC, will be fully legalized.

Final Thoughts on THC

Most people know that THC is the main ingredient of just about any marijuana strain, but a lot of people don’t know what it is and what it does. While some people refuse to believe that it has any health benefits, others swear by it. As with anything that is related to cannabis, THC is a hot topic.

As THC is becoming an increasingly accepted member of the medicine scene, new research is demonstrating more and more surprising benefits of the substance. So next time you smoke a joint, think about all the goodness of THC and enjoy the buzz.

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