Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of the many compounds, in addition to Cannabidiol (CBD), that is found in the marijuana plant and other varieties of cannabis.

Most people recognize it as the chemical that produces the “high” when using marijuana or THC-infused products. With a little research the picture was obviously a bit more complex.

It turns out THC is a very complex compound with a wide variety of potential uses. It even has a long history in various cultures, going back thousands of years.

If you’re curious about where THC comes from and how it affects your body, here is everything I have discovered.

What Is Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)?

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) was first discovered and isolated in 1964 by Israeli researcher Raphael Mechoulam. It is one of over 100 phytocannabinoids found in the cannabis plant (CBD is another). Phytocannabinoids are chemically similar to the endocannabinoids produced by your body, and are able to exert their effects on the body’s endocannabinoid system because of this.

THC is structurally similar to CBD but works differently. THC works by mimicking the effects of the neurotransmitter anandamide, also known as “bliss molecule,” and 2-AG, an endocannabinoid believed to be linked to antidepressant effects of physical exercise. These substances are produced naturally by the body and control and regulate a wide range of bodily functions. THC attaches itself to cannabinoid receptors in the body to produce cerebral, relaxing effects.

THC is created from tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) through a process called decarboxylation. Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) is like the raw version of THC. When marijuana is exposed to heat, say a flame, or UV light, the THCA is broken down into the new, slightly different compound known as THC.

When you smoke marijuana, you decarboxylate the THCA—turning it into THC—when you take a lighter to the marijuana buds.

While THC is most known for its intoxicating effects, it is also recognized for its therapeutic benefits.

Where Does THC Come From?

THC comes from cannabis plants, including marijuana and hemp. However, marijuana contains a higher concentration.

The North American Industrial Hemp Council states that industrial hemp only has a THC content of 0.05% to 1%[3]. Some strains of marijuana contain as much as 30% THC[4].

Currently, there are three species of plants belonging to the cannabis genus:

  • Cannabis sativa
  • Cannabis Indica
  • Cannabis ruderalis

Some debate whether to categorize these plants as separate species. However, cannabis Indica often has the largest concentrations of THC, while cannabis ruderalis only contains trace amounts. Most commercially grown hemp comes from the Sativa variety.

Why Do People Use Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)?

THC has three primary purposes for consumption:

  1. Entheogen – This refers to the history of cannabis consumption for spiritual or religious purposes. Current research indicates that there has been entheogenic use of cannabis amongst ancient Hindus on the Indian subcontinent dating as far back as 1500 BCE or even 2000 BCE. In Sanskrit, it is known as ganja or ganjika. It has also been used religiously in:
    a. Ancient China
    b. Ancient Central Asia
    c. Africa
    d. Amongst the Germanic peoples and Celts
    e. Modern-day Jamaica (as a holy sacrament in the Rastafari religion/movement).
  2. Recreational use – Cannabis is the most widely used recreational drug in the world by several orders of magnitude. It is officially known as a euphoriant (as opposed to a stimulant or hallucinogen, for example), which just means it makes people feel really good. Luckily, it has few serious side effects and is not highly addictive.
  3. Medicinal use – Various phytocannabinoids found in cannabis (including THC) have a wide variety of health benefits with relatively few side effects. This makes them highly attractive as potential medicines. Medicinal cannabis use in the United States legal began with Proposition 215 in California in the year 1996; voters decided that cannabis should be legal for medicinal purposes in their state. This is widely recognized to be the first step towards widespread legalization and/or decriminalization nationwide.

As tetrahydrocannabinol use has continued throughout history, it has taken on an ever growing place in popular culture. Simply put, it is extremely popular and integral to peoples’ lives. It is also unique. For example, it is the only known psychoactive compound that does not have nitrogen (N) in its chemical formula.

Furthermore, as the most widely researched, consumed, and known member of the cannabinoid class, it has a unique mechanism of action within the human body. Let’s examine why that is.

What are the Risks of THC?

The effects of marijuana make it a popular drug. In fact, it is considered one of the most commonly used illicit drugs in the world. But these effects also concern mental health advocates. THC can trigger a relapse in schizophrenic symptoms, according to NIDA.

Another possible risk of consuming THC comes in the form of impaired motor skills. Marijuana may impair driving or similar tasks for approximately three hours after consumption and it is the second-most common psychoactive substance found in drivers, after alcohol, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. People taking medical marijuana are instructed not to drive until it has been established that they can tolerate it and conduct motor tasks successfully.

The use of marijuana may cause problems for younger people, and long-term problems. “Some of the side effects of THC include a decrease in IQ, memory and cognition, especially in younger people,” said Dr. Damon Raskin, medical director at Cliffside Malibu Treatment Center. “However, the jury is still out on long-term effects, as not enough research has been done on it yet. There is some speculation that it could impair fertility in men and women and also compromise a person’s airways, but the studies are still not clear.”

A study by the University of Montreal published in the journal Development and Psychopathology in 2016 found that early use of marijuana can affect teens. Smokers that start around age 14 do worse on some cognitive tests than non-smokers. The study on almost 300 students found that pot smokers also have a higher school dropout rate. Those that waited to start around age 17 did not seem to have the same impairments.

NIDA reports that rats exposed to THC before birth, soon after birth or during adolescence have shown problems with specific learning and memory tasks later in life.

The drug can also have drug interactions with certain medications.

How to Use THC

With so many cannabis products on the market, there is no shortage of ways to use THC.

But before you start shopping, it is important that you understand the cannabis laws that exist in your state. If you live in a state where cannabis is legal for recreational consumption, shopping for a THC product will not be an issue. You’ll just need to meet the legal age requirement (e.g. in California, 21 years or older) to be eligible to purchase marijuana. For people in states with more restrictive cannabis laws, it’s important to read up on whether cannabis is legal for medical purposes only, or if it’s not legal for consumption at all.

Once you have determined that you are legally allowed to purchase THC, speak to your doctor. Involving your doctor in the process will ensure that you use THC as safely as possible and that it is the right option for you. While largely harmless, smoking marijuana or using THC-infused products could produce unwanted effects, like anxiety and paranoia, for certain people.

One of the best ways to use THC is to take advantage of the entourage effect with a full-spectrum CBD oil. These products will contain the full range of cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids found in the cannabis plant. In other words, you will receive the maximum benefits of the whole hemp plant. Also, the calming, anti-anxiety effects of CBD could help offset the feelings of anxiousness sometimes caused by THC.

The most common way to take THC is by smoking marijuana flower or vaping cannabis oil. These methods are familiar and provide near-immediate results. Keep in mind, because cannabis oil contains concentrated amounts of THC, the effects will be much stronger than those produced from smoking flower. If you’re just starting out, consider cutting your teeth on marijuana flower so you can get an idea for how THC affects you before diving into something more potent like cannabis oil.

If you’re not a smoker or prefer a more discreet THC delivery method, there are cannabis capsules and edibles at your disposal. Capsules and edibles will take a while to show effects, so if you decide to go this route, allow at least an hour before taking more. While it’ll take longer for the effects to set in, those produced by an edible or capsule typically last much longer than those produced by smoking. Edibles are notorious for sneaking up on people, so start with as low a dose as possible and then work your way up from there.

For most people, microdosing with THC will be the way to reap the most benefits. Taking a microdose can enable you to experience the subtle benefits of this cannabinoid without losing any cognitive function. There are products designed specifically for microdosing THC (e.g. teas, capsules, tinctures), which you’ll want to consider using if you’ve never microdosed or consumed cannabis before.

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