Everybody knows that Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) gets you high, but it also has many medical purposes. With medical marijuana sweeping the nation, one has to beg the question…is THC all its cracked up to be or is it merely a sensationalized drug?
Much More Than a High
You have certainly heard that Tetrahydrocannabinol is the cannabinoid in marijuana responsible for the euphoric and psychoactive high we are all so familiar with. Believe it or not, the cannabis plant naturally produces over 100 cannabinoids, each with unique effects. Many claim that CBD is the cannabinoid with the medicinal properties, while THC is purely recreational. This myth must be dispelled, as THC has many medicdal benefits as well.
While many swear by the therapeutic benefits of THC for recreational and medicinal purposes, some still believe that THC is an addictive drug that should be kept illegal. We discuss findings from scientific literature, focusing on the medical benefits as well as the potential negatives.
Read below to learn just about everything that there is to know about tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
What is Tetrahydrocannabinol?
THC is a naturally occurring phytocannabinoid that is a partial agonist of the CB1 receptors, which are contained in the entire central nervous system throughout our body, predominantly in the brain. THC also is a partial agonist of the CB2 receptor, which mostly regulates our immune system.
Plants do not have an immune system, yet they need protection. As a result, they create cannabinoids, which provide various antibacterial and antiviral properties. Our body naturally produces our own endocannabinoids, which are similar to tetrahydrocannabinol in the sense that they also bind to the CB1 and CB2 receptors.
Believe it or not, the cannabis plant does not produce Tetrahydrocannabinol directly, but rather starts by creating the cannabinoid CBGA. Enzymes in the plant may react with CBGA to create THCA, which is the cannabinoid with the highest concentration in the plant after cultivation.
THC is only formed through the process of decarboxylation, which occurs when we add heat through a flame, vaporizing, or cooking. THC also is not water soluble, but will dissolve in fats. This explains why we should use fats such as oil or butter when extracting THC for edibles.
THC triggers the brain cells to release dopamine, which gives us the euphoric high feeling that many enjoy. Due to THC’s special shape, it seems to be one of the few cannabinoids that produce a psychoactive effect.
Within the past 20 years, we have also realized that many of the cannabinoids have functions with other receptors and enzymes, suggesting we still have a lot to learn. For example, THC and other cannabinoids are known to interact with the GPR55 receptor. THC also has subtle effects on two opioid receptors, which helps provide anti-anxiety properties.
What THC Has Taught Us
Without the discovery of Tetrahydrocannabinol, it is likely that we would not even be aware of our own endocannabinoid system. To fully appreciate the knowledge that the discovery of THC has given us, we review a bit of history of how THC and the human endocannabinoid system was discovered.
In 1964, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam isolated and synthesized THC. Legend has it that he actually had his friends in the police department steal some marijuana for him to conduct the research. Since then, Dr. Mechoulam has continued to research many different aspects of marijuana and cannabinoids. While he is usually credited as discovering THC, it seems that it was first discovered by Roger Adams in 1940.
Roger Adams discovered the THC molcule in 1940
One of the biggest reasons why cannabis was made illegal is that it was difficult to prove that cannabis had any medicinal benefits or mechanisms of action, as we did not know that our bodies have cannabinoid receptors. It was not until 1988 that we discovered that THC and the cannabinoids binds to cannabinoid receptors in rat brains.
Without the discovery of THC, we would not even know that our bodies have a complex endocannabinoid system.
Ironically, as the National Institute on Drug Abus (NIDA) is attempting to conduct research to promote the negative effects of cannabis, they end up discovering an entirely new interconnected system throughout the human body, the endocannabinoid system. By 1990, it was realized that these cannabinoid receptors were scattered throughout our whole body and act as tiny sensors to regulate various functions.
By 1992, Dr. Mechoulam and others had discovered anandamide, which is a naturally occurring cannabinoid in our body. If Dr. Mechoulam had never finished his postdoctoral research on THC, he would not have gone on to discover that our own body produces their own cannabinoids as well.
Anandamide helps regulate many things; in particular, it helps us forget all of the unimportant information that we remember, allowing us to focus on efficiently remembering what is important. It is no surprise that THC also has the ability to affect memory.
Medical Uses of THC
While CBD is often hyped as the cannabinoid with all of the medical properties, Tetrahydrocannabinol is known to have many therapeutic benefits as well. With all of the research published so far, it is difficult to understand how cannabis is still a Schedule 1 substance, signifying that it has “no medical value”. While THC may not be right for everyone, it is undeniable that THC can help various medical conditions.
To start, THC is an excellent pain killer with anti-inflammatory properties. Pain killers such as aspirin and ibuprofen are common examples of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Nearly all of the cannabinoids have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties that are comparable to NSAIDs, which are mediated through multiple mechanisms. It is often found that the anti-inflammatory properties are strengthened by the entourage effect, which states that cannabinoids are more effective when combined.
While the pharmaceutical companies are profiting off of addictive opioids, it is estimated that 2.1 million people suffered from opioid addiction due to these prescriptions in 2012. In 2014, more than 14,000 people died as a result of prescribed opioid overdose, which is about 40 people a day. In contrast, there are zero recorded deaths from marijuana.
Research shows that when states allow for medical marijuana, opioid use significantly decreases. Many professional athletes will admit that opioid addiction is a problem, yet marijuana is a safes option that could put their career in jeopardy.
While prescribed opiates continue to kill thousands every year, many are hopeful that marijuana legalization would decrease opioid drug abuse.
The anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis and THC may also help with arthritis, as this disease causes swelling in the joints. In our article on arthritis, we discuss how surveys show that many patients find relief for rheumatoid arthritis. One survey found that 100% of people stated that they had little or significant relief from cannabis. Research also suggests that activation of the CB2 receptor helps with arthritis.
The inflammation response is one of the most common responses the body has to any threat. Unfortunately, it also causes a slew of uncomfortable symptoms.
Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease, so it is not too surprising that THC and other cannabinoids help with the symptoms of Crohn’s disease. In a previous post, we summarized the results of 16 studies looking at treating Crohn’s disease with cannabis. In some cases, THC can even help with the remission of Crohn’s disease, making it a possible treatment option for over 600,000 Americans.
Many advocate that cannabinoids have applications for depression, which is a controversial issue. Others may argue that long-term cannabis use could lead to depression. There is evidence that activation of the CB1 receptors can help with plasticity and short-term memory problems due to stress.
We will mention later how THC may have negative effects on short-term memory as well, so we see that THC is not inherently good or bad, but rather depends on the user. Since everyone’s endocannabinoid system works differently, some people could benefit from THC’s effect on memory, while others may suffer.
For example, PTSD is an example of a disorder where patients struggle at coping with traumatic memories of the past. THC will provide relief for many of these patients, as cannabis helps them not dwell on these negative past experiences. Research will continue to progress, as the DEA has approved the first study on cannabis treatment for veterans with PTSD.
On a related note, a study found that THC may help with preventing the recovery of extinguished fears, which could help with anxiety disorders.
Tetrahydrocannabinol also has neuroprotective properties, which help with a wide variety of neurological disorders. To start, a study found that one ultra-low dose of THC provides 7 weeks of neuroprotection against cell damage caused by MDMA or carbon monoxide exposure.
Multiple Sclerosis causes damage to nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. There is significant research suggesting that THC is beneficial for treating MS, in particular for spasticity and muscle contractions. The UK has created a pharmaceutical called Nabixmols, which contains THC and is used to treat multiple sclerosis.
Many argue that cannabis is effective for treating neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and Alzheimer’s disease. While Wikipedia primarily cites one study that claims there is insufficient data, we previously reviewed 10 scientific papers which have evidence of the benefits of THC and CBD for treating Alzheimer’s disease.
In fact, Wikipedia’s page on THC has the audacity to reference the same study 12 times stating that there is insufficient evidence to say that cannabis can treat Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, Tourette’s syndrome, dystonia, and epilepsy. While people trust Wikipedia as an authoritative source of unbiased knowledge, we find their assessment of THC to be misleading. By preferring this single reference, they neglect to acknowledge many other studies on the medical benefits of THC.
There is plenty of evidence suggesting that THC and CBD can be used to treat epilepsy. To learn more about what the research says, check out our summary of 21 studies relating to cannabis and epilepsy. While THC and CBD both can help with epilepsy, we have found that many choose high CBD products for children with Dravet’s syndrome, primarily to avoid the psychoactive properties of THC.
THC has numerous medical benefits, including anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects. This makes THC a candidate for treating MS, cancer, Alzheimer’s, PTSD, and many other disorders.
A study found that a synthetic cannabinoid stronger than THC promotes the growth of neural tissue in the hippocampus. The researcher stated that while most drugs of abuse suppress neurogenesis, marijuana seems to be the only that promotes neurogenesis. This may help describe some of the anxiolytic and antidepressant effects of THC.
More specifically, a study found that THC and CBD are neuroprotective antioxidants. The study found that these were not mediated by interaction with the CB receptors. Antioxidants protect from cell damage and may help with the risk of infection. This suggests that cannabis could be useful for treating cerebral ischemia.
There are many pharmaceutical products that either synthesize or extract the THC for medical purposes. Dronabinol, or Marinol, is available in the US, Germany, South Africa, and Australia. It is used to help treat anorexia in HIV/AIDS patients and is also used to help with the nausea and vomiting symptoms of chemotherapy. However, these studies only breached the surface of THC’s potential. Many researchers critique these THC-isolated studies, touting that the “entourage effect”, where all the cannabinoids interact together, is what makes cannabis so medicinally beneficial.
Synthetic THC, guised as the prescription “Marinol” has been used in clinical studies
Not only does Tetrahydrocannabinol help with the symptoms of chemotherapy, including nausea, vomiting, pain, and appetite, but it also can cause the death of cancer cells for a wide variety of cancers. At least 50 scientific studies have shown evidence that cannabis has the potential to slow down or even reverse the growth of cancer cells. While many believe CBD is primarily what helps with cancer, it is important to note that THC also helps. Perhaps the best treatment option would be a blend of THC and CBD.
While cannabis is often considered to be the gateway drug, research also suggests that THC may be useful for curbing morphine addiction. With cannabis being a safer alternative for many other drugs, including opiates, perhaps the next generation will see cannabis as a “safeway drug”, rather than a gateway drug.
Negatives of THC
As an advocate of cannabis, it may seem easy to have a bias to only discuss the positive aspects of THC and neglect to mention the negative side effects. However, simply ignoring the negative aspects is more likely to lead to addiction, as addiction is defined to be repetitive habits that have negative consequences. Rather than sweeping these negatives under the rug, we must stay properly educated, so that we can make better decisions as responsible adults.
We now know for sure that THC does have a variety of negative effects, many of which are reduced when combined with other cannabinoids and terpenes. The entourage effect is the statement that the cannabinoids and terpenes work together in a synergistic manner.
GW researchers realized this after running trials with synthesized THC or pure extracts. Many of the studies monitor negatives such as anxiety levels, and have noted that THC causes patients to have paranoia or anxiety. All of these symptoms seem to be worse when only THC is used, rather than the natural blend of cannabinoids and terpenes provided by the marijuana plant.
THC in high levels, or when isolated from the other cannabinoids, has been known to induce anxiety, paranoia, and negative thoughts
As a result, the perception of marijuana in the scientific community may be a bit skewed, as many of the studies only considered pure THC. As research continues, it will become more clear that the full marijuana plant has more therapeutic benefits than any single cannabinoid synthesized by a pharmaceutical company.
So what are the actual negatives associated with tetrahydrocannabinol? We have already mentioned that THC can cause paranoia and anxiety for many. It is quite paradoxical that THC can be so calming for others, yet make others reach the point of a panic attack. This can most likely be attributed to the fact that each individual’s endocannabinoid system is wired a bit differently.
While THC can cause paranoia and psychotic outbreaks, it still remains unclear if THC can actually cause schizophrenia. People who tend to smoke cannabis are more likely to be genetically predisposed to developing schizophrenia.
More serious than paranoia, Tetrahydrocannabinol can also sometimes cause hallucinations, delusions, or induce psychosis. Many fight against legalization of cannabis because they believe that smoking cannabis causes schizophrenia. One study points out that if this is true, then 3,000 marijuana smokers would have to be stopped in order to protect 1 person from developing schizophrenia. As we will show, there is much debate over whether marijuana causes schizophrenia or not.
Initially, it seemed as though THC can induce psychotic symptoms in healthy patients who had never had a cannabis abuse problem. Another study suggests that patients with a younger “cannabis use disorder” onset are more likely to have working memory impairments. They also noticed that patients with schizophrenia also had similar issues, which were exacerbated if the patient also had a cannabis use disorder. Another study also found that cannabis makes psychotic symptoms worse.
THC has been know to affect one’s working memory — the ability to hold things in your mind. This is why some chronic users forget what story they are telling in the middle of their attempt.
Research at Harvard suggests that cannabis users who become schizophrenic were most likely already genetically predisposed to have the condition. Their study suggests that smoking cannabis will not cause a patient to develop schizophrenia. Another study suggests that only patients who are predisposed to psychotic symptoms will suffer negative consequences.
One study looked at patients with a recent onset of psychosis and monitored their marijuana use. The study found no change in symptoms and did not notice an increase in readmission.
Another study finds the opposite results, and states that marijuana consumers had an increased likelihood of hospitalization. The study does mention that these patients also were more likely to have anti-psychotic treatment failure. However, recent work suggests that there is a genetic predisposition that leads people to be more likely to smoke weed and become schizophrenic, making it very difficult to determine how cannabis use would affect one’s chances of schizophrenia.
The debate rages on as to whether cannabis can induce a psychosis. Whether or not cannabis use causes issues, brings them out, or is simply correlated with psychotic behavior is the subject of current research. Fortunately, both THC and CBD have been shown to improve the symptoms and livelihood of schizophrenic patients.
Interestingly enough, CBD is known to be an anti-psychotic, which helps reduce the chances of paranoia and psychosis. Almost all strains on the market today contain very high THC/CBD ratios, while many people do not realize that they may prefer strains with a more balanced ratio.
There is also research suggesting that cannabis could actually help schizophrenic patients with emotional memory. This may relate to why patients who struggle with psychotic symptoms may be attracted to marijuana, thus leading to more perceived cases of addiction. The fact that tetrahydrocannabinol releases dopamine may also play a role in cases of addiction.
Tetrahydrocannabinol also affects short-term memory, causing many people to have a hazy feeling. It is often easy to lose one’s train of thought, or struggle at focusing on the task at hand. There is scientific evidence to support this, as THC impairs working memory through activation of the CB1 receptor. The terpenes alpha and beta pinene are known to help with memory, which may cancel some of THC’s negative effect on memory.
We previously have mentioned a study that found that THC can decrease the size of our hippocampus, which is responsible for memory, spatial navigation, and imagination. THC also is neurotoxic to hippocampal cells. Higher levels of CBD seem to counteract this effect. Also, patients that had stopped smoking marijuana had normal sized hippocampi, suggesting that the brain is able to recover from the damage.
Unfortunately, studies have shown that, with chronic use, THC can decrease the size of our hippocampus— our brain’s central memory processing core.
There is also evidence to suggest that heavy marijuana use can lead to decreased cognition. Many studies also suggest that people who start smoking earlier will have worse effects. Another study did find that alcohol consumption with weed may be the culprit, as patients who smoked but did not drink seemed to have normal cognition. Similar to the decrease in hippocampus, any decrease in cognition seems to always return after a month. If you seek to alleviate some of the memory issues associated with marijuana use, check out this article.
While Tetrahydrocannabinol may decrease the size of the hippocampus, CBD helps curb this and the brain can recover in a month’s time.
The ultimate stereotype of Tetrahydrocannabinol is that it makes people slow and lethargic, leaving the smoker feeling lazy and unmotivated. Perhaps there is some truth to this, as THC does have sedative effects. However, the stereotype has definitely been exaggerated and this argument is often used as propaganda to say that marijuana is bad for society. Plenty of successful and motivated people use cannabis, and some people simply prefer smoking marijuana to relax at the end of the night, rather than consuming alcohol or resorting to pain killers.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana causes an increase in heart rate and can also cause problems with child development during and after pregnancy.
NIDA also claims that marijuana leads to lower life satisfaction, poorer mental health, poorer physical health, and more relationship problems. Also, the page is dedicated to providing drug facts about marijuana, yet does not mention any of the positive medical uses.
Smoking weed high in THC can also cause undesirable effects such as red eyes, dry eyes, or dry mouth. Users who wear contact lenses may be particularly bothered. Getting the munchies could also be a bad thing for people looking to diet, but these negatives are not serious enough to justify keeping cannabis illegal.
Overall, we see that there is a lack of proper research on the negatives of THC as well. While many will experience negative effects from THC, it appears that THC does not cause any permanent or long-term damage. Since everyone is unique, each individual will respond differently to THC. Ultimately, it is up to the user to decide if the benefits outweigh the negatives.