What is Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)?

by | Nov 11, 2019

Written by Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a cannabis writer and B2B content marketer living in British Columbia, Canada. Her focus on cannabis tech, scientific breakthroughs, and extraction has led to bylines with Cannabis & Tech Today, Terpenes and Testing, Analytical Cannabis, and Grow Mag among others. She is the owner and lead-writer of Sea to Sky Content, which provides content and strategy to the industry’s biggest brands.

Hands down, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the most famous cannabinoid. Out of more than 113 known cannabinoids, THC is the primary psychoactive (or intoxicating) molecule. It is both the most controversial and the most medicinally valuable based on the current body of research. Cannabis is arguably only contentious and under strict drug scheduling in some regions because of this single cannabinoid. When inhaled or ingested, users experience a state of intoxication, which is considered an adverse reaction when used medicinally, or the desired experience when used recreationally.

First isolated in 1942, THC is an activated primary cannabinoid existing almost exclusively within dried, cured plant material. The precursor to THC is tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCa), a molecule with an acidic carboxyl group. After exposure to heat, a process known as decarboxylation, THCa drops the acid to become THC.

What We Know About THC

THC creates such a robust psychoactive response in mammals because of its direct activation of the CB1 receptors found concentrated in the central nervous system and brain. Through this strong relationship within the endocannabinoid system, it has established medicinal applications.

In Canada, Australia, Isreal, Germany, the United Kingdom, and many more countries around the world, there is a growing movement of federally regulated medical programs for the distribution and regulation of THC-rich cannabis. In the US, there are now more than 30 states with medical cannabis regulations. Globally, several pharmaceutical preparations containing THC or synthetic recreation have also been approved for use.

Several of the most established therapeutic applications of THC are as follows:

  • Antiemetic Qualities: Dronabinol, a synthetic THC molecule, approved for anorexia induced by HIV/AIDS and in some regions for nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy. In a 2015 meta-analysis and systematic review, “Compared with placebo, cannabinoids were associated with a greater average number of patients showing a complete nausea and vomiting response.”  
  • Reduction in Spasticity Related to Multiple Sclerosis: THC, whole-plant cannabis, and pharmaceutical preparations help alleviate the spasticity related to neurodegenerative diseases. There is substantial evidence that cannabis (containing THC), reduces pain, paraesthesia, tremors, and ataxia. Nabiximols, derived from cannabis and formulated as a balanced ratio of THC and CBD, is a pharmaceutical approved for the treatment of spasticity associated with Multiple Sclerosis.
  • Pain Relief (Cancer, Neuropathic, Chronic): A substantial number of controlled studies have demonstrated cannabis, and specifically, preparations containing THC, can reduce chronic, cancer-related, and neuropathic types of pain. It is often most effective in otherwise treatment-resistant models of pain.

Who is Producing It?

For decades THC was the only cannabinoid of concern within the cannabis industry. In the US, it remains under strict federal regulation, despite growing regional legalization at the state level.

Today, despite a growing demand for minor cannabinoids, THC remains a popular and choice cannabinoid, commercially available in many markets. It is one of the easiest cannabinoids to extract, into isolated or distillate products. It is available for wholesale (Tilray, Caliva, as two examples), although many producers perform the extraction in house.

Minor cannabinoids like THCv, CBD, and CBN are experiencing a surge in popularity, but as the only intoxicating cannabinoid, there will always be a recreational and medicinal demand for THC. The strict regulation over this cannabinoid is quickly changing, which means more research and more commercial viability.