What Is THC?

June 26, 2024

Discover 'what is THC?' - its medical uses, effects, and legal status. Unmask the truth about THC here.

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Understanding THC

Exploring the world of cannabis and its components brings us to one of the most well-known compounds - THC. Its impact on human health, both beneficial and potentially harmful, has been a topic of extensive research and discussion.

Definition of THC

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is a compound found in the cannabis plant known for its impairing or mind-altering effects. THC is actually delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient in the cannabis plant. It is responsible for causing the sensation of being "high" when consuming marijuana or THC-infused products.

More specifically, THC is Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC or THC), the major active principle in all cannabis products. It is the primary psychoactive component, and there are four stereoisomers of THC, with only the (–)-trans isomer occurring naturally.

Due to its psychoactive properties, THC is classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Despite this, it is used in some medicinal applications for conditions like epilepsy and anxiety, highlighting its potential beneficial effects.


While THC is known for its intoxicating effects, another compound found in cannabis—CBD (cannabidiol)—does not cause a "high". This fundamental difference between THC and CBD is one of the main factors determining the legal, medical, and recreational use of these compounds.

Both THC and CBD interact with the body's endocannabinoid system but they have very different effects. THC binds with the cannabinoid 1 (CB1) receptors in the brain to produce a high or sense of euphoria. CBD, on the other hand, binds very weakly, if at all, to CB1 receptors. In fact, CBD can interfere with the binding of THC and dampen the psychoactive effects.

In terms of potential therapeutic benefits, both THC and CBD have many similar medical applications. However, the lack of psychoactive effects with CBD makes it a preferred option for many patients seeking relief from inflammation, pain, anxiety, psychosis, seizures, spasms, and other conditions without disconcerting feelings of lethargy or dysphoria.

It's important to understand the properties and effects of both THC and CBD to make informed decisions about their use, whether for recreational or medicinal purposes.

Medical Uses of THC

Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly known as THC, is known for its psychoactive properties. However, it also has several medicinal uses that have been recognized by various health organizations. This section will discuss the FDA-approved medications containing THC or its synthetic analogs, along with potential medicinal effects of THC.

FDA-Approved Medications

The FDA has approved several medications that contain THC or mimic its effects. These include Epidiolex, Dronabinol, and Nabilone.

Epidiolex is the first plant-based cannabis drug approved by the FDA. It contains a purified form of CBD and is used for treating seizures associated with specific forms of epilepsy.

Dronabinol and Nabilone are synthetic medicines that mimic THC. They are approved for treating nausea in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and for stimulating appetite in individuals with AIDS.

FDA-Approved Medication Primary Use
Epidiolex Treating seizures
Dronabinol Treating nausea and stimulating appetite
Nabilone Treating nausea and stimulating appetite

Source: NCBI Bookshelf

Potential Medicinal Effects

Apart from the FDA-approved medications, THC has potential medicinal effects that are currently being explored. For instance, THC has shown the ability to inhibit the proliferation of breast cancer cells in laboratory investigations [5].

Additionally, CBD, which is another cannabinoid alongside THC in the cannabis plant, is being researched for its potential benefits. Some studies suggest that CBD may help manage conditions such as epilepsy, anxiety, and pain relief.

It's important to note that while these potential medicinal effects of THC are promising, more comprehensive research and clinical trials are necessary to fully understand the medicinal potential and safety of THC. As such, it's recommended to consult with healthcare professionals before using THC or related products for medicinal purposes.

In summary, the understanding of THC's medical uses is still evolving, with both FDA-approved applications and potential uses being explored. It's a promising area of research that could lead to new treatment options for various conditions.

Risks and Effects of THC

While THC, the active component of marijuana, has shown potential therapeutic benefits, it's also associated with a range of risks and side effects. Particularly, its impact on brain development and potential for addiction and substance use disorder are key areas of concern.

Impact on Brain Development

THC can have a significant impact on brain development, especially when exposure occurs during the teenage years. Heavy marijuana use during this vital developmental period may impair cognitive functions such as thinking, memory, and learning. According to a study cited by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, individuals who started smoking marijuana heavily in their teens and had an ongoing marijuana use disorder experienced an average loss of 8 IQ points between ages 13 and 38.

Additionally, early exposure to THC can disrupt normal brain development and increase the risk of mental health disorders like schizophrenia. This is particularly concerning as changes to the brain structure and lower IQ scores resulting from heavy marijuana use during adolescence can have long-term effects.

Furthermore, high doses of THC can lead to psychosis, which may manifest as paranoia, hallucinations, and long-lasting odd thoughts. Prolonged and heavy use of THC, especially at a young age, increases the risk of developing schizophrenia or other mental conditions involving psychosis, particularly in young men aged 16 to 25 [6].

Addiction and Substance Use Disorder

Another significant risk associated with THC is the development of a substance use disorder. Research suggests that between 9 and 30 percent of THC users may develop some degree of a substance use disorder.

Moreover, THC can lead to addiction, with about 1 in 10 users developing cannabis use disorder. The risk of addiction increases when THC is used at a young age and more heavily. For daily users, the odds of addiction can be as high as 1 in 6 for teens and possibly 1 in 2 for those using it daily.

These findings underscore the need for increased awareness and understanding of the potential risks associated with THC use, particularly in young people. While THC does have potential therapeutic applications, its potential negative effects on brain development and the risk of addiction and substance use disorder cannot be overlooked.

Legal Status of Cannabis

The legal status of cannabis, the plant from which THC is derived, varies widely around the world. Some countries and states have legalized its recreational use, while others have allowed its use for medical purposes. Understanding these distinctions is crucial for those interested in the topic of THC.

Recreational Legalization

Recreational use of cannabis refers to the use of the plant for personal enjoyment, rather than for health-related reasons. As of now, countries that have legalized recreational use of cannabis include Canada, Georgia, Germany, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, and Uruguay. Certain states and territories in the United States and Australia have also legalized its recreational use.

Country/State Legal Status
Canada Legal
Georgia Legal
Germany Legal
Luxembourg Legal
Malta Legal
Mexico Legal
South Africa Legal
Thailand Legal
Uruguay Legal
Some States in the U.S Legal
Some Territories in Australia Legal

Medical Legalization

Medical use of cannabis, on the other hand, involves using the plant or its extracts to treat certain health conditions. A larger number of countries have legalized medical use of cannabis, including but not limited to Albania, Argentina, Australia, Barbados, Brazil, Canada, Chile, and Colombia. In the United States, 38 states, 4 territories, and the District of Columbia have legalized medical cannabis use.

Country/State Legal Status
Albania Legal
Argentina Legal
Australia Legal
Barbados Legal
Brazil Legal
Canada Legal
Chile Legal
Colombia Legal
38 States in the U.S Legal

In a notable development, on July 21, 2023, the Albanian Parliament voted 69-23 to legalize medical cannabis.

These legal distinctions are important to consider when discussing THC. It's also vital to remember that while the legal status of cannabis is rapidly evolving, it remains a controlled substance in many parts of the world. Always consult local laws and regulations before using cannabis or its derivatives.

Physical Effects of THC

Understanding the physical effects of THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, can help individuals make informed decisions about its use. The effects range from cardiovascular changes to neurological alterations, each with potential benefits and risks.

Cardiovascular Effects

Upon consumption, THC moves from the lungs into the bloodstream, causing several cardiovascular effects. It can increase heart rate by 20 to 50 beats per minute for up to 3 hours, potentially raising the risk of a heart attack [3]. Moreover, THC also causes blood vessels to expand, leading to bloodshot eyes, and can lower pressure in the eyes, which may offer short-term benefits for glaucoma patients. However, one must consult with a healthcare professional before considering THC for any medical use.

Neurological Effects

The neurological effects of THC are primarily due to its interaction with specific receptors in the brain. Specifically, THC binds to cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2, with a strong affinity for CB1 receptors primarily expressed in the central nervous system (CNS).

One of the immediate effects of THC is the release of dopamine in the brain, leading to a pleasant high, heightened sensory perception, and altered perception of time. This dopamine release is what makes cannabis use enjoyable for many people, but it may also lead to cannabis use disorder in about 30% of users.

Moreover, THC can impair judgment by affecting the hippocampus, making it difficult to form new memories when high. It can also impact the cerebellum and basal ganglia, affecting balance, coordination, and reflex response, making it unsafe to drive or operate machinery.

Finally, THC's effects on emesis, appetite, and pain are attributed to its binding of CB1 receptors in the CNS. This explains why medical cannabis is often used to alleviate symptoms such as nausea, appetite loss, and chronic pain.

In conclusion, while THC can have potential therapeutic benefits, its use should be carefully monitored due to the possible risks and side effects. Individuals considering using THC should consult with a healthcare professional to understand the potential implications fully. The understanding of THC's effects continues to evolve, and ongoing research will likely provide further insight into its potential uses and risks.

Metabolism and Detection of THC

Understanding the metabolism and detection of THC is crucial to comprehend how this compound affects the body and how long it can be detected in various biological systems.

Absorption and Half-Life

When cannabis is smoked, THC, the primary psychoactive compound, can be detected in plasma within seconds of inhalation. It has a half-life of approximately 2 hours, meaning it takes around this time for the concentration of THC in the blood to reduce by half. The peak plasma levels of Δ9-THC reach around 100 μg/L after smoking the equivalent of 10–15 mg over 5–7 minutes.

THC moves from the lungs into the bloodstream quickly. This rapid absorption can increase heart rate by 20 to 50 beats per minute for up to 3 hours, potentially raising the risk of a heart attack. Additionally, THC causes blood vessels to expand, leading to bloodshot eyes, and can lower pressure in the eyes, potentially offering short-term benefits for glaucoma.

Metabolites and Detection Times

Once in the body, various metabolites of THC are formed as the compound is broken down. These metabolites can be detected in urine for up to 2 weeks post-consumption. The exact detection times can vary based on several factors, including the frequency and amount of cannabis used, the individual's metabolism rate, and the sensitivity of the test used for detection.

In the body, THC binds to cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2, with a strong affinity for CB1 receptors primarily expressed in the central nervous system (CNS). THC's effects on emesis, appetite, and pain are attributed to its binding of CB1 receptors in the CNS [5].

It's important to note that cannabis products contain other substances like cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN), each with different pharmacological effects compared to THC. These compounds, along with others, are collectively known as cannabinoids.

The understanding of how THC is metabolized and detected in the body is crucial in both the medical and legal fields. It can help healthcare professionals in diagnosing and treating conditions associated with cannabis use and aid legal authorities in understanding the implications of THC consumption.


[1]: https://www.webmd.com/pain-management/cbd-thc-difference

[2]: https://www.emcdda.europa.eu/publications/drug-profiles/cannabis_en

[3]: https://www.healthline.com/health/effects-of-cannabis-on-body

[4]: https://www.cdc.gov/cannabis/about/index.html

[5]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK563174/

[6]: https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/marijuana-use-and-its-effects

[7]: https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/cannabis-marijuana

[8]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legalityofcannabis

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