THC (Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol): Effects, Benefits, Side Effects & More

Tetrahydrocannabinol (Delta-9 THC) Header

This post is part of a series on cannabis compounds. For more information and a listing of all other cannabinoids, see our Cannabis Compounds overview.

The most well-known cannabinoid by far must be Δ9-THC pronounced delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol. This molecule, better known simply as THC, is responsible for the psychoactive properties of marijuana use. The euphoric 'high' is produced nearly exclusively by this phytocannabinoid compared to the non-psychoactive properties of CBD and other minor cannabinoids. Molecularly identified in 1964, this compound has had a long and complicated history as a medicine and recreational drug.

Though not universally accepted or enjoyed by all, there is no doubt that tetrahydrocannabinol has had a massive impact on society. From recreational use influencing culture to a catalyst for extremely important medicinal discoveries, like it or not, THC is not a compound to be ignored. Perhaps most importantly focus on cannabis use ultimately led to the discovery of an internal cannabinoid-receptor system in the body named after the cannabis plant: the endocannabinoid system.

Delta-9 THC Molecule

Activity: Psychoactive
Formula: C21H30O2 
Molecular Mass: 314.2246 g/mol 
Melting Point: 80 °C (176 °F) 
Boiling Point: 157 °C (315 °F) 

Like the other major phytocannabinoids naturally occurring in cannabis, THC begins its life as CBGA. As the plant grows, this root cannabinoid is synthesized into CBDA, CBCA, and THCA. These acid-form molecules are not 'activated' until they are heated and undergo a process called decarboxylation.

In the case of THCA, this raw cannabinoid is non-psychoactive, unlike the 'active' THC produced through heating. This is why eating raw marijuana won't get you high but smoking it will.

What Are the Effects of THC?

When tetrahydrocannabinol is ingested, it activates receptors in the endocannabinoid system (ECS) that are found throughout the brain, nervous system, and other major bodily systems. Specifically, THC is a strong agonist for the CB1 receptor where it attaches and 'over activates' this system which typically regulates mood, appetite, cognition, and perception. This temporary overstimulation creates 'high'.

Psychological effects experienced from smoking, vaporizing, and eating tetrahydrocannabinol include:

  • Feelings of euphoria and relaxation
  • Intensified sensory experience
  • Feeling sedated or heavy through the body
  • Skewed perception of time

The experience of ingesting marijuana is varied and nuanced thanks to breeding practices having produced a wide range of strains with unique properties. There are three main categories of strains: indica, sativa, and hybrids:

  • Indica strains are intended to provide a sedative, deep body relaxation experience - often used at night.
  • Sativa strains are intended to provide a more energizing, uplifting experience - often used during the day.
  • Hybrid strains combine properties of both indicas and sativas and the effects vary from strain to strain.

What Are the Medical Benefits of Δ9-THC?

Despite the social divide over the substance and the contradicting scheduling of marijuana, there is no doubt that this compound offers medicinal benefits to the user. In addition to ingesting natural plant form, there are also several medicines being either synthetic analogs to THC like nabilone and dronabinol or specially extracted products like Sativex.

The therapeutic properties of this cannabinoid include:

  • Reduces spasticity - Studies show that the compound decreased the frequency and amplitude of tremors in limbs of mice.
  • Antiemetic - Many studies show that this compound is effective in preventing vomiting and relieving nausea.
  • Appetite stimulant - Consumption is well studied and anecdotally well known to increase appetite.
  • Pain reduction - A strong base of supporting evidence point to THC as an effective painkiller that can be used to treat chronic and neuropathic pain including pain as a result of other diseases like cancer and MS.
  • Reduce intraocular pressure - Marijuana has long been known as an effective means of reducing intraocular pressure (IOP) which allows it to be used in the treatment of glaucoma.
  • Anti-inflammatory - Cannabinoids have been shown to be effective anti-inflammatory compounds, with a wide range displaying anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Neuroprotective properties - Cannabis displays neuroprotective properties that make it a potential medicine for treating neurodegenerative diseases.
  • Sleep aid - THC is well known for its sedative effects. When used medicinally, these properties offer an effective way to help people fall asleep and improve the quality of sleep.

What Conditions Can Be Treated Using THC?

The medicinal benefits listed above offer a wide range of potential conditions that can be treated by this cannabinoid. Some notable medical conditions that THC shows potential in treating include:

  • Insomnia
  • Arthritis
  • Migraines
  • Cancer
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Glaucoma
  • Tourette’s syndrome
  • Wasting syndrome

What Are the Side Effects of THC Use?

Cannabis Plant Closeup

Though most cannabinoids offer minimal side effects, Δ9-THC is known to produce dose-dependent short-term side effects. Additionally, there are some studies that have explored the long-term effects of ingesting the compound. Due to the long-standing legal status, most results from long-term testing are inconclusive though they do point to the need for through, legally supported testing.

Short-Term Side Effects

There are many well known short-term side effects of marijuana use that are common and minor. Natural tolerance or tolerance developed through regular use play a role in the severity or experiencing these effects from person to person. The following minor side effects are common with regular use:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Dry mouth/eyes
  • Sedative feelings
  • Cognitive impairment impacting memory and attention
  • Motor impairment reducing coordination and reaction time
  • Increased heart rate
  • Dizziness

The following side effects are considered by some as an 'overdose' through a lethal level of THC intake has not been observed through an extremely long history of use. Instead, these are severe side effects that normally only occur in cases of low tolerance and/or very high dosing:

  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Paranoia, delusions or hallucinations
  • General agitation

Long-Term Side Effects

  • Heart Risks - The use of this compound has been shown to increase heart rate from 20-100% for up to 3 hours. Those with pre-existing heart conditions or high blood pressure could be at risk of altered heart rhythms or heart attack due to the extra strain.
  • Lung Problems - Marijuana is most commonly known as a smoked drug. Combustion and inhalation of any substance can cause issues ranging from a daily cough, phlegm, lower immune system function, bronchitis, or even cancer. While none of these issues are specific to THC use, they are risks for smokers of any type. Luckily there are many methods of ingesting cannabis compounds that can completely remove these risks.
  • Neural Changes in Adolescent Use - A well-known study discussed cannabis use and cited that tetrahydrocannabinol use at a young age may have neural impacts on the developing mind.
  • Psychosis - One study linked cannabis use to an average 3 years accelerated onset of schizophrenia.
  • Addiction - Though not physically addictive, marijuana use is known to create psychological cravings. Combined with a tolerance buildup, it is possible to exhibit addictive behavior with THC ingestion and long-term users may experience withdrawal symptoms including irritability, decreased appetite, sleeplessness, and anxiety.

Where Can You Find THC?

Unlike many minor phytocannabinoids, THC is not tough to find. The compound is cultivated in high concentrations in a wide variety of marijuana strains for those looking to recreationally or medically enjoy the benefits. Additionally, those looking to minimize the psychoactive effects yet still ingest the compound for its medicinal benefits, trace amounts of THC can be found in full-spectrum hemp-sourced CBD products.

The biggest roadblock to acquiring the compound is the current scheduling of marijuana, making THC an illegal substance federally. A growing number of states have medical and recreational laws that allow for possession and consumption of high-THC marijuana while nearly all states have laws supporting hemp-derived CBD products with only trace amounts of the psychoactive compound present.

Originally Published: September 19, 2018 | Last Updated: September 27, 2018

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