The chemical composition of weed isn’t uncharted territory as it was more than half a century ago. Scientists now know far more about its compounds and its different effect on the human body, as well as its benefits so it could be harnessed to its full potential.
However, the marijuana plant also has a complex chemical composition, so there is still a lot left to discover. So far, we know a lot about its psychotropic effects and medicinal properties, which make it quite versatile to use. Weed’s abundant cannabinoids, the main active ingredients, are largely responsible for its characteristic effects.
The different types of cannabinoids are some of the biggest curiosities of weed and in this article, we’ll discuss all about them – from what they are and how many there are, to their effects, and their interaction with the body.
Cannabinoids 101: What Exactly Are Cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids are chemical compounds unique to the cannabis plant that give weed its well-known properties. They are found in varying concentrations in all parts of the plant, with the trichomes found on the buds, which is where the higher concentrations of cannabinoids are located. So far, scientists have identified over 100 different cannabinoids with varying effects. This diversity allows them to work synergically in the body, a process known as “the entourage effect.”
Therefore, all cannabinoids are important for feeling the full spectrum of the effects of weed, however, cannabinoids THC (tetrahydrocannabinol or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) are the main players in the game. They are largely responsible for medicinal and psychotropic effects of cannabis, and they are the most studied out of all.
Cannabinoids were discovered back in 1940 when British chemist Robert S. Cahn was able to isolate the structure of the cannabinoid CBN (cannabinol). Later, in 1942, an American chemist called Roger Adams discovered one of the most important cannabinoids, CBD. About two decades later, in 1964, the other important cannabinoid, THC, was discovered by an Israeli professor called Raphael Mechoulam.
Since then, the cannabinoids in marijuana, CBD and THC in particular, have been extensively studied for their properties and potential medical applications.
The Role of the Endocannabinoid System
When they enter the body, the cannabinoids communicate with the body’s own endocannabinoid system by binding with the cannabinoid receptors, mainly the CB1 receptors. The main function of this system is to maintain the homeostasis of the body, which is the biological harmony in response to changes in the environment.
Its existence was discovered back in the late 1980s when scientists realized that there is a network of receptors working together located throughout the body. It was also discovered that the endocannabinoid system evolved more than 500 million years ago and that all vertebrates (mammals, birds, fish, etc.) produce endocannabinoids. (McPartland et al, 2006)
So far, two subtypes of endocannabinoid receptors have been identified, called CB1 and CB2. The former are located primarily in the central nervous system and the brain, as well as in the lungs, liver, and kidneys, while the latter are expressed mainly in the immune and gastrointestinal systems. CB1 and CB2 are also thought to play a role in the male and female reproductive systems.
That said, the endocannabinoid system helps to balance a variety of functions in the body, including mood, sleep, immunity, reproduction, inflammation, pain, digestion, motor control, and memory.
When the cannabinoids from weed interact with the endocannabinoid receptors, they are able to produce a variety of effects and influence the body in many different ways.
THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the Psychotropic Cannabinoid
Out of all the cannabinoids, THC is the one that has the power to be psychoactive, meaning that it produces that familiar euphoric sensation, collectively known as the “high”. It binds to the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the nervous and immune systems and it indirectly influences the release of dopamine by mimicking the neurotransmitter anandamide, causing a variety of sensations, like relaxation, better mood, and calmness.
THC is the product of THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) which is present in raw cannabis and it’s not psychoactive. In order for THC to be released, or become “activated”, the plant needs to come into contact with heat, usually via smoking or vaping, or via baking it in the oven before making edibles or infusions. This process is called decarboxylation, when THCA converts into its active form, THC.
Strains high in THC are usually beloved by recreational users of different cannabis products, seeking to experience the feelings of euphoria, but THC also has some medical applications as well. Some people use it to treat insomnia, pain relief, muscle spasms, depression and anxiety, nausea, and even to improve appetite.
CBD (cannabidiol), the Medicinal Cannabinoid
CBD is the other major cannabinoid in weed, but unlike THC, it’s not psychoactive. The only similarity they have is that they both need to be “activated” by heat. Therefore, CBD is the product of its precursor, cannabinoid acid CBDA (cannabidiolic acid), also present in raw cannabis.
CBD is not only non-psychoactive, but it also helps to balance out the side effects of THC. It doesn’t bind in the same way to the endocannabinoid receptors as THC does, but it partially stimulates the release of serotonin.
These properties have made CBD very popular among users who want to avoid the psychoactivity of THC, as well as many medical marijuana users. In fact, many weed strains (Cannabis sativa strains) used for treating medical conditions are high in CBD. Therefore, this cannabinoid offers the benefits of weed, but without the high.
CBD has anti-inflammatory properties and it’s often used to treat chronic pain, as well as some mood disorders like anxiety and depression. CBD is effective for lowering chronic stress and it’s even considered an effective antipsychotic.
Other Cannabinoids Present in Weed
Cannabis has many other compounds like terpenes and flavonols, responsible for its flavor and aroma. Out of all the cannabinoids, though, THC and CBD (also often called phytocannabinoids) are the most researched ones, but they’re not the only ones. Some of the other cannabinoids that scientists have identified are proving to be of interest as well. Let’s review them and see what effects and potential health benefits they have.
CBG is present in the plant as it grows, but then it gradually starts converting to other cannabinoids, primarily THC and CBD, remaining at about 1% in the end. CBG is not psychoactive and it has shown promise for the treatment of glaucoma, bowel and bladder disorders, pain, inflammation, and anxiety.
CBN is actually a byproduct of THC when it undergoes oxidation and starts to degrade. This will most commonly happen when weed has been left exposed to air and changing temperatures for a prolonged period of time and loses its psychoactive potency. However, CBN is not without its charms. It’s a good sedative and it’s even promising as an analgesic.
CBS is also a non-psychoactive cannabinoid and its role is quite interesting. It actually works in synergy with THC where THC increases its anti-inflammatory effects. This cannabinoid is unique because it’s believed that it interacts with receptors outside of the endocannabinoid system. It’s used for topicals because it’s believed that it possesses anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal properties.
THCV is a THC variant and it’s considered a rare cannabinoid because it’s seldom found in concentrations of more than 5%. THCV is a curiosity because there isn’t a consensus over its effects. On the one hand, it has been suggested that it can mitigate the psychoactive effects of THC, and on the other hand, that it’s stronger than THC and causes short-lived but intense highs.
Similarly, this is a molecular variant of CBD that works to heighten its anticonvulsant effects. It’s non-psychoactive which is why it’s being extensively researched as a possible treatment for epilepsy.
Cannabis is a multifaceted plant with a complicated chemical structure. Its cannabinoid content is very diverse and has been under a lot of research in recent decades. With over 100 endogenous cannabinoids identified so far, only some of them have been studied for their effects, the major ones being THC and CBD. Cannabinoids interact with the body’s own endocannabinoid system by attaching to its receptors and influencing its function, making weed suitable to use as either medical cannabis or recreational marijuana.
McPartland JM, Matias I, Di Marzo V, Glass M. Evolutionary origins of the endocannabinoid system. Gene. 2006 Mar 29;370:64-74. doi: 10.1016/j.gene.2005.11.004. Epub 2006 Jan 23. PMID: 16434153.