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A Quick Guide to Cannabinoids: THC

  • by Charles McElroy

Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, otherwise known as THC, is one of more than 140+ phytocannabinoids that can be produced by the Cannabis sativa plant.

This popular cannabinoid has long been associated with psychoactive effects (i.e. producing a “stoned” or “high” feeling). Indeed, THC is the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.

THC is also the most abundant cannabinoid within the vast majority of cultivars, with an average THC content of between 12 to 18.7 percent.

However, the amount of THC varies widely between cultivars; 7 Points Oregon’s “Future” cultivar has had as high as a whopping 37.28% THC content, and a German politician claimed that one sample of confiscated cannabis had an astounding 44% THC content.

But is THC a one-trick pony, only good for helping people feel elevated?

Does THC actually produce any positive effects that could be useful for medical conditions?

What exactly do scientists and researchers know about THC?

We’ll cover the answers to all these questions and more in our quick guide to THC.

A Quick History of THC

Recreational use of cannabis for its psychoactive properties—many of which are the result of THC—traces back to the 5th century BCE (and perhaps quite a bit earlier). Ancient Greek historian Herodotus noted that the Scythians, an ethnic group that inhabited parts of Central Asia, would burn cannabis flowers and seeds, then inhale the smoke to get high. Apparently, using cannabis for THC’s psychoactive properties was widespread through Asia around this time. According to, burned cannabis seeds have been found buried with shamans in China and Siberia in grave sites believed to date to approximately 500 BCE.

Within the United States, recreational cannabis use is of more recent vintage, dating to the onset of the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century. Many Mexicans immigrated to the United States to escape that tumultuous situation; in the process, they introduced recreational cannabis smoking into American culture. Afterwards, because of xenophobic and political reasons, cannabis became increasingly regulated and prohibited in short measure.

Although Americans had known of the intoxicating qualities of cannabis for decades, and the tradition of using cannabis for psychoactive purposes dated back for millennia in other parts of the world, it wasn’t until 1964 when the cannabinoid responsible for producing the bulk of these effects was revealed. Raphael Mechoulam, a Bulgarian-born Israeli chemist, was the first to discover and isolate THC.

Unbiased scientific research on cannabis did not rapidly accelerate after Mechoulam’s findings. The global norm of prohibition continued to hinder legitimate inquiries into THC’s medicinal and scientific properties.

However, recent years have witnessed a change in attitudes towards THC and cannabis as a whole. 18 states and the District of Columbia have now legalized cannabis. Of the states which do not offer legal cannabis to adults, 13 states have decriminalized cannabis and 18 states have medical cannabis programs. Only 11 states—Idaho, Wyoming, Texas, Kansas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina—continue to treat cannabis as illegal for all purposes.

Despite these advances at the state level, cannabis remains federally illegal; the Controlled Substances Act, a piece of federal legislation, prohibits the use or sale of all forms of cannabis with THC levels above 0.3%.

Naturally, this creates a confusing push-pull dynamic between individual states’ autonomy and federal jurisdiction that has not yet been fully resolved. But calls for federal legalization of cannabis for a variety of reasons—racial justice, economic improvement, individual rights, medical qualities, criminal justice reform, and more—create an optimistic landscape for reform at the federal level in the foreseeable future.

THC: A Closer Look - Infographic Art Print

The Scientific and Medicinal Attributes of THC

Although it is not yet fully proven, indications suggest that Cannabis sativa plants produce phytocannabinoids like THC as adaptations to their environment, perhaps akin to an immune system response. THC itself has been noted to offer various benefits to its host plant, including attracting beneficial organisms for pollination and protecting from excessive UV-B radiation from light.

THC’s eventual formation is the result of multiphasic processes in a cannabis plant’s trichomes:

  • First, a cannabis plant produces olivetolic acid and pyrophosphate, which form CBGA.
  • Then, CBGA transforms into CBCA and CBDA, and later THCA.
  • Lastly, after decarboxylation (i.e. heating at a high temperature) or drying and curing cannabis, THC forms from THCA.

THC has been shown to have positive medicinal effects on a range of conditions, including:

THC has also been proven to act in concert with other cannabinoids, producing what is commonly referred to as the “entourage effect.” What this means is that when THC is used with other cannabinoids, the unique medicinal properties of each cannabinoid are heightened.

Some who use THC may experience side effects. These could potentially include:

  • Anxiety
  • Coordination problems
  • Dry mouth
  • Increased heart rate
  • Memory loss
  • Red eyes
  • Slower reaction times

If you’ve never consumed cannabis or have a recent change in your medical condition, we strongly recommend that you discuss any potential risks with your doctor.

A handy way to ensure that you are getting the most relief from your medical symptoms and minimizing any side effects is to use our Patient Journal. This log book will help you track your experiences with cannabis so that you can modify your regimen accordingly.


THC is not only the most abundant cannabinoid, but also one that has numerous medicinal benefits. And many find its psychoactive effects to be quite pleasant.

Curious about how Δ-8-tetrahydrocannabinol differs from Δ-9-tetrahydrocannabinol? Read our article on Δ-8-THC by clicking here.

Tagged with: Cannabis Education

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