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Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC): The Cannabinoid That Gets You High

delta-9-thc cannabinoids title with marijuana plant

Cannabinoids exist as natural compounds produced by the body (endocannabinoids) and as external compounds naturally produced by the cannabis plant (phytocannabinoids). Pain, spasms, asthma, sleep disorders, depression, and loss of appetite have all been treated with cannabinoids as far back as 19th century Europe [1].

It was not until the discovery of (-)-trans-delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in 1964 that people knew what cannabinoids were and that they were responsible (in part) for the effects of the cannabis plant [1].

Later, it was discovered that our bodies have an endocannabinoid system that responds to the intake of cannabinoids. In addition to THC, there are many other cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and other plant compounds found in cannabis that influence the overall experience of using particular varieties (strains) of the plant.

Hempress CBD Hemp Buds are flavorful and high-quality despite their lower potency.

Table of Contents

THC Benefits and Effects

Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the primary psychoactive cannabinoid of the cannabis plant. Delta-8-THC and cannabinol (CBN) both have lesser psychoactive effects. Doses of THC as small as 2mg to 5mg are enough to get a person high, especially if they do not use THC regularly.

Doses of THC over 10mg, or more than 20–30mg per day can produce undesirable side effects. Small doses of cannabinoids tend to have a stimulating effect, and large doses tend to have a sedative effect.

For those who do consume it regularly, tolerance develops over time and larger doses are needed in order to feel a psychoactive effect. Consuming cannabidiol (CBD) with or before using THC can block some of this psychoactivity at the cannabinoid receptor site, and can counteract some of the effects like short term memory issues and weed paranoia.

The other cannabinoids and terpenes that are present in a product will influence the effects of THC. There is a growing understanding that THC (and CBD) potency does not always equate to stronger effects. Indeed, the total composition of the cannabis product and your own body chemistry is truly what determines the strength and effects that will be experienced when using a cannabis product.

THC Benefits Overview

THC comes in many forms, from pharmaceutical preparations like dronabinol to cannabis flowers, concentrates, oils, pills, and topicals. Not all benefits of THC that are observed in research are going to be the same in real life because the type of product, product formulation, and flower variety are all highly variable. Still, THC is though to have many benefits beyond getting you high.

Indica vs Sativa THC

THC is the dominant cannabinoid in all marijuana. When it comes to indica vs sativa, both are high in THC with the exception of hemp. All indica plants are considered marijuana, but hemp is a sub-family of sativa that is low in THC and high in CBD.

As mentioned, the effect you feel from a strain is a combination of all the cannabinoids and terpenes that are present. It does not matter if it is indica or sativa, you need to look at the cannabinoid and terpene profiles and consider your own body chemistry to infer what effect you may feel from a strain.

Truly, most varieties of cannabis today are hybrids, and the current common use of the terms indica and sativa are not accurate and often mislead people who do not understand that the terms refer only to the appearance of the plant. The genealogy of the plant is the feature that tells you more about the effects and composition of terpenes and cannabinoids.

Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) Research Findings

Cannabinoid Synthesis

Cannabinoids are synthesized mainly in the glandular trichomes of the cannabis flower [3]. These trichomes are the «crystals» that appear on the outside of the cannabis bud. Russo, 2011 and ElSohley, et al. 2017 explains the process of cannabinoid synthesis for CBG, THC, CBD, and CBC:

  1. Olivetolic acid and geranyl pyrophosphate (geranyl diphosphate) are formed.
  2. Olivetolic acid and geranyl diphosphate are coupled by enzymes to create cannabigerolic acid (CBGA).
  3. Any CBGA not used in the next conversions will be retained in the flower. CBG dominant flower does not go through the next steps like normal flower which is why is is low in CBD and THC.
  4. Enzymes specifically for CBD, THC, or CBC convert CBGA into delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), and cannabichromenic acid (CBCA).

You’ll notice that cannabinoids are produced as acidic versions and do not turn into THC, CBD, or CBC until they are decarboxylated (heated) or exposed to air or light. All varieties of cannabis will produce some amount of both CBD and THC because the gene for the enzymes that make them always produces some of both enzymes.

That is why you can never have hemp flower with zero THC. However, hemp will have less of the THC-producing enzyme and more of the CBD-producing enzyme. The result is a plant that is naturally low in THC and high in CBD.

How THC Works in the Body

THC works mainly in the central nervous system and brain through CB1 receptors where psychoactive effects are produced. THC also works with CB2 receptors and other biologic pathways to exert other effects.

Concluding Remarks on THC

THC is mainly popular for its recreational value, but truly there is more to THC than getting high. It can be an important natural care option for many with conditions that do not respond well to conventional pharmaceutical treatments for conditions like cancer, AIDs, some types of mood disorders, spasticity disorders, and chronic pain. While CBD has gained a medicinal reputation, it should not be forgotten that THC is also a powerful natural compound. Both can have short term and long term side effects though, so it is important to talk openly with healthcare providers so they can help you avoid those negative effects and monitor for complications like Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome.


  1. ElSohly, M. A., Radwan, M. M., Gul, W., Chandra, S., & Galal, A. (2017). Phytochemistry of Cannabis sativa L. In Phytocannabinoids (pp. 1-36). Springer, Cham.
  2. Grotenhermen, F., & Müller-Vahl, K. (2012). The therapeutic potential of cannabis and cannabinoids. Deutsches Ärzteblatt International, 109(29-30), 495.
  3. Russo, E. B. (2011). Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid‐terpenoid entourage effects. British journal of pharmacology, 163(7), 1344-1364.
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