THC in Cannabis: What is it and What Does it Do?

Medical marijuana has been a hot button issue for political and social discussion for decades. As the legalization of recreational cannabis in Colorado and Washington state enters a public ring of debate, many are left with questions as to its use, consumption and effects. Only one of the more than 100 identified cannabinoids, Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (also known as THC), is the compound of choice for those seeking cannabis for its medicinal properties.

THC is the main compound (found in the hemp plant Cannabis sativa) in the treatment of a wide range of afflictions and conditions ranging from poor appetite after chemotherapy to the treatment of epileptic seizures and general anxiety disorders.

But what is THC, what does it do, and what are the benefits and risks associated with its use?

Where It Binds

THC is a complex chemical compound naturally created by the cannabis plant which is responsible for much of the psychological effects associated with marijuana. THC binds to several receptors in the brain. Cannabinoid receptors are located more densely in several parts of the human brain including those which serve as functions of memory, coordination, pleasure and the perception of time. Cannabinoid receptors also exist in other parts of the body, attached to nerves.

How it's Consumed

THC can be ingested in several ways: through smoking the dried bud of the marijuana plant, through the consumption of cannabis oil in edibles or paste, or through vaporization. While THC is particularly useful in relieving chronic pain, battling insomnia, alleviating nausea and stimulating the appetite, it has also been successful in fighting tumors thanks to another active cannabinoid, CBD.

When ingested, THC passes from the lungs or stomach in to the blood stream where it is carried to the brain and other organs in the body. These effects range in potency based on the amount consumed, an individual's tolerance, and the method of delivery.

Medical Uses

Sometimes used for pain suppression, THC does not bind to the same pain receptors as other, more harmful opioids such as morphine, heroin and other substances used for pain management. THC also stimulates the pleasure sections of the brain by causing the release of dopamine, which creates feelings of euphoria and overall wellness. This stimulation may also induce hallucinations, delusions, and effect the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for creating new memories. The effects of THC generally begin 10 - 30 minutes after being ingested and last upwards of two hours.

Side Effects & Addiction

While THC has the ability to change a person's behavior, usually by suppressing anxiety or stress through increased release of norepinephrine, side effects are generally mild and cease once the effects wear off. These may include impaired coordination, memory, and increased drowsiness.

National Comorbidity Survey, which included more than 8,000 participants, showed that when compared to known addictive substances such as tobacco, heroin, cocaine, and alcohol, marijuana had a much smaller rate of dependence after the initial use.

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