Cannabinoids are chemical compounds found both in the cannabis plant, aka phytocannabinoids, and within the human body, aka endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are molecules that interact with our endocannabinoid system (ECS) that keep our bodies in a state of homeostasis. Homeostasis is the self-regulating process in our bodies that adjusts to external factors to maintain internal stability, like sweating to cool down body temperature, and disruption to homeostasis can cause a variety of physiological issues. Phytocannabinoids mimic the functions of our internal cannabinoids and can help maintain homeostasis, which is why cannabis can be used medicinally vs. other intoxicating substances that don’t have this capability. There are more than a hundred different cannabinoids, most of which we know very little; however, the ones we do know about are proving to be incredibly beneficial in many people’s lives.
You may have noticed that there are cannabinoid-specific products like CBG flower or ‘THC’ vapes that are sold outside of dispensaries. According to the Farm Bill of 2018, hemp products or synthetic cannabinoids are not considered illegal cannabis if they contain under 0.30% D9 THC by weight and are considered supplements instead, which go completely unregulated by the FDA or any other governing body. Specifically, synthetic cannabinoids can be incredibly dangerous as their effect on the human body has not been studied. Legal cannabis has to be extensively tested for mold, pesticides, and heavy metals in order to be sent along to dispensaries, but these products require none of that.
Colloquially when we refer to THC, we’re talking about D9 THC even though there’s D8 and D10 THC as well. Although we see very little of the other 2 in legal cannabis, specifically D8 has been making a name for itself as it has created a legal loophole because the Farm Bill specifies 0.30% D9 THC, which leaves a gray area for people to sell D8 THC products, that claim to have the same effects of legal cannabis (spoiler: they don’t.) Since there is no regulation on D8, these products, especially vapes, contain often heavy metals and other toxins, as well as ingredients not listed on the package. Research has shown that up to 80% of the D8 products have misleading and inaccurate labels, claiming wildly different test results.
Before we get into the specific acronyms, you may have noticed some products will have THCa listed vs. others with THC listed. All cannabinoids start as the precursor, CBGa. Enzymes in the cannabis plant then transform CBGa into THCa, CBDa, and so on. When you see the cannabinoid ending with an ‘a’, it means it has not been decarboxylated or ‘activated’, like a pre-roll for instance. These forms are not generally effective at much of anything until heated which transforms THCa into THC (or CBDa into CBD, etc.), the activated form, accomplished by lighting the flower and inhaling the smoke, or heating the cannabis carefully and turning into an extract that can be ingested. This is why edible packages have THC listed but flower predominantly has THCa listed, and why if you took a bite out of a nug you wouldn’t get high. There will be some activated THC on a flower label as the amount of light present in the growing process naturally activates a small amount of the THCa (generally only a percent or so). For our purposes, I’ll be referring to the cannabinoids in their activated forms, as that is where most of the benefits live.
First is the most abundant cannabinoid, delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, generally listed as D9 THC or simply THC. D9 THC is the cannabinoid responsible for most of the psychoactive effects from consuming cannabis as it interacts with specific receptors in your brain to produce the euphoric ‘high’ feeling, as well as interacting with your prefrontal cortex, which controls decision making, appetite, motor skills. One of its best-known medicinal uses is helping with nausea, particularly with cancer patients because of its ability to interact with the receptors in our brain that control nausea and vomiting. It also interacts with other receptors throughout the body which is how it can help with inflammation, glaucoma, chronic pain, and a myriad of other ailments.
The second most abundant cannabinoid is cannabidiol, or CBD. CBD on its own is non-intoxicating as it does not bind to the CB1 receptors in our brain the way THC does. CBD can be incredibly helpful for many conditions, but it’s been most researched as an effective treatment for epilepsy, particularly very treatment-resistant conditions in children like Dravet Syndrome and LGS which led to the creation of Epidiolex, the first FDA approved CBD medication. CBD interacts with receptors throughout the body, reducing inflammation, regulating the central nervous system, and even interacts with the opioid receptors in our brain. This has made it a sort of panacea of cannabinoids – I’ve personally seen it help anything from psoriasis to helping chronic pain patients wean off opiates.
CBN, the N is for nighttime. Not really, it’s cannabinol but that’s how I remembered the difference between the acronyms. Have you ever found weed that you thought you lost months ago and smoked it and got realllllly tired? That’s because over time THCa naturally degrades into CBN which is less psychoactive and very sedating. CBN is a great option for those with insomnia; don’t scoff if a product has only 2 or 5mg per serving though, this cannabinoid packs a punch, and most people don’t need more than 5mg. Like most other sleeping agents, taking too much can leave you a little groggy in the morning.
Cannabigerol, or CBG, has recently come on to the scene as a helpful agent for those with GI issues, specifically colitis, IBS, and gastritis. It’s thought to have anti-inflammatory properties that interact with receptors in the bowels, colon, and intestines. Good news for flower smokers, unlike many other cannabinoids, CBGa can be found in significant amounts in not just edibles or concentrates. Strains like Lemon Royale will often have around 2%, which seems low but can have an incredible impact. If you’re looking for an edible or tincture though, usually 5mg-10mg will do the trick.
Next up is THCv, sometimes referred to as ‘diet weed’ because it can often have stimulating effects, including appetite suppression. On its own it has minimal psychoactive effects, and in combination with THC can mitigate some of the sedating effects from THC while still allowing the user to reap the benefits of both cannabinoids. While most present in classic sativa strains like Durban Poisons, there are a growing variety of edibles specifically adding THCv to appeal to the daytime consumer. Again, you don’t need much, average dose of 3-5mg, as some users may experience anxiety from the stimulating effect if taken in excess.
Now you may be wondering why you don’t see flower with high percentages of these cannabinoids in comparison to THCa. This is partially just because they don’t naturally occur in as high of a concentration, and partially because there wasn’t a demand for it before very recently. However, we do have the technologies to concentrate these cannabinoids so that they can be utilized in edibles, cartridges, and concentrates.
Cannabinoids work best as a team; this is known as the entourage effect. In some cases, CBD can mitigate some of the negative effects of THC like paranoia, anxiety, etc. by blocking THC binding fully with CB1 receptors in the brain. Another example is a CBN: THC product, the THC can help with pain and body relaxation that can prevent sleep while CBN helps quiet the brain and induce sleepiness. Like any other medication, cannabinoids can affect everyone differently, so it is encouraged to test out new products at a low dose on a day where you don’t have to do anything important or operate heavy machinery.