Cannabis is a chemically complex plant on its own. But as any pot fancier knows, its strain possibilities are almost infinitely diverse. That’s because cannabis is composed of 500 distinct compounds, which include cannabinoids, terpenoids, flavonoids, and omega fatty acids.
The concentrations of all of these compounds have different impacts on the features and quality of the a given strain. But the one you’ll probably be the most concerned with are the cannabinoids – a diverse class of compounds that interacts with neurotransmitters in the brain. Cannabinoids are unique to cannabis – they’re not found in any other plants. Essentially, they’re the part of pot that gets you high.
How Many Different Cannabinoids Are There?
Scientists have identified at least 100 different cannabinoids; the differences between them are determined by their psychological effects. Some, like CBG, CBC and CBD, are not known to have any such effects. Others, like THC, CBN and CBDL, have a variety of psychoactive effects.
Here are the cannabinoids you’re most likely to hear about.
- THC. The big one. Not simply the most well-known of the cannabinoids, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol is primarily responsible for the high that cannabis gives. It can impact mood and emotion, cognition, perception and motor function in a variety of ways. It’s also the most abundant cannabinoid in marijuana. It’s a mild analgesic, and some research shows that it has antioxidant qualities. Most individual cannabinoids will not actually get you high – but THC is the exception, in a big way.
- THCa.This is the main constituent in raw cannabis. When it’s burned or vaporized, it converts to delta-9-THC – a process known as decarboxylation. It may have an anti-proliferative effect on tumors (but it’s not a cure for cancer, so don’t get carried away). There isn’t a lot of research on THCa, so we don’t fully understand its benefits, but scientists guess that it has the anti-inflammatory properties found in other cannabinoids, as well as anti-emetic properties for treating nausea and appetite loss (in other words, THCa gives you the munchies). Most impressively, THCa may have neuroprotective properties as well – meaning it could be helpful in treating neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
- CBDa. This is the main constituent in cannabis strains with elevated CBD levels. The relationship between CBDa and CBD is similar to the relationship between THCa and THC – CBDa converts to CBD via decarboxylation. In one study with rats, researchers found that CBDa boosted serotonin levels. Other scientists hope to use CBDa to develop medication to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. It may also act as a powerful anti-convulsive. It also may be a powerful depression fighter.
- CBD. Another well-known and abundant cannabinoid, CBD can contribute up to 40 percent of cannabis resin. It likely has anti-anxiety effects that diminish somewhat the psychoactive effects provided by THC – that’s why most medical-grade marijuana has high CBD content. In fact, be careful using a strain with almost no CBD, since those strains might produce anxiety and paranoia in those users who are susceptible to “weed panic.” CBD was the second cannabinoid to be identified, when American scientist Roger Adams discovered it in 1942, just two years after a British scientist identified CBN.
- CBN. Expose THC to air and it oxidizes, forming CBN. Like CBD, CBN interacts with THC by muting its effects somewhat. It’s still mildly psychoactive, though. You won’t find lots of CBN in a fresh plant. There’s very limited research on CBN, and very few that demonstrate its relationship with the human body. This may also be the cannabinoid that helps glaucoma sufferers, as it reduces the intraocular pressure – or pressure inside the eyeball – that characterizes that disease.
- CBG. This one has antibacterial effects, and many scientists hope to develop it into a weapon against the superbugs they fear will develop as their resistance to antibiotics gets stronger and stronger. It may also inhibit cell growth in tumors and boost bone growth. Plus, it’s non-psychoactive, meaning that if extracted, it could provide those health benefits with a clear head.
- CBC. This anti-inflammatory, anti-pain cannabinoid is often found in tropical strains. Many researchers suspect this is mostly a synergistic compound, working in concert with other cannabinoids to produce certain effects. But it may also be a potent cancer fighter, inhibiting tumor growth and inflammation.
- THCV. This is a relatively minor compound only found in a few strains of weed. Along with CBD, THCV – counter to what you may think you know about pot – can actually work as an appetite suppressant. It may also help reduce and control panic attacks. It may also regulate blood sugar, treat Alzheimer’s disease and promote bone growth in osteoporosis patients. If you’re looking for a strain high in THCV, check out Durban Poison and other African strains.
- CBDv. Early research shows that CBDv may be useful in treating epilepsy, but conclusions are far from final. The good news is that the GW Pharmaceuticals, the company that created the first FDA-approved CBD drug, is developing a similar medication based on CBDv. Also, a 2018 study revealed that CBDv may be useful in treating Rett Syndrome, an X chromosome mutation that affects women, afflicting them with speech difficulties, seizures and muscle spasms. A 2019 study found it may help certain forms of muscular dystrophy as well.
The Entourage Effect
Fortunately, this has nothing to do with the 2004 HBO television series about entertainment industry bros. No, the Entourage Effect is simply a term used to describe the fact that all the cannabinoids in your cannabis join forces to create a very specific set of effects – including the high, the flavor, the pain relieving qualities, and others.
There are other cannabinoids in your weed as well, many of which have not been extensively studied. Because marijuana was prohibited so long, botanists and pharmacologists haven’t been able to study it as thoroughly as many other plants. As medical pot becomes legal in more and more states, and as more breakthroughs are made, pharmaceutical companies will almost certainly devote small fortunes in research and development to cannabinoid studies.