a doctor explaining to a patient what is thc

What is THC?

If you’re going to ask the question “What is THC?” it’s best to ask the man who discovered it. In 1964 Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli organic chemist, isolated the active compound tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, from the Cannabis sativa plant. Now a professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mechoulam has been studying the effects of cannabinoid compounds for nearly 60 years. The two most common of these are THC and cannabidiol, or CBD.

Back in the 60s, Mechoulam gave the THC compound he had isolated to monkeys and he found it sedated them. He later tested the substance on a small group of his friends by giving them 10mg of pure THC on a slice of cake that his wife had made. Within that group, he noticed different effects: one participant said he just felt strange, one couldn’t stop talking, one spontaneously burst into laughter every 15 seconds, and one had an anxiety attack. The results reflect what is known about THC today: it is a psychoactive compound. In other words, it gets you high.

The Endocannabinoid System

In 1988 at St. Louis University, Professor Allyn Howlett discovered cannabinoid receptors in the brain. She concluded that the body must be producing its own cannabinoid-like compounds known as endocannabinoids. In 1992 a team of researchers at Hebrew University discovered an endocannabinoid compound that Mechoulam named Anandamide. However, they knew that THC and CBD also act on these receptors. While endocannabinoids help maintain homeostasis in the body, THC can interfere with the functioning of endocannabinoids throwing the system out of balance.


THC is found in higher concentrations in the marijuana plant and CBD is found in higher concentrations in the hemp plant. While THC is a psychoactive compound, CBD is not.

CBD can have side effects and they include:

  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Dry mouth
  • Low blood pressure

Side effects of THC can include:

  • Anxiety and possible paranoia
  • Dry mouth
  • Dry red eyes
  • Impaired memory
  • Sleepiness and lethargy
  • Hunger
  • Lightheadedness

THC and Addiction

Smoking or ingesting THC increases dopamine, the feel-good chemical in the brain. Dopamine not only gives euphoric sensations, but it also acts on the brain’s reward pathways leading to cravings in order to repeat the experience of euphoria. As the psychoactive compound in cannabis, THC can lead to addiction via this pathway. Addiction is far worse when cannabis users start in adolescence, but there is less risk for addiction if they start using after the age of 25. Users can develop tolerance to THC and increasing marijuana potency is compounding this problem. In 1990, the average THC content in marijuana was 3.8 percent, and in 2014, it was 12 percent.
Researchers have also suggested cannabis as an exit drug from opioid addiction. However, like many other drugs, it has many undesirable effects and side effects. A major problem in the use of THC as opposed to CBD as an exit drug, for example, is that one rewarding substance, opioids, is replaced with another.

Long term cannabis users can display the following signs:

  • Irritability
  • Poor stress tolerance
  • Depression
  • Lowered IQ
  • Impaired memory
  • Aggressiveness

Public Perception of THC

THC is oftentimes seen as a medicinal substance, which can be the case. However, as with any medication that has psychoactive effects and alters a person’s mental state, THC can be abused. Then the general public tends to view THC as a harmless substance — nevertheless, people develop addictions to it that is just as severe as any other form of addiction. Some people may also try alternatives to THC that can be just as harmful, if not more so.

If you or a loved one need help with cannabis addiction, Right Step Hill Country can help you find treatment. We offer specialized treatment programs for adults. Find out more by calling our free helpline at 1.844.675.1628.

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