Chemistry: Inside Cannabis

Chemistry: Inside Cannabis

Cannabis produces a unique class of chemical compounds called cannabinoids which are considered primarily responsible for the plant’s therapeutic and psychotropic properties. Cannabinoids are hydrocarbons that consist of bound hydrogen, carbon and oxygen atoms (Fig. 1 Common Cannabinoids). To date, as many as 80 cannabinoids, with ongoing research uncovering new versions of the compound.

The most common cannabinoids are:

  • Delta(9)-Tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly called THC
  • Cannabinol, or CBN
  • Cannabidiol, or CBD
  • Cannabigerol, or CBG
  • Cannabichromene, or CBC
  • Tetrahydrocannabivarin, or THV

THC is the best known cannabinoid due to its psychotropic effect on the human brain, the sensation of a euphoric “high.” The amount of THC in Cannabis can vary greatly, from 0.3 to 25%. The plant has been cultivated extensively to produce potent strains laden with THC. However, the therapeutic benefits of Cannabis are not limited to THC. Other cannabinoids that have medically-beneficial effects include CBD (cannabidiol) and CBN (cannabinol). Research suggests that a considerable share of the medicinal value of Cannabis may be found in the non-THC cannabinoids and other compounds, such as terpenes.

The word cannabinoid is often used as shorthand for a large class of similar compounds called phytocannabinoids. These compounds are produced as acidic versions which do not, without pretreatment, produce pharmacological or psychotropic effects. However, a growing body of research suggests that acidic compounds may have therapeutic value. Acidic cannabinoids are activated in a process known as decarboxylation.

When activated, acidic cannabinoids such as THCA, CBDA, CBNA are transformed into the biologically-active cannabinoids THC, CBD and CBN. Only in this form does the compound produce pharmacological or psychotropic effects in the body. However, while cannabinoids are very lipid-soluble, they are almost insoluble in water. As a result, the activated ingredients of Cannabis are typically inhaled as smoke or vapor, consumed in foods or absorbed through the skin in salves or tinctures.


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