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The Chemistry of Cannabis: THC and CBD – Coping with Cannabinoids


Last week in the Chemistry of Cannabis we explored terpenes, and the way they provide all those wonderful flavors and aromas associated with our favorite strains. This week, we’ll focus the spotlight on “cannabinoids.” THC and CBD are the most widely known. One provides the famous reefer “high” while the other is a newcomer on the scene and perfect for those who want the cannabis pain relief effects, without floating off into the clouds.

Two main cannabinoids

With spreading legalization of marijuana, at least for medicinal purposes, users who have been quietly lurking in the shadows for decades are suddenly overwhelmed by the choices and options of flowers, concentrates, oils and edibles now openly available.

Grandpa has been packing his bong with buds for longer than his kids were alive but suddenly has no clue about cannabinoids. All he wants to know is what this stuff is that everyone is telling him to try for his back pain.

Those of us who’ve been toking since Cheech & Chong could only be found on vinyl records are well aware of cannabinoids like THC and it’s effects. As Ozzie Osborne once wailed, “My life is free now, my life is clear… I love you sweet leaf, though you can’t hear… Oh, yeah baby!”

Sure, it makes you slow and stupid and you can’t remember what it is you were just talking about but millions of cannabis users are convinced they couldn’t make it through the day without it. For all sorts of reasons, mostly related to pain, anxiety, ability to focus, appetite and sleep.

One of the reasons Ozzy wrote a love song to Mary Jane is because every cannabis consumer knows that only the female plant will get you high.

Male plants were generally killed off before they could get Mary in trouble with a whole bunch of seeds. That lowers the potency. Other than that, the only thing a male plant is good for is rope. It’s called “hemp.” Both male and female plants produce cannabinoids with the exact same molecular structure, almost.


Exact same molecular structure

The two cannabinoids, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), “have the exact same molecular structure: 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms.” All that’s different is the order they are arranged. Like a key is cut to fit a particular lock, they are like two different keys hanging on the same ring.

Female plants make THC, Male plants make CBD. Because nobody was smoking rope, it took until now for folks to figure out that CBD had a use to block pain, without making you stoned. Another effect is that CBD can block some of the THC effects by clogging a few of the receptors, but not all. The key won’t turn the lock, but might jam it.

Both cannabinoids work on receptors in the endocannabinoid system, but have radically different effects. Both varieties mimic your body’s own molecules. “This allows them to interact with your cannabinoid receptors.”

Once the key is in the lock, neurotransmitters flood into your brain. It’s these messenger molecules which are “responsible for relaying messages between cells and have roles in pain, immune function, stress, and sleep, to name a few.”

Chronic pot smokers who do it for the THC effects should be aware that because CBD needs THC to bind to the CB1 receptor, it can cancel out too high of a buzz or unlock the Velcro under your bottom. Rather than smoking, most CBD users prefer gels, gummies, oils, supplements, or extracts. CBD is well tolerated, even in large doses.

Our bodies have two separate systems of cannabinoid receptors. THC binds with CB1 receptors which are mostly in the brain and “control pain, mood, and other feelings.” CBD activates the CB2 receptors which “play a more critical role in neuroprotection and neuroinflammation.”

What do you think?

Written by Mark Megahan

Mark Megahan is a resident of Morristown, Arizona and aficionado of the finer things in life.

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