Around the country, doctors are prescribing marijuana as a treatment for all sorts of diseases and disorders. Epilepsy and schizophrenia, depression and anxiety, arthritis, glaucoma, migraines — almost any illness under the sun seems to be fixed by a packed bowl or a fat blunt. This is largely thanks to groundbreaking research on cannabinoids, the compounds within marijuana that generate effects in the human body. 

Today, we know so much more about the major cannabinoids, THC and CBD, than we did even a decade ago, which is why so many states are accepting marijuana as a viable medical treatment. Still, there are some glaring holes in our understanding of cannabinoids. If you are interested in using marijuana as a treatment — or if you merely want to know more about our current knowledge of cannabinoids — read on.

The Endocannabinoid System

First, before we dive into the cannabinoids present in marijuana and cannabis products, it is beneficial to explain how the human body processes those chemicals. The endocannabinoid system is an element of the nervous system, seemingly associated with the regulation of physiological and cognitive processes, especially pain sensation, mood, memory, appetite, fertility, and pregnancy. However, it is important to note that the endocannabinoid system is a relatively recent discovery and remains under preliminary research, so it could be that endocannabinoids, and by extension cannabinoids, play a more significant role in the human body than currently thought.

Right now, we know of two primary endocannabinoid receptors, called CB1 and CB2, both of which are located most frequently in the brain and nervous system, with some receptors in peripheral organs and tissues. The human body produces molecules that binds with these receptors to produce certain effects, like pain reduction, mood control or appetite stimulation. To the body and the CB1 and CB2 receptors, cannabinoids in marijuana look identical to some of these natural molecules, so cannabinoids are capable of binding with the receptors and producing similar effects. 

But what are the cannabinoids, and what do they do? There are two main cannabinoids to be aware of as well as a few others we aren’t quite sure about yet.

Tetrahydrocannabinol: THC

The cannabinoid on mostly everyone’s minds is THC, which technically designates a category of cannabinoids but most often refers to a specific cannabinoid by the name of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. THC is the most abundant cannabinoid within marijuana, and it is also responsible for producing the psychoactive effects — marijuana’s “high.” So-called sativa-dominant strains tend to have higher concentrations of THC, which overwhelm the endocannabinoid system.

When THC enters the human body, it rushes to CB1 receptors, attaching themselves to the receptors and affecting how neurotransmitters perform. In some cases, this can be beneficial; people who use marijuana for medical treatment rely on small doses of THC to help their body better manage things like mood, appetite and pain. Typically, patients who need regular, strict doses of THC tend to take it in the form of THC oil, which is administered sublingually or buccally for fast absorption. 

Unfortunately, smoking or ingesting THC makes for unpredictable dosing, which can cause the endocannabinoid system to become overwhelmed by THC, throwing the entire body off-balance. An overabundance of THC typically results in a lack of coordination, slow reaction times, loss of memory and even anxiety and paranoia. Generally, it is wise to work up to a high level of THC, so the endocannabinoid system doesn’t drown in THC.

Cannabidiol: CBD

The second-most common cannabinoid is cannabidiol or CBD. Unlike THC, CBD does not get you high; in fact, researchers aren’t entirely sure what CBD does inside the human body. Previously, scientists believed that mirroring THC, CBD bonded to CB2 receptors, interfering with their neurotransmitters — but that isn’t the case. Currently, research indicates that CBD stimulates endocannabinoid receptors to produce more of their own, natural endocannabinoid molecules, thus improving the body’s ability to heal and regulate itself. However, more research is necessary to prove this.

Because CBD doesn’t get you high, it isn’t illegal to use anywhere in the U.S. You can order CBD products online or buy them in brick-and-mortar stores — but beware: the CBD market is utterly unregulated. That means you could easily pay good money for a product that lacks CBD entirely, or worse, that contains toxic components like arsenic or lead. There are certainly worthwhile CBD products you can trust, and as long as you research sellers and manufacturers before you buy, you should benefit from CBD.

Other Cannabinoids

Science has identified as many as six other cannabinoids within marijuana:

  • Cannabigerol
  • Cannabichromene
  • Cannabigerivarin
  • Tetrahydrocannabivarin
  • Cannabidivarin
  • Cannabichromevarin

None of these other cannabinoids are present in high quantities in commercially available marijuana or marijuana products, like oils or edibles. Currently, it seems doubtful that any of these cannabinoids produce a high or any meaningful effects — but more research is necessary to ascertain that belief.

Unfortunately, many discoveries concerning cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system were made decades ago. As marijuana becomes legal across the country, there is a greater need than ever for science to understand what the drug is doing inside the body — and how it can help those suffering from unmanageable diseases and disorders. The more we know about cannabis, the better.

Cite this article as:
Editorial Staff, "What We Know About Cannabinoids," in Medicalopedia, January 11, 2020, [Permalink: https://www.medicalopedia.org/8189/what-we-know-about-cannabinoids/].