Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of at least 113 cannabinoids identified in cannabis. THC is the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis. With chemical name (−)-trans-Δ⁹-tetrahydrocannabinol, the term THC also refers to cannabinoid isomers. Like most pharmacologically active secondary metabolites of plants, THC is a lipid found in cannabis, assumed to be involved in the plant’s self-defense, putatively against insect predation, ultraviolet light, and environmental stress.
THC, along with its double bond isomers and their stereoisomers, is one of only three cannabinoids scheduled by the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances (the other two are dimethylheptylpyran and parahexyl). It was listed under Schedule I in 1971, but reclassified to Schedule II in 1991 following a recommendation from the WHO. Based on subsequent studies, the WHO has recommended the reclassification to the less-stringent Schedule III. Cannabis as a plant is scheduled by the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (Schedule I and IV). It is specifically still listed under Schedule I by US federal law under the Controlled Substances Act for having “no accepted medical use” and “lack of accepted safety”. However, dronabinol is a synthetic form of THC approved by the FDA as an appetite stimulant for people with AIDS and antiemetic for people receiving chemotherapy. The pharmaceutical formulation dronabinol is an oily resin provided in capsules available by prescription in the United States, Canada, Germany, and New Zealand.
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What are the Benefits of THC?
According to the National Cancer Institute, marijuana has been used for medicinal purposes for more than 3,000 years. As of early 2017, more than half of the United States has legalized the use of medicinal marijuana. Several states have also legalized the drug for recreational use, as well.
THC can be extracted from marijuana, or synthesized, as is the case for the FDA-approved drug dronabinol. Dronabinol is used to treat or prevent the nausea and vomiting associated with cancer medicines and to increase the appetites of people with AIDS, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. It is a light yellow resinous oil.
Other studies are showing more evidence that, when used properly, THC has many additional medical benefits. For example, THC may be able to improve memory when taken in small doses, according to a 2016 study on mice.
People tout marijuana as a better drug than prescription pills because it is “all-natural.” That may not be true. “Just because something is considered ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it’s healthy,” Raskin said. “For example, poison oak can be harmful. Just because it grows in the ground doesn’t mean it’s good for you or healthy.”
What are the Side Effects of THC?
THC stimulates cells in the brain to release dopamine, creating euphoria, according to NIDA. It also interferes with how information is processed in the hippocampus, which is part of the brain responsible for forming new memories.
THC can induce hallucinations, change thinking and cause delusions. On average, the effects last about two hours, and kick in 10 to 30 minutes after ingestion. Psychomotor impairment may continue after the perceived high has stopped, however.
“In some cases, reported side effects of THC include elation, anxiety, tachycardia, short-term memory recall issues, sedation, relaxation, pain-relief and many more,” said A.J. Fabrizio, a marijuana chemistry expert at Terra Tech Corp, a California agricultural company focused on local farming and medical cannabis. However, he said, a study in the British Journal of Pharmacology found that other types of cannabinoids, as well as terpenes (compounds that produce flavor and fragrance in plants), can modulate and reduce negative effects.
The effects of marijuana make it a popular drug. In fact, it is considered one of the most commonly used illicit drugs in the world. But these effects also concern mental health advocates. THC can trigger a relapse in schizophrenic symptoms, according to NIDA.
Another possible risk of consuming THC comes in the form of impaired motor skills. Marijuana may impair driving or similar tasks for approximately three hours after consumption and it is the second-most common psychoactive substance found in drivers, after alcohol, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. People taking medical marijuana are instructed not to drive until it has been established that they can tolerate it and conduct motor tasks successfully.
The status of THC as an illegal drug in most countries imposes restrictions on research material supply and funding, such as in the United States where the National Institute on Drug Abuse and Drug Enforcement Administration continue to control the sole federally-legal source of cannabis for researchers. Despite an August 2016 announcement that licenses would be provided to growers for supplies of medical marijuana, no such licenses were ever issued, despite dozens of applications. Although cannabis is legalized for medical uses in more than half of the states of the United States, no products have been approved for federal commerce by the Food and Drug Administration, a status that limits cultivation, manufacture, distribution, clinical research, and therapeutic applications.
In April 2014, the American Academy of Neurology found evidence supporting the effectiveness of the cannabis extracts in treating certain symptoms of multiple sclerosis and pain, but there was insufficient evidence to determine effectiveness for treating several other neurological diseases. A 2015 review confirmed that medical marijuana was effective for treating spasticity and chronic pain, but caused numerous short-lasting adverse events, such as dizziness.
Multiple sclerosis symptoms
- Spasticity. Based on the results of 3 high quality trials and 5 of lower quality, oral cannabis extract was rated as effective, and THC as probably effective, for improving people’s subjective experience of spasticity. Oral cannabis extract and THC both were rated as possibly effective for improving objective measures of spasticity.
- Centrally mediated pain and painful spasms. Based on the results of 4 high quality trials and 4 low quality trials, oral cannabis extract was rated as effective, and THC as probably effective in treating central pain and painful spasms.
- Bladder dysfunction. Based on a single high quality study, oral cannabis extract and THC were rated as probably ineffective for controlling bladder complaints in multiple sclerosis
- Huntington disease. No reliable conclusions could be drawn regarding the effectiveness of THC or oral cannabis extract in treating the symptoms of Huntington disease as the available trials were too small to reliably detect any difference
- Parkinson’s disease. Based on a single study, oral CBD extract was rated probably ineffective in treating levodopa-induced dyskinesia in Parkinson’s disease.
- Alzheimer’s disease. A 2009 Cochrane Review found insufficient evidence to conclude whether cannabis products have any utility in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
Other neurological disorders
- Tourette syndrome. The available data was determined to be insufficient to allow reliable conclusions to be drawn regarding the effectiveness of oral cannabis extract or THC in controlling tics.
- Cervical dystonia. Insufficient data was available to assess the effectiveness of oral cannabis extract of THC in treating cervical dystonia.