What to know about THC

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THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the main mind-altering substance in marijuana. Simply put, it causes the "high" - but it is one of many chemical compounds found in marijuana, making it actually a lot more complex than one might think. So, what is it and how does it work? Here are 15 things to know about THC.

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What is THC?

THC is the main psychoactive chemical that is responsible for most of the intoxicating effects people experience when using marijuana. The chemical is found in resin produced by the leaves and buds primarily from the female cannabis plant. 

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What does THC do to your brain?

THC's molecular structure is similar to a chemical already produced in the brain called anandamide. The sensations of euphoria, relaxation and enhanced visual perception produced by marijuana are almost entirely because of THC's effect on the cannabinoid receptors in the brain which anandamide binds to naturally. Anandamide, also known as the "bliss molecule," is involved in regulating mood, memory, appetite, pain, cognition and emotions. When cannabis is introduced into the body, THC attaches to the same receptors as anandamide and interferes with all of these functions.

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What's the difference between THC and CBD?

CBD (short for cannabidiol) and THC are the most common cannabinoids found in legal marijuana products. THC and CBD have the same exact chemical formula but affect the body in different ways because their atoms are not arranged identically. Due to its molecular structure, THC is able to bind directly with the receptors that control pain, mood and mental and physiological processes. When this bond is formed, the reaction creates signals that are sent to the brain, which results in the psychoactive effects of "getting high." CBD, on the other hand, does not cause that high. Research shows that CBD works instead with other receptors in the body linked to feelings of well-being.

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Is THC legal at the federal level?

According to official federal regulations, cannabis is considered a controlled substance, the same way other drugs - like cocaine and heroin - are classified. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug. These substances or chemicals are considered to have a high potential for dependency and no accepted medical use. The 2018 Farm Bill legalized the production and sale of hemp and its extracts. Therefore, hemp that contains less than 0.3% THC is considered legal under federal law.

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Is THC legal at the state level?

Currently, marijuana - more broadly blanketed under cannabis - is legal medically in 33 states, while recreational marijuana is legal in 11 states and Washington D.C. THC is more highly regulated, with 13 states allowing the use of "low THC, high cannabidiol" products for medical reasons in limited situations.

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How can THC be consumed?

THC can be found in many forms - gummies, candies, chocolates, capsules, teas, oils and more. People can also use a vaporizer to consume THC. It's the addition of heat from burning, vaping or cooking raw cannabis that activates the compounds that cause the high. It is important to know that the way THC is consumed can impact the effect. When a person smokes cannabis, THC is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and reaches the brain within minutes. But when THC is ingested, the body absorbs it more slowly because the drug has to pass through the digestive system first, delaying the onset for up to two hours and prolonging the duration of the "high." Eating or drinking marijuana also delivers significantly less THC into the bloodstream than smoking an equivalent amount of the plant. Because of the delayed effects, people might inadvertently consume more THC than they intend to if ingesting.

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What are THC's uses?

Many people use marijuana for pleasure and recreation. But a growing number of doctors are recommending it for specific medical conditions and symptoms ranging from pain management to muscle control problems. Cannabis with THC can be recommended to treat or prevent nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy. Patients with HIV and AIDS also may use medical marijuana to increase their appetite. The FDA has even approved a drug that utilizes THC.

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Are there health benefits to THC?

Some studies have demonstrated that THC shows promise for the treatment of nausea and vomiting, but its adverse effects may limit its use. Some clinical trials have also shown that THC has mild-to-moderate pain-relieving effects, and research is being conducted to see if it could be an alternative treatment for headaches.

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Any FDA-approved medication with THC?

Marinol, an FDA-approved medication with a synthetic form of THC called dronabinol, is used to treat side effects of chemotherapy as well combat weight loss for those with AIDS. The medication has been used for treating nausea and vomiting in cancer patients since the 1980s.

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Does all marijuana have the same amount of THC?

As detailed by researchers from the University of British Columbia in a recently published paper, many strains of cannabis have almost identical levels of THC and CBD. However, the concentration of THC can depend on the cultivation of the marijuana plant. Hemp, a type of cannabis, has no more than 0.3% THC. The average marijuana strain contains about 12% THC.

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What are the effects of different concentrations of THC?

In recreational doses of marijuana, THC content is highly variable and can react with the brain differently depending on the user's experience level and tolerance. The amount of THC in marijuana has been increasing steadily over the past few decades. For someone who is new to marijuana, this may mean exposure to higher THC levels with a greater chance of a harmful reaction. Some potential side effects of using high-THC cannabis strains are dry mouth, dry and red eyes, munchies and lethargy, while serious reactions include paranoia and anxiety. 

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What are the side effects of THC?

THC can cause temporary side effects, such as increased heart rate, dry mouth, red eyes, slower reaction times, impaired motor functions and possible short-term memory loss. Consuming THC may cause impaired thinking and interfere with a person's ability to learn and perform complicated tasks. The extent to which long-term use of marijuana (either for medical or recreational purposes) causes persistent cognitive problems is not yet known. Other effects of THC might include relaxation, altered senses, fatigue and mood changes.

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How long is THC detectable?

Depending on the length and amount of use, some traces of THC might still be present in a person's urine for weeks after they last used marijuana. For people in states where recreational and medical marijuana use is legal, this creates potential issues in workplaces that require drug testing.

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What are THC's negative side effects?

A commonly asked question is if you can drive after consuming marijuana - and there is more than one answer. Doctors and neuroscientists have struggled to define when marijuana impairs judgment, but studies have found a direct relationship between blood THC concentration and the impaired ability to drive. Marijuana is known to significantly impair coordination and reaction time. Besides that, pleasant experiences with marijuana are not universal. Instead of relaxation and euphoria, some people can experience anxiety, fear, distrust or panic. These effects are more common when a person takes too much, the marijuana has an unexpectedly high potency or the person is an inexperienced user. There have also been instances of cannabis-induced psychosis, a condition usually related to overconsumption of edible marijuana products. Though it is rare, symptoms include paranoid delusions, extreme sedation, hallucinations and confusion.

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Can THC be addictive?

Both the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) identify marijuana as an addictive drug. Research shows marijuana users can develop problematic use patterns, or what's known as a marijuana use disorder, in severe cases after prolonged use. According to NIDA, an estimated 30% of marijuana users have some degree of marijuana use disorder. 

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