Tetrahydrocannabinol recently became legal to use medically in Oklahoma, but what exactly is it?
For decades, Americans have been bombarded with negative messaging on the evils of using cannabis and getting high.
The federal government made cannabis radioactive in 1970 with the Controlled Substances Act that put it alongside heroin and LSD on a list of Schedule I drugs, a culmination of a long-term public policy effort to make people scared of pot.
But gradually, things changed. Even as Nancy Reagan implored everyone to “just say no,” movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Caddyshack made pot funny in our popular culture.
In the political realm, Bill Clinton admitted to using pot during his college days, even if he didn’t fully own it. Barack Obama did just that in his 2008 run for president, adding that that inhaling was the point of the whole exercise.
Today, reality has caught up with Jeff Spicoli and the rest of the guys in the minibus. Never before has cannabis been more acceptable. Ten states and Washington, D.C., have legalized it for recreational use since 2012, and 33 states have some form of access.
According to a 2017 Marist Poll, 52 percent of those surveyed said they had used marijuana in their lifetime. A further 44 percent said they were currently using it.
But while public opinion on pot has shifted dramatically, what hasn’t changed is the process in the brain that gets users where they want to be. THC, otherwise known as tetrahydrocannabinol, is the culprit.
Stephen Goldman is the laboratory director at PhytaTech, a Colorado firm that tests THC and CBD products for potency and purity, among other things. He said THC is one of more than 100 cannabinoids found in cannabis plants.
“THC is special,” Goldman said. “When it’s absorbed into the blood, it’s very hydrophobic. That means it doesn’t like the water phase; it likes the oil phase, and because of that, it can pass your blood-brain barrier into your brain and bind with CB1 receptors. That’s what starts the cascading effect that gets people high.”
It is the moment when your brain surrenders to mild euphoria often accompanied by a feeling of extreme relaxation or weightlessness, a period when your mind drifts away from the jerk at the office to, “Hey, let’s go get tacos and binge-watch Breaking Bad for six hours,” and nothing seems even remotely wrong about it.
THC is psychoactive, meaning it affects the brain by altering its function and the user’s perception.
The chemistry goes deeper. Delta 9-THC and its cousin Delta 8 are the only compounds in cannabis plants that produce the psychoactive effect.
“Those are different isomers of the same molecule,” Goldman said.
The different isomers matter to the user only because each might have a different effect.
“What’s important is each isomer has a different structure, so because its structure is different, it bonds with the CB1 receptor differently,” Goldman said. “The stronger it binds, the stronger the psychoactive effect.”
THCA otherwise known as tetrahydrocannabinolic acid is another cannabinoid that has become the subject of research. It is found in the raw form of a cannabis plant and might be used for treating nausea and other ailments like arthritis.
“THCA is the acidic form of THC,” Goldman said. “If nature plants a cannabis plant, any plant will make the acidic form. They’re not psychoactive in that state. If you smoked the flower, it wouldn’t get you high.”
“They often want to know about the different types of
products available now versus how it was a few decades ago.”
The full power of THC is often what patients who visit Dr. Jacob Moore at Bloom Healthcare in Oklahoma City are seeking. They come for help managing a variety of ailments.
“I’d say it’s a tie between various types of pain and anxiety disorders and musculoskeletal and joint pain,” Moore said. “I’ve also seen several people with autoimmune disorders like lupus.”
And some patients simply want to know how modern THC products are going to make them feel.
“That does come up,” Moore said. “I tell them usually people feel relaxed, that they might feel a little bit tired but not to the point where they’re passed out. And that it can come with increased appetite. And it can also have a calming effect if someone has a lot of anxiety, like sitting in a hot tub, taking a break from it all.”
Those questions are especially pervasive among new users.
“For those that do have questions, they often want to know about the different types of products available now versus how it was a few decades ago,” Moore said.
Dosage is another question. Smoking or vaping provides the user an almost instant high. With their slow burn through the digestive system, many find edibles a little trickier. There’s a fine line between feeling good and a full-blown freak-out. You will not die, but feeling so stoned you become uncomfortable isn’t a lot of fun.
“What I tell everyone is to start low and work their way from there because you can always take more to help, but if you go too far, you can end up with some bad side effects,” Moore said.
Those can include paranoia, rapid heartbeat and fatigue.
“You don’t want to be to the point where you’ve used so much you’re not functional,” Moore said.
A lot of those same questions are asked by customers at any of Oklahoma’s medical dispensaries. Keith Wiley owns Native Brothers, a medical dispensary in Oklahoma City selling cannabis flower, edibles and vape cartridges. He said a good dispensary welcomes questions from customers.
“That’s our job,” he said. “We have a lot of people who come in and tell us it’s their first time and they have back problems. We try to stay informed on what different strains might help with their problem. We do our best to help them with any questions they might have.”
Wiley said a visit to a dispensary is not unlike another experience most users are familiar with.
“If you go to a pharmacy, you’re probably going to have some questions, especially if it’s a new medication,” he said. “It’s no different at a dispensary. If you want to know how much THC is in a product, we can tell you. If you want to know how much to start off with, we can help you with that. It’s about making the experience the best it can be. We try not to make it overwhelming.”
THC can be overwhelming on its own. And today’s cannabis is stronger than ever. Those who have not used it in a while or maybe have not used it in one of the forms offered today should be taking baby steps, at least at first.
“It’s a totally different ball game,” Goldman said. “In the 1980s, the average concentration of THC in marijuana plants was about 8 percent. Today, there are strains above 30 percent. There are products that exist that can be on the low end of the concentration, and for most people, that’s the place to start.”