What Are the Chemicals in Weed, and What Do They Do?

Dan Gentile/Thrillist
Dan Gentile/Thrillist

Ahh, cannabis. You’re pretty sure you know how it works, right? Smoke it, vape it, eat it, dab it, or hell, rectally insert it and enjoy the high. While the process is simple, the chemical dance between your endocannabinoid system and the more than 500 chemical compounds found in weed is beautifully complex, kind of like those Magic Eye posters from the ’90s. So what exactly is going on when you get high? 

Dr. Kevin Hill, author of Marijuana: The Unbiased Truth about the World’s Most Popular Weed; biologist Brent Leighton; and biochemist Mac Hyman of IRON Laboratories lay it down.

THC: the A-list celebrity of cannabinoids

Cannabinoids are chemical compounds that interact with receptors in your brain. You’ve probably heard of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the cannabinoid that gets you high. “THC binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain, and this binding affects the production of dopamine, a brain chemical or neurotransmitter that activates reward circuits in the brain that produce the high,” Dr. Hill says. Dopamine is the same chemical your brain releases when you play Call of Duty or bone your Tinder date. It basically gives you a hit of pleasure.

But before you equate weed, sex, and CoD, just stop for a minute and appreciate the fact your body is designed to receive molecules from the cannabis plant... and that you have these cannabinoid receptors even if you’ve never smoked pot. Intelligent design might have something to it, after all.

“Endocannabinoid receptors evolved in every vertebrate animal in the world and are receptive to cannabinoids, so it does show you how universal it is, that we all need that system,” Hyman says. “Humans discovered (cannabis) thousands of years ago and have been selecting it for traits that best fit them medicinally. We found a plant that mimics our endogenous hormones, and the result is thousands of strains of high-potency cannabis throughout the world.” According to Hyman, just as weed is found worldwide, cannabinoid receptor sites are found everywhere in your body, but they’re concentrated in the brain (the CB1 receptors) and immune system (the CB2 receptors).

Basically, humans found something that made them feel good, then bred it specifically to make them feel better, and now we've reached the highest possible level of evolution: the bicycle pot delivery guy.


You down with CBD?

More than 80 cannabinoids have been discovered, and that’s only counting those in plants. But plants are far from the only source of these magical feel-good substances: “A few cannabinoids, like delta-11-hydroxy THC, are only found in our body, when our liver converts them,” Leightson says. 

The second most common cannabinoid is cannibidiol, or CBD, which you might have heard about in the news because of its success as a treatment for children with epilepsy. “CBD does not produce psychoactive effects,” Dr. Hill notes, which for the layman means it doesn’t get you high. In another display of the evolutionary superiority of human intelligence, there are now non-psychoactive strains of cannabis that are low in THC and high in CBD. This is great news for people who have seizure disorders, anxiety, chronic pain or autoimmune disorders -- all of which CBD can alleviate. 

“CBD is the more medicinal compound,” Leighton says. “But in many cases, THC is just as medicinal, depending on the ailment. There’s all these different compounds working together, and they work better with all the compounds present.”


The Entourage Effect

That brings us to another big catchphrase in the cannabis industry: The Entourage Effect. Just as I feel badass when I’m rolling with my girl gang and laid-back when I’m chilling with the fam, the company THC keeps affects the type of high you get. 

So, what kind of company does THC keep? Well, it hangs out with some of the compounds already mentioned -- CBD is a big one when it comes to regulating THC, according to Leighton -- but it also chills with terpenes, “another set of compounds [that] modulates how the THC gets you high,” Leighton says. “If the plant has a lemon taste, it has limonene, which makes the cannabinoids go to the brain.” In short, terpenes are the compounds that impact the flavor of the flower and the nature of the high. 

These compounds all mimic your endocannabinoids, the naturally occurring hormones that regulate your body’s functions. So if your immune system isn’t reacting the way it should, THC tells it to speed up, or the reverse: “THC often works as an immunosuppressant,” Hyman says. “A lot of immune diseases are from your body attacking itself, so cannabinoids don’t shut it down -- they keep it in balance.”

In conclusion

Aside from Dr. Hill's caveat about marijuana’s potential negative side effects, which include deficits in learning and short-term memory, along with psychotic symptoms like paranoia? The takeaway based on what researchers currently know is pretty clear: cannabinoids, terpenes, and your own body work together to create a synergistic effect, and that there’s still a lot to learn about what the medicinal upshot is. With more and more states approving legalization, though, we should know a lot more in a few years. 

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Missy Wilkinson isn't becoming a pothead -- she’s just finding out more about how awesome weed really is. Follow her at @missy_wilkinson.