Cannabinoids and Terpenes

Cannabis has been cultivated for food, clothing, and medicine for well over 12,000 years. When ingested, the chemical compounds in cannabis, known as cannabinoids, interact with the endocannabinoid system in the brain. The endocannabinoid system is involved with a variety of physiological processes including appetite, pain-sensation, mood, and memory. The psychoactive effects of cannabis are mediated through the endocannabinoid system.

Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the best known cannabinoid found in cannabis and the main psychoactive cannabinoid. Once absorbed, THC binds to proteins in the blood plasma. As the THC is moved by blood, it is distributed to tissues that have lots of blood vessels, such as the heart, liver, and fat cells. Only 1 percent of the administered THC will find its way to the brain (Backes, 2014). The psychoactive metabolites of THC are broken down and expelled from the body usually within 36 hours.

THC is produced from Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid, which converts to THC when heated. THCA, unlike the chemically neutral cannabinoid THC, is not psychoactive. When absorbed, THC has a variety of medical uses.

While non-toxic, THC can produce unpleasant effects in patients in high doses. Anxiety, unwanted sedation, and rapid heartbeat are known side effects of THC. If taken in high doses for extended periods of time, the efficacy of THC can lessen as tolerance rises.


Cannabidiol, or CBD, is the second most common cannabinoid found in cannabis and unlike THC, is non-psychoactive. Studies have shown CBD to have a wide range of medicinal applications. CBD interacts with a wider range of receptors than THC, explaining why it has such broad effects.

The past decade has seen a vast expansion into the study of CBD and its effects. Cell studies have shown CBD to be effective in vitro against lines of human brain, breast, and other tumor cells, while simultaneously protecting normal cells (Backes, 2014). An effective anticonvulsant, CBD has also been shown to be effective in the treatment of strokes and even acne.

While cannabinoids are responsible for much of the plant’s medical applications, terpenes also play a significant role. Terpenes help explain why different strains of cannabis produce vastly different medicinal and psychoactive effects.

Terpenes do not exist solely in cannabis. When you smell a flower or freshly cut grass, you are smelling terpenes. They are aromatic constituents of all essential plant oils and are found in all spices, fruits, and vegetables (Backes, 2014). Cannabis procures more than 200 terpenes. Pharmacologically active and synergistic with cannabinoids, terpenes are a critical component of medical cannabis.

Different strains contain different levels of various terpenes. This helps explain why cannabis with almost identical cannabinoid profiles can produce vastly different results. Like cannabinoids, terpenes are lipophilic (fat-loving) and hydrophobic (water-hating). While cannabinoid levels in cannabis is important, terpenes are being shown to have a big impact on the medicinal effects of cannabis.