People have used cannabis in a wide variety of forms and for many different reasons over the course of thousands of years, whether to treat anxiety and depression in ancient India, or enhance a Sleep concert in modern Middle America. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century, though, that researchers began to isolate and identify the specific molecules that are responsible for the effects one experiences when consuming this class of plant. Taking their name from the plant itself, these substances are known as cannabinoids.
The first to be discovered was cannabidiol, or CBD, in 1940. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, followed in 1964. These two cannabinoids are the most abundant and well understood, but there are over 100 others which appear in lower concentrations in various strains of cannabis. As the primary psychoactive cannabinoid (meaning it’s responsible for the high traditionally associated with smoking or eating cannabis), THC has long been the more popular of the two. Over the last several decades, growers have selectively bred cannabis plants to produce an increasingly large proportion of this chemical.
Both THC and CBD have medicinal uses such as managing pain, nausea and anxiety. However, CBD has recently increased in popularity because it isn’t psychoactive, and thus doesn’t have intoxicating effects. When smoking or cooking with raw plant matter, one will most likely be consuming both THC and CBD. Various strains have been bred to contain much higher levels of one than the other, but both are generally present.
However, it is also possible to process the cannabis plant to separate them. Doing this enables the sale of products that contain little to no THC. For example, Iowa’s extremely narrow medical cannabis system limits the THC content of approved products to 3 percent—low enough to be virtually ineffective. The 33 other states that have legalized medicinal cannabis allow patients access to both THC and CBD.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 261.