THC can be bad for you. Really bad. As little as ten milligrams of the compound—for years considered “the active ingredient” in cannabis—can cause “toxic psychosis,” according to one study.
Best-case scenario? THC is boring—really boring, producing a high with “no specific character,” one researcher told Scientific American. More likely, a dose of pure THC will result in a dysphoric, scattered feeling.
Either way, not a lot of fun—and not much use for medicine.
But that’s fine! And of no importance to marijuana users, who—when smoking or vaporizing or eating cannabis—are consuming much, much more than mere delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol.
Almost every strain of cannabis sativa contains some THC. There’s even traces of THC in most cuttings of industrial hemp. And all of those THC molecules, whether extracted from hemp or from top-shelf nug-run, will act on the brain in essentially the same way.
As Scientific American reported last week, what sets strains apart from one another—the cause of their unique characteristics—is everything else that’s in the plant: other cannabinoids, scent- and smell-determining terpenes. (Terpenes—the compounds that cause a marijuana plant to smell skunky or piney or lemony—are at least partially determined by a plant’s genetics, and not conditions of cultivation, recent research has found.)
The final result following consumption—pain relief, euphoria, an overwhelming desire for a chicken parm sandwich—is entirely dependent on the plant’s discreet chemical cocktail, what researchers and marijuana advocates call “the entourage effect.”
Though the phrase was introduced to the public at large by Sanjay Gupta in one of his Weed documentaries on CNN, the notion of marijuana’s disparate parts acting only in concert is not new.
Gupta surely consulted research conducted by Ethan Russo, a neurologist, psychopharmacology researcher and former senior medical advisor at GW Pharmaceuticals (which happens to be working on cannabis-derived drugs). In 2011, Russo published work suggesting that cannabis high in alpha pinene, a terpene associated with a piney scent, could prevent the tendency of THC to impair short-term memory.
At the same time, the scientific consensus—such as it is, considering the dearth of hard data on marijuana, a knowledge gap for which federal prohibition is to blame—around marijuana is that the “entourage effect” is still mere theory, supported only by anecdotes.
“The lay public has really taken on the notion of the entourage effect, but there’s not a lot of data,” Columbia University neurobiologist Margaret Haney told Scientific American.
If anything, Haney’s research has led her to believe the entourage effect is a marketing gimmick cooked up by the marijuana industry.
She hasn’t found data to support the idea that CBD, or cannabidiol, can regulate or reduce THC’s psychoactive properties—and she also posits that CBD, the cure-all molecule embraced even by anti-drug politicians in red states while THC is reviled—isn’t all that different from THC, she told the magazine. What’s more, the “placebo effect” is as strong with cannabis as it is with anything else used in folk medicine.
As per SA:“[I]f you believe smoking a bud will give you a bright, cerebral experience spilling with creativity or that a THC pill will make you anxious and paranoid, then that is what you will probably feel.”
“The cannabis field can say anything, and it does,” Haney said. “I’m not against marijuana. I want to study it carefully. We know it can affect pain and appetite, but the large majority of what’s being said is driven by anecdotal marketing. These guys are really trying to make money.”
Sure. No shame in that. Aren’t we all—in particular, those of us working in the pharmaceutical industry, which has been manufacturing and marketing synthetic THC-based drugs, without much clinical or commercial success? (Spoiler: yes.)
And Haney’s scientific skepticism won’t deter many marijuana users—who will absolutely swear by certain strains at certain times for certain end results in their quest for a more predictable high.
The new emphasis on cannabis’s component parts is leading some marijuana researchers to experiment with creating terpene-specific cannabis blends—with the promise that, eventually, a certain blend will be better for mood, or for anxiety, or for sleep.
Some scientists will scoff until there’s more, better data—which is also fine, as there will be no shortage of volunteers for research, just as soon as those legal barriers are lifted.