Don’t have time to read or are driving or exercising? Check out my audio interview with Cannabis Health Radio from May 2017: Episode 132: Cannabis Chemistry 101 with Technical Writer Gooey Rabinski.
Let’s talk about cannabis efficacy for patients. Not just those with terminal cancer or severe epilepsy, but also any human with any ailment involving an imbalance in their endocannabinoid system.
My personal goal is to educate. I want to change voter behavior. I want to give patients and adult users a better understanding of the medicine they are putting in their bodies. Or considering putting in their bodies.
This article is such an attempt. It is the result of a need to clarify misunderstanding and make the relatively complex and often confusing world of cannabis chemistry more palatable to the average consumer.
Many cannabis consumers are familiar with the major cannabinoids THC and CBD, and even minor variants such as CBC. Some are also aware that these miraculous molecules are formed within the nearly microscopic shimmering resin glands of the cannabis plant called trichomes.
These minuscule medicine factories appear mostly on the flowers and sugar leaves of the plant. However, they can also sometimes be found in different forms on the fan leaves and even stalk of the plant and produce all of the cannabinoids and terpenes within the herb (which is also, technically, categorized as a vegetable).
111 cannabinoids have been discovered in this plant since 1940, when THC was first identified (although it was later independently discovered in 1964 at Hebrew University in Jerusalem by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, the date that is typically cited).
For simplicity and clarity, this article will consider four primary, common cannabinoids within the plant: THC, CBD, CBC, and CBG—as well as their universal acidic precursor, CBG-A (more about precursors below).
One should informally consider the “g” in CBG-A to stand for “genesis.” This unique cannabinoid is the chemical source of many others, including all of those mentioned above. In fact, cannabis would offer zero euphoric value and be of very little medicinal significance if it weren’t for these particular cannabinoids.
CBG-A is a special acidic precursor that gives birth to cannabinoids that are therapeutic for a wide range of diseases and conditions, from arthritis to Crohn’s to cancer. In fact, a 2013 research study in Israel revealed that cannabis puts Crohn’s into full remission in about 50 percent of cases—yet many states in the U.S. continue to exclude this severe condition from their medical cannabis laws.
Intelligently Target a Disease
This article could easily transmogrify into a 5,000 word academic treatise. As an alternative, readers are encouraged to investigate the links embedded herein to understand the tremendous efficacy of cannabinoids like CBG (the source of which is CBG-A), including the major players CBD and THC. Armed with this and a basic knowledge of acidic precursors, the endocannabinoid system, endocannabinoid deficiency, and the entourage effect, readers can more intelligently target their disease therapy or lifestyle goals with the most optimal strains and forms of cannabis.
There are an estimated 6,000 or more strains of cannabis available throughout the United States (according to medical cannabis researcher Mara Gordon in California). Selecting between the categories of sativa and indica and drilling down to a particular variant, such as Girl Scout Cookies or Durban Poison, is an exercise of no small consequence for patients and adult users.
Understanding the basic chemical components of cannabis involves the reward of targeted therapy, harm reduction, and enhanced anxiety relief—even for those relegated to playing black market bingo in prohibitionist states.
For regular middle class smokers and vapers, cannabis can be a considerable expense within one’s monthly budget. A core knowledge of the plant and its interplay with special receptors in the human body can help save money—or, at least, help one spend the same money on a considerably more satisfying blend of cannabinoids and terpenes that best fit their personal metabolism, preferences, and condition.
In the world of botany and biology, chemicals beget chemicals beget chemicals. Molecules morph under certain conditions—such as heat, light, and oxidation, to become slightly modified cousins of themselves. While their new chemical structure might be only slightly different, it is often enough to cause a dramatic shift in medicinal efficacy for patients or a different psychoactive effect for adult users.
Acidic precursors are slightly different versions of cannabinoids that, under the right conditions, change to become the familiar molecules used to medicate or gain euphoria for millions of patients. Take THC, for example. It is the most common and abundant cannabinoid (by volume) in most strains of cannabis. It is created by its acidic precursor, THC-A (sometimes denoted as THCA or THCa).
When heat is applied to THC-A, as from the flame of a lighter during smoking or the hot air stream produced by a vaporizer, this precursor drops a carbon dioxide (COO) cluster to become everyone’s favorite molecule, THC (this process is called decarboxylation, because it decouples a carbon and two oxygens).
Similarly, CBD, CBC, and CBG are also created by acidic precursors: CBD-A, CBC-A, and CBG-A, respectively. All of these acidic precursors are themselves born from CBG-A. In this aspect, CBG-A is a mother of many critical and medicinal cannabinoids. In effect, CBG-A is indirectly responsible for a wide range of positive medical therapies, including the following:
- Anti-cancer: THC-A, CBD-A, THC, CBD, CBC, CBG
- Analgesic (pain killer): CBG-A, THC, CBD, CBC, CBG
- Anti-inflammatory: THC-A, CBD-A, CBC-A, THC, CBD, CBC, CBN-A, CBN
- Anti-spasmodic: THC-A, THC, CBD
- Appetite stimulant: THC
- Appetite suppressant: THCV
- Bone stimulant: THC-A, THCV, CBD, CBDV, CBC, CBG
- Bronchodilator: THC
- Sleeping aid (anti-insomnia): CBD, CBC, CBN
The chemistry of cannabis can become complex and confusing for laypeople. However, a small chunk of knowledge regarding the role of a few dominant cannabinoids can be helpful in delivering insight into the therapy of the plant and why it is considered by many to be such a potent medicine that is almost completely lacking in addiction or harmful side effects.
Cannabis has been shown to be an effective treatment for asthma sufferers. However, upon further investigation, it is learned that it is actually THC that is delivering relief in its role as a bronchodilator and anti-inflammatory, the two types of relief most critical to patients directly prior to or during an asthma attack.
Several other cannabinoids, such as CBD, CBC, and CBN, also deliver anti-inflammatory efficacy, but only THC provides a specific bronchodilator benefit. In addition, the significant ability of cannabis to fight anxiety, one of the primary triggers of asthma attacks, means that it is a superb preventative. The best asthma attacks, of course, are those that never occur.
In 1973, Dr. Donald Tashkin, a professor of medicine and lung expert at UCLA, discovered that cannabis (in the case of his study, smoked) acts as a bronchodilator. Of course, vaporized cannabis is equally, or more, effective while avoiding potentially harmful carcinogens and other impurities present in smoke, but not vapor.
Because Tashkin understood that it was the THC molecule that was delivering efficacy to patients, he attempted to develop a special inhaler. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful due to the relatively large size of the THC molecule. Tashkin also cited too much coughing on the part of patients.
It should be understood that several studies have indicated that CBD offers excellent anti-inflammatory properties for sufferers of conditions like asthma, fibromyalgia, Crohn’s disease, and possibly even bursitis. One 2012 study conducted in Europe indicated that CBD is effective in reducing inflammation in acute lung injuries, while research from 2015 found that CBD not only reduces inflammation in asthma sufferers, but that it also results in a decrease of mucus hyper-secretion, a major symptom of this bronchial condition.
Perhaps it is fortunate that most commercial and black market strains of cannabis feature more THC than any other cannabinoid. Note that it is the only appetite stimulant listed among this set of cannabinoids, including their acidic precursors. When combined with its role as a bronchodilator—and considering that it is also an anti-spasmodic, fights cancer, is a powerful pain killer, and acts as an anti-inflammatory—it is no wonder so many cultures across the globe have celebrated cannabis for tens of thousands of years.
More About THC
It just so happens that THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, has a strong binding affinity with the CB1 receptor within the body’s endocannabinoid system, mimicking similar chemicals produced within the body called endocannabinoids (such as anandamide). Thus, in a literal lock-and-key metaphor, THC molecules precisely fit into the CB1 receptors found primarily within the brain and central nervous system. The result: Medicinal efficacy and psychoactivity, sometimes in the form of euphoria.
THC is the only major cannabinoid to provide a psychoactive effect and epitomizes the often stereotyped and stigmatized characterization of cannabis that portrays the herb as delivering nothing more than couchlock, intense appetite, and a lack of motivation. Strains high in THC, especially sativas, have been found to be especially effective in battling depression, PTSD, and anxiety while allowing patients to remain productive.
CBD, or cannabidiol, is the second most recognized cannabinoid found within the plant. It provides considerable medicinal relief, but delivers no psychoactive effect. It has its highest binding affinity with the body’s CB2 receptors found throughout the immune system and related organs. CBD is most effective in fighting cancer, pain, inflammation, and seizure activity. It is also one of only two bone stimulators in this group of cannabinoids and, along with CBC and CBN, is an excellent sleep aid for those with insomnia.
CBD oil is a popular therapy for childhood and adult epilepsy sufferers, many of whom find little or no relief in traditional pharmaceutical drugs. More than a dozen states have passed CBD-only laws allowing a very limited set of conditions—sometimes only epilepsy—to qualify for use of this non-euphoric oil. Some anecdotal cases have revealed that CBD-only oils may decrease seizures within some epileptic children from a hundred or more per day to only a couple per month. For both sufferers and their parents, the efficacy of this special cannabinoid is no small matter.
However, it should also be noted that new research is indicating that only about 30 percent of childhood epilepsy patients experience a significant reduction in seizure activity on a CBD-only therapy. The vast majority of patients—about 70 percent—gain the greatest efficacy from a THC/CBD blend. Some children have even experienced an increase in seizures following a daily regime of CBD-only oil.
Said Jason David, the father of a seven-year-old boy with Dravet syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy:
“The worst seizures Jayden ever had on medical cannabis was while we were using [CBD-only oil].”
Brian Wilson, a former East Coast resident who moved to Colorado in 2014 to take advantage of its medical cannabis legislation, is another parent of a child suffering from Dravet syndrome epilepsy. During an interview with Ladybud in 2014, he said:
“CBD is a very important part of the mix, but only part. We saw minor seizure control and developmental progress with CBD alone, but we didn’t see real seizure control until we added measurable levels of THC to the mix.”
CBC, or cannabichromene, is a THC booster and pain killer. Along with THC, CBD, and CBG—as well as their acidic precursors—CBC has been found to fight cancer. It should also be noted that many major terpenes also feature anti-cancer and anti-tumor properties, including limonene, pinene, and myrcene. In fact, myrcene, like CBC, is a THC enhancer because it helps a variety of cannabinoids and terpenes pass through cell membranes. In this manner, it allows more THC to reach brain cells.
Consider two fictitious strains of cannabis, Bubba’s Boutique and Purple Revenge. Both have a THC potency of about 15 percent. But assume that Bubba’s Boutique has a small percentage of CBC and more myrcene than normal, while the Purple Revenge doesn’t. Bubba’s would deliver a more potent THC effect in the form of medicinal efficacy and psychoactivity due to the CBC and myrcene that went along for the ride, acting like traffic cops in paving the way for THC molecules to reach their CB1 receptor destinations in the brain and be most effective.
CBC’s analgesic ability is believed to be the result of an interplay with THC. It is theorized that CBC’s anti-pain powers are derived from its role in increasing THC’s pain relieving properties—not necessarily CBC’s ability to do so independently. This is an excellent example of the entourage effect and how cannabinoids, terpenes, and the body’s own endocannabinoids work together synergistically to produce psychological and physical relief.
CBG, or cannabigerol, is the “princess of pot” in terms of being the child of the queen of cannabinoids, CBG-A. It delivers a significant amount of medicinal benefit. This non-psychoactive cannabinoid has been found to be a pain killer, an anti-cancer agent, and—along with CBD and CBC, an anti-depressant.
It is, in addition to THCV, CBDV, and CBC, among the small subset of bone stimulants in this group. It is present in large quantities in many types of hemp, the variety of cannabis almost completely lacking THC. (Legally, in North America, a strain of cannabis can contain no more than 0.3 percent THC to be defined as hemp.)
Another potential advantage of CBG is that it seems to counter the paranoia that is delivered by some THC-rich strains of cannabis. In this respect, it conveys the opposite effect of myrcene and CBC. Strains high in CBG have been found to be effective in treating glaucoma due to how this cannabinoid helps decrease pressure within the eye and expedites the drainage of fluids.
The value of CBG is being recognized by the cannabis breeding and cultivation communities, which are responding with new strains that are high in CBG, which is typically present in only small quantities within most varieties of cannabis. One example is TGA Genetics Subcool Seeds, which has created a strain called Mickey Kush that is rich in both THC and CBG.
Why Is So Little Understood?
These chemical processes become even more complex when one considers that THC sometimes degrades into CBN, which in many respects is simply stale THC. Likewise, CBC-A can result in CBLA, a cannabinoid about which very little is know other than that it is an anti-inflammatory.
Given the stunning medical value that has been uncovered to date by only limited research studies and anecdotal reports from patients and caregivers, the fact that research is being discouraged in the United States is a travesty to tens of millions of patients suffering with dozens of diseases related to or resulting in pain, nausea, inflammation, or depression.
In the big picture, humans are relatively ignorant of the cannabinoids and terpenes in this herb, including their delicate interplay. Until cannabis is removed from Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act, little research and no human trials will occur in the United States. This is despite the fact that international studies and volumes of patient testimonials indicate that cannabis is a powerful, holistic, and versatile medicine—for both physical and psychological diseases—that carris few or no negative side effects.
Under Schedule I, however, cannabis is considered to have zero medical value and to be dangerous and highly addictive, where it resides with drugs like bath salts and heroin.
In fact, both methamphetamines and cocaine reside in less-restrictive Schedule II, meaning they can be prescribed by a physician and are supposedly less addictive than cannabis. Until Congress and more corporate and policy leaders act to change this situation (a logical solution would be moving cannabis to Schedule III), consumers and patients will continue to suffer under ambiguity and a lack of scientific fact.
All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003-2018 Gooey Rabinski. All Rights Reserved.
Gooey Rabinski is a technical writer, photographer, and compliance documentation specialist for cannabis businesses who has contributed feature articles to magazines and media outlets such as High Times, CannaBiz Journal, MERRY JANE, Emerald Magazine, Grow Magazine, Herb.co, The Kind, Skunk, Cannabis Culture, Whaxy, Heads, Weed World, Green Flower Media, Cannabis Health Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself.
He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle.