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Extra Potent 11-hydroxy-THC and the Power of Cannabis Edibles

Written by Alexandra Hicks
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Lately we’ve been seeing quite a few new cannabinoids popping up, especially new forms of THC. Most are naturally occurring in cannabis, but some, like 11-hydroxy-THC, aren’t found in the plant at all. Let’s take a closer look at this ultra-potent psychoactive compound and what it has to do with the human digestive system.

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What is 11-hydroxy-THC?

11-hydroxy-THC, sometimes written 11-OH-THC, is one of our naturally occurring endocannabinoids; meaning it’s made in the body. After delta-8 or delta-9 THC has been swallowed, the body breaks it down and metabolizes it via the liver. 11-hydroxy-THC is a metabolite of the other tetrahydrocannabinols and is regarded as being much more potent than its precursors. This is why delta-8 THC edibles are just as potent as delta-9 edibles, but the same can’t be said for flowers or vape products.

According to neuroscientist and medical cannabis adviser, Dr. Adie Rae, “The liver is responsible for this transformation, and specifically, the drug-metabolizing enzyme known as cytochrome P2C9 or CYP2C9. Even when you smoke, your liver still sees some delta-9 and turns it into 11-hydroxy-THC, but you get way more 11-OH when you eat cannabis.”  

A phenomenon known as “first pass metabolism” is the reason why 11-hyrdoxy-THC has such powerful effects on the brain. Oral administration leads to much more potent and long-lasting effects, compared to inhalation. So if you’ve been wondering why edibles get you beyond baked, this why.

As with other cannabinoids, 11-hydroxy-THC binds to the CB1 receptor; but in this case, it mimics all the known effects of delta-9 THC, but tenfold. The peak concentration of 11-OH-THC is about 1.5 hours after consumption. Effects can last anywhere from one hour to six (and some have reported more) depending on the dose and individual’s tolerance level.

The research on 11-hydroxy-THC

Although limited, the research we do have indicates that 11-hydroxy-THC is considerably stronger than delta-9 THC, the compound in cannabis known for inducing a high. One study in particular published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation found that 11-OH-THC is “much more potent at producing a subjective high and racing heart than delta-9.” This was observed in both animal studies and human surveys, which placed hydroxy-11-THC somewhere between 1.5 and 7 times more potent than delta-9 THC.

Dr. Rae claims the reason for this much higher potency “is partially attributable to the metabolite’s higher binding affinity for the CB1 receptor which physically binds more tightly to the receptor than delta-9. Basically, the better it binds, the better it activates the receptor.”

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Back in the 1970s is when this cannabinoid was initially noted, in radiolabled THC was utilized in labs to allow researchers to better study these compounds. Radiolabled THC (which yes, is radioactive) behaves just like regular THC but it allows scientists to see where all the metabolites go once it’s broken down within the body. This is how 11-hydroxy-THC was discovered.

At the time, very little 11-OH-THC was available, for obvious reasons, so for a very long time only small animal studies could be conducted. Once they had the ability create this compound on a larger scale, in a lab, seminal studies were launched to characterize the effects of 11-OH-THC in humans. 

Numerous studies of delta 11 taken intravenously showed it was not only more potent, but onset of effects was much quicker than other forms of THC also administered the same way.  

Smoking vs eating cannabis

If you’re anything like me and many other cannabis users I’ve spoken to, edibles hit different than smoking. Even though it takes a while to feel anything, once they kick in, I’m laid out on the couch almost every time. I feel more stoned, I’m laughing at everything, and eventually, I get super tired. This seems to be commonplace when it comes to edibles; but why exactly do they differ so much from smoking, from a scientific standpoint?

It comes down to two factors: the drug-metabolizing enzymes in your GI tract, and blood flow to the liver. When you first eat a cannabis edible, various enzymes in the GI tract begin digesting the food. From that point, blood flow from the GI tract goes through the liver where all these enzymes are metabolized, then the blood continues to general circulation. When the metabolites are formed, that’s when you get the effects of 11-hydroxy-THC.

However, when you smoke cannabis, THC is absorbed through the lungs and distributed directly into the bloodstream. The active compounds make their way to the brain where they interact with the CB receptors that are part of the endocannabinoid system. In this scenario, you are feeling the effects of the phytocannabinoids (plant-cannabinoids) themselves, rather than the compound formed during metabolism.

How to avoid consuming too much 11-hydroxy-THC

When it comes to edibles, it’s easy to go overboard. Because it takes so much longer to notice the effects, a lot of people end up eating more than they should, thinking that the edibles aren’t working, then get surprised when all that THC finally kicks in. According to statistical surveys, the overwhelming majority of ER visits associated with cannabis are because of edibles, and this explains why.

Whether you make them yourself or buy them at the dispensary, if you want to avoid having any of these issues yourself, remember the adjunct “less is more”. That’s very true when it comes to cannabis edibles, especially if you’re a novice user.

It’s also important to remember that not everyone feels edibles the same way. Some people are more sensitive to 11-hydroxy-THC than others. Those people will feel edibles in a much more powerful way than people whose bodies are more resistant to the compound.

“Because 11-hydroxy-THC is made by the liver, and we all have different liver enzymes and genetic mutations in those enzymes, cannabis edibles can affect people very differently. There is a huge range in how individuals metabolize delta-9 into 11-hydroxy-THC, with age, sex, historical cannabis use, concurrent medications, and other factors contributing to variability,” Dr. Rae concluded.


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About the author

Alexandra Hicks

Alexandra is the managing editor at CBD Testers. She has always been interested in alternative and natural remedies, and the versatility of cannabis as a healing plant is something that greatly appeals to her. It's for this reason that she decided to work as a cannabis industry journalist and editor, to help spread accurate information about the benefits of this plant.

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