We all know about delta-9 THC, the main psychoactive cannabinoid of the cannabis plant. Recently, delta-8 THC started making a strong impression as an alternate form of THC, with slightly different benefits. We even know there’s THC-O, THCV and delta-10 THC. So, how many THCs are there out there, and how are they similar?
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Delta-9 and delta-8 THC
The first guy to synthesize THC was chemist Roger Adams. He was the first to identify the compound in the 1940’s, although he was not able to isolate it. This was done in 1964 by Raphael Mechoulam and his team, although Adams was the first to isolate CBD. Mechoulam was able to benefit from Israel’s less restrictive cannabis research laws. He and his team wanted to figure out what it was in Indian hash that was making people act so intoxicated.
The answer, he found, was THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol. To be more specific, he isolated the most common form of THC found in cannabis plants, delta-9 THC. Delta-9 THC itself does not actually exist heavily in any cannabis plant, but is instead produced from THCA which decarboxylates (generally through sun exposure or heat) to become delta-9 THC. It was learned in the 1940’s that there were many different forms of THC, although how many THCs can be created, was a mystery (and still is).
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In the last year or so, another form of THC has been getting more popular, partially due to the 2018 US Farm Bill which legalized the cultivation of industrial hemp for certain purposes. As a form of THC which does not exist in large enough amounts on its own, delta-8 THC requires being sourced from delta-9 THC. It’s formed through an oxidation process, which results in a compound that has shown in testing to have less psychoactive response, to produce less associated anxiety and panic symptoms, to be effective for use with nausea and vomiting due to illness and treatments, and which, due to the oxidation process, is actually more stable over time than delta-9.
Some even say it produces a very clear high, and heightens the senses of users. And since it can be sourced from any delta-9 THC, it can just as easily be sourced from delta-9 coming from industrial hemp, as from high-THC marijuana, creating a legal loophole for production. Even this THC isn’t quite as ‘new’ as current interest would have you believe, though. Delta-8 THC has been known about since it was fully synthesized in 1965 by Raphael Mechoulam.
Mechoulam even published research back in 1995 showing how delta-8 THC eradicated the nausea and vomiting of children receiving cancer treatments. Yet, of course, we didn’t hear much about it. What makes delta-8 THC relevant currently, is that it’s being produced in the very gray area of the 2018 Farm Bill, which has therefore permitted – to a degree – legal sales of THC (or gray-area sales). The two compounds are nearly identical, and have similar properties, it is only the sourcing of delta-8 THC from hemp that creates this legal quandary.
What else have we missed about THC? How many other THCs might exist?We know about delta-9 and delta-8, and that they’ve both been around for awhile. We even recently found out about delta-10 THC. Delta-10 also isn’t new, having been first synthesized back in the 1980’s. In fact, it was discovered accidentally by the contamination of outdoor flowers used to make concentrates, with flame retardant chemicals for dealing with wildfires in California, where the company creating the extracts was located.
The company, Fusion Farms, wasn’t aware that their product had issues and went on with the extraction process, just to find strange crystals forming. It was eventually realized that these strange crystals were another form of THC, this time delta-10. Delta-10 THC is an artificial cannabinoid that was formed when delta-9 THC was converted after being exposed to a catalyst, in this case the flame retardant material, though there could be less toxic catalysts out there.
As far as what delta-10 does, it’s hard to say. It came into existence through an accident, and has not been through even the compulsory scientific research that delta-9 THC and delta-8 THC have. It likely has similar mechanisms of action in the brain, attaching to CB1 and/or CB2 receptors, but nothing specific about the molecule can be said, other than that the double bond (the delta) exists on the 10th carbon atom of the chain, rather than the 9th like delta-9, or the 8th, like delta-8. That is, in fact, what defines a type of THC, where the double carbon atom is located.
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Delta-3, delta-4, delta-6, delta-7
Now we know that the THC molecule can exist in different forms, depending on where the carbon double bond is located, which is what brings up the whole question of how many THCs are out there. Could that double bond be located on the 3rd, 4th, or even 7th carbon atom? Seems like it.
Delta-3 THC, delta-4 THC, and delta-7 THC were all identified during the 1940’s when THC was first starting to be synthesized in laboratories by researchers like Adams. These are entirely synthetic, and developed as a way to establish a synthetic form of a plant product (likely to get around patent issues). Though research has been done into these compounds, it has remained limited. It is generally thought that these synthetic isomers are less potent than delta-9 or delta-8 THC, but this may not be true all the time.
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The more we go into the question of how many THCs currently exist, or can be created, the more we find that there are quite a few, with plenty we don’t know about yet or haven’t worked with. And some, just like the original finding of THC, that just don’t get the attention they deserve.
Take this, for example, a study from 1980 highlighting how delta-6 THC, and some other cannabis compounds, effect mice brains. The study found that several cannabinoids or isomers are correlated with an up-to-60 minute cataleptic effect in mice. Catalepsy is a disorder in which the body doesn’t respond to external stimuli, with overall muscular rigidity, and an inability to move.
While delta-6 THC didn’t create the highest correlation with cataleptic symptoms, it did show to be one of the most potent cannabinoids in the brain. The study authors concluded that psychoactive features of cannabinoids and their metabolites, are more likely related to structural features than pharmacokinetic ones. This was back in 1980, and yet a look at the medical cannabis landscape of the last few decades shows a massive deficit in follow-up research.
We know that THC molecules vary between each other slightly, but what about once THC is metabolized by the body? The reason that THC edibles are so strong is the conversion of THC into 11-hydroxy-THC. When delta-9 THC (C21H30O2) is ingested, it gets processed into 11-hydroxy-THC (C21H30O3) by way of the liver and digestive tract. The difference is explained well by the publication Leafly’s primary researcher, Nick Jikomes:
“The real difference between edibles and smoking or vaping is that with edibles, a much larger fraction of Delta-9-THC makes it to the liver first. There it gets converted to 11-hydroxy-THC.” He continues, “So in other words, if you smoke or vape, the ratio of 11-hydroxy-THC to Delta-9-THC is quite low, and if you take an edible it’s much higher.” This helps explain why edibles can cause very intense highs, and why the high lasts so much longer. 11-hydroxy-THC is not naturally occurring, and requires the body to break down THC to produce it. Perhaps future research will find a way to synthesize it, without consumption.
This isn’t a standard version of THC, but it does go to show the other possibilities out there when asking the question of how many THCs there are.
So, how many THCs are there?
With the ability to synthesize cannabinoids, the ability to create new versions of THC has been available for some time. Research into THC back in the 40’s identified much of this information, but little has been done to effectively use it. By now, years of intense research into THC should have been done, but decades after these forms of THC were found, we’re still asking the question of how many THCs are even out there. The reason things are this way is highly debatable, with some people holding true to beliefs about inherent drug dangers and black markets, a holdover from previous smear campaigns, no doubt.
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Others might argue that the pharmaceutical industry couldn’t compete with a plant, and found it easier to suppress information about it, essentially ending research, or bringing it down to a trickle throughout the world, until it could be monetized properly. The latter argument makes way more sense considering the new pharma-cannabis industry, which seems to have no problem with people using the drug and sees no reason for danger, so long as the money goes into pharmaceutical pockets. Of course, that’s just my interpretation.
It could be that hundreds of versions of THC can be created, or maybe there are strictly 15. In a research field so wide open, with so much to investigate, it’s impossible to say just how many THCs exist. It’s not even possible to say if delta-9 is the strongest form, or what other kinds of psychoactive and medical effects could be hidden therein. One of the more interesting things to understand about THC, is just how much more there is to learn about THC.
The same issue that comes up with delta-8 THC is also relevant with other forms of THC that are sourced from delta-9. They can come from high-THC marijuana, or low-THC hemp, which means these compounds are falling into a legal gray area in many places like the US and the UK. They are being ruled illegal by drug scheduling legislation that names THC and all its derivatives as narcotics, but at the same time, they are starting to be sourced from places that are not considered illegal, making it questionable whether products made from them would therefore be legal or not.
Either way, the world of THCs is opening up more and more, and proving to be a surprising and interesting place. In the next few years we might even get a better answer to the question of how many THCs are out there in the world.
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Disclaimer: Hi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a medical professional, I have no formal legal education, and I’ve never been to business school. All information in my articles is sourced from other places which are always mentioned, and all opinions stated are mine, and are made clear to be mine. I am not giving anyone advise of any kind, in any capacity. I am more than happy to discuss topics, but should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a professional in the relevant field for more information.