Everyone knows that THC is largely responsible for the psychoactive properties of cannabis and has a wide range of therapeutic effects, too. And the non-intoxicating CBD is having its heyday as a panacea for everything from epilepsy to insomnia to anxiety. Granted, of the cannabis plant's more than 100 cannabinoids — compounds that affect the body’s endocannabinoid system and that work on neurotransmitters — these two are certainly the most well-known.
For decades, growers selectively bred strains with higher THC content to maximize their marketability, while the value of other cannabinoids (including CBD, until recently) was not well recognized. As a result, cannabis on today's market may feature unnaturally reduced amounts of other cannabinoids due do these commercially minded breeding techniques.
If federal prohibition in the U.S. has resulted in THC and CBD having been understudied by the scientific community, that’s doubly true for the-lesser known cannabinoids. Though research is truly in its beginning stages, the cannabinoids known as THCV, CBN, and CBG are emerging as medically — and in some cases recreationally — significant. Here’s the lowdown on those “other” cannabinoids.
Also known by its long molecular name, tetrahydrocannabivarin, THCV is sometimes called “the new CBD” thanks to its wide range of therapeutic value. Some folk, including Bill Heriot, production manager and head of R&D at the biopharma company Liposome Formulations, see it as a midpoint between THC and CBD in terms of its medical uses and its effect on the body.
In low concentrations, THCV doesn’t get you high because it works as a CB1 antagonist (meaning that it counteracts the properties of CB1). In richer concentrations, THCV switches to act as a CB1 agonist (meaning that it enhances CB1's properties) and is said to bring with it a subtly different kind of high that’s stimulating, clear-headed, cerebral, and shorter-lived. Certain new products on the market, like Level’s Stimulate tablinguals, are formulated with THCV to tap into its cognitive-enhancing effects.
When present in significant amounts alongside THC, THCV can modulate paranoia. It is also known as an appetite suppressant that can block the reward sensations of eating junk food. In other words, THCV helps kick the munchies.
Its potential medical uses are many: According to the British Journal of Pharmacology, THCV works as an analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer treatment in mice. Like CBD, THCV appears promising as an anti-epileptic, and may also increase motor control while decreasing the tremors and brain degeneration associated with ALS and Parkinson’s. Also similar to its cousin CBD, THCV is promising as an anti-psychotic and as an anti-anxiety treatment relevant for those suffering from PTSD and panic attacks. Moreover, THCV could be used to treat osteoporosis one day because it promotes bone growth, and this could lead to further applications in low-gravity conditions associated with bone loss, such as in space. A 2016 study found that THCV plays a role in blood sugar regulation and could prove helpful for type 2 diabetes patients.
So, how do you get your hands on this relatively rare cannabinoid? You can try a pre-formulated product or ask your budtender about lab results for strains like Pineapple Purps, Girl Scout Cookies, and Durban Poison — all known for their THCV content. Some producers, like Doug’s Varin and Medi-Cone (breeder of Black Beauty) work selective genetics along with specific environmental conditions to bring out higher percentages of THCV (around 3.5 percent) back into certain strains.
Because CBN, or cannabinol, is a byproduct of THC oxidation, this cannabinoid is often found in older weed — particularly that which has been exposed to air and light. Unsurprisingly, not much of it is found in live plants or fresh flower. It’s mildly psychoactive and is best known for its pain-relieving, sedating, and appetite-stimulating effects when combined with THC. Think of it as yielding a body-high along the lines of a deep, mellow indica. Many people use high-CBN strains to kick insomnia, and, like CBD, it may also have anticonvulsant, anti-inflammatory, and antibiotic properties as well as applications for treating skin conditions.
Look for a higher CBN percentage in your flower — or let your weed sit out for a while — if any of those effects are what you’re after. The hybrid strain Animal Cookies, or the indica strain Ace of Spades are known for CBN, but, as always, check those lab results to be sure.
Cannabigerol, or CBG, is the chemical precursor to THC, CBD, and many other cannabinoids. It’s found in larger amounts in immature cannabis plants and converts to one of the more well-known compounds as the plants mature. It’s considered non-psychoactive on its own but does seem to play a role in the entourage effect, or the overall synergy of a plant’s cannabinoids and terpenes. CBG increases dopamine levels in the brain, which in turn help regulate mood, sleep, and appetite. Because it inhibits GABA and serotonin uptake, it may prove helpful in the treatment of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Studies have examined CBG’s role in reducing the intraocular pressure associated with glaucoma, protecting the neurons attacked by Huntington’s disease, fighting cancer, and decreasing the inflammation of IBS. It’s also been studied for its antibacterial properties (particularly when used on the potent bacteria known as MRSA) and has potential uses to remedy bladder dysfunction. CBG alone can provide the appetite-stimulation many cancer patients seek without the high of THC.
It's important to note that THC, CBD, and many other cannabinoids don’t occur naturally in the cannabis plant per se, though their precursors do. The acidic forms of the compounds are found in raw cannabis flower, indicated by an “A” at the end of the name: THCA, CBDA, THCVA, CBGA, and so on. It’s only by decarboxylation, or exposure to heat, that they lose the “A” part of the molecule and take a form that’s more usable by the body’s endocannabinoid system. THCA, for example transforms into its psychoactive counterpart THC only when heated or exposed to ultraviolet light, and that’s the reason you can’t get high from eating or juicing raw cannabis.
As researchers and product developers work to fill the gaps in our knowledge and availability of these less popular cannabinoids, demand for them is growing. The day when consumers can routinely purchase cannabis products based on lab results of these and other rarer cannabinoids, may potentially be not too far away.