Cannabis Chemistry Components

Make an informed decision by learning about the chemistry components of cannabis including cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids and more.

article image
by AdobeStock/Soru Epotok

Find CBD and resources in our MOTHER EARTH NEWS Natural Health store.

Cannabinoids of Cannabis

To date, 120 types of cannabinoids have been able to be identified. Based on their chemical structure, most can be divided into ten large groups, of which the main five are cannabigerol (CBG), cannabichromene (CBC), cannabidiol (CBD), delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and cannabinol (CBN). The other five are delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-8-THC), cannabicyclol (CBL), cannabielsoin (CBE), cannabinodiol (CBND), and cannabitriol (CBTL). Besides these constituents, combinations of constituents in mixed form have also been identified. Each of the above groups includes several types of cannabinoids that are distinguished from one another by the length of the carbon chain making up these molecules. Thus, more than ten types of cannabinoids belong to the delta-9-THC group, which is the most common form of THC.

As a general rule, only three or four types of different cannabinoids are present in a significant concentration in each plant, while the other types are present only in minute amounts or are not present at all. The varieties of cannabis termed psychotropic contain high levels of delta-9-THC, ranging from 1 to 25 percent, while the CBD content is lower, ranging from 0.1 to 0.5 percent. In the cannabis destined for textiles, on the other hand, the level of CBD is higher, varying on average from 0.5 to 2 percent, while the THC content is considerably lower. The European Union authorizes a maximum level of THC of 0.2 percent in textile hemp, to avoid any use for psychotropic purposes; in the United States, as stated earlier, the level of THC in hemp cannot exceed 0.3 percent. Certain types of textile hemp also contain a significant amount of CBG.

black and white illustration of chemical compounds for THC and CBD

Delta-9-THC or, simply, THC has a broad spectrum of properties. The characteristic psychoactive effects of marijuana and hashish are attributed to it as well as most of the medical properties of products derived from cannabis. It has a number of effects, among them, notably, as a euphoriant, muscle relaxant, antiepileptic, antiemetic, appetite stimulant, antibiotic, febrifugal, ocular pressure reducer, bronchodilator, tranquilizer, and analgesic. The recommended dosage of THC is about 5 to 30 mg per day. The effects of delta-9-THC depend in part on the dosage. It also depends on the individual’s state, as THC acts differently depending on the person and the situation. For that reason, THC can, for example, either induce anxiety or relieve it. Very often THC exerts a positive action on nausea and vomiting, but it can, with certain individuals, also give rise to these two conditions every time it is ingested.

In numerous countries, notably Germany, Austria, and Switzerland and in many other countries as well, doctors are authorized to prescribe synthetic THC under dronabinol, which is its international nonproprietary name marketed under various brand or trade names. The number of countries where doctors can prescribe medical marijuana is increasing; among them are Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, and Switzerland, along with Uruguay, Canada, Australia, and thirty-three states and the District of Columbia in the United States.

CBD exhibits no effect on the mind. However, if the dosage is high enough, it can act against the psychoactive properties of THC. Other beneficial results are also attributed to it, such as sedative, anti-inflammatory, antiepileptic, anxiolytic, antipsychotic, and ocular pressure reduction. In addition, CBD reinforces the analgesic effects of THC. In the course of various studies, daily doses varied between 32 and 800 mg of cannabidiol. During a fruitful study at the University of Cologne, the administration of a dose of 800 mg per day was prescribed for patients suffering from schizophrenia.

Most cannabinoids have no effect or very little effect on the mind. Other types of cannabinoids, like CBN, CBG, and CBC, offer a pharmacological potential about which, for the moment, few studies have been conducted.

  • State of mind and perception: sedation, light euphoria, sensation of well-being, heightened anxiety, easing of anxiety, heightened sensory perception, distortion of the perception of time (time seems to pass more slowly), hallucinations (in the case of high dosage).
  • Intellectual work: memory and attention deficit disorders, association of ideas, development of creativity; in individuals presenting attention deficit disorders with hyperactivity (ADHD), THC may improve their aptitude for concentration.
  • Motor activity: disorders in diction and deterioration of motor function, improvement of motor coordination.
  • Nervous system: relief from pain, muscular relaxation, appetite stimulation, reduction of nausea and vomiting.
  • Cardiovascular system: increase in cardiac rhythm, vasodilation, drop in arterial pressure sometimes accompanied by vertigo if the person stands up quickly, slight increase in arterial pressure when lying down, blood platelet coagulation disorder.
  • Eye: reddening of the conjunctiva, reduction of the flow of tears, lowering of ocular pressure.
  • Respiratory pathways: dilation of the bronchi, reduction in the secretion of saliva and a sensation of a dry mouth.
  • Body temperature: lowering of body temperature, increase in fever.
  • Intestinal tract: reduction in intestinal motility and a slowing of gastric evacuation, stomach acid disorders.
  • Hormonal system: risk of possible influence on several hormones in the case of high dosages.
  • Immune system: reduction of inflammation, anti-allergic effect, disturbance of immune system response.
  • Embryonic and fetal development: possible influence on intellectual performance.
  • Genetic inheritance and cancers: anticarcinogenic effect, improvement in the programmed cellular destruction of carcinogenic cells (apoptosis), disturbance of the neovascularization of malignant tumors.

Other Active Elements of Cannabis

In addition to THC and CBD, the main active elements of cannabis, cannabis is made up of essential oils or terpenes and flavonoids, which can be beneficial from a medical point of view.

Twenty-one types of different flavonoids are found in cannabis, of which the majority are also found in numerous other plants. They belong to the class of secondary plant materials in the same way that vitamins, minerals, and fibers do. Among other functions, flavonoids protect plants against the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation, and they act as a plant coloring agent, such as is found in cherries or other red fruit. In the human organism, certain types of flavonoids present in cannabis, such as apigenin and cannflavin A, have anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, apigenin has anxiolytic effects. Others, like quercetin, are strong antioxidants, which, consequently, can protect cells from the destructive effects of free radicals.

white book cover with a cannabis leaf

Essential oils are responsible for the odor of various plants as they evaporate easily and penetrate into the nasal cavity when you smell a plant. The best-known property of terpenes is in fighting inflammation in the nasopharynx. This is why there has been a longstanding practice of baths using steam with a chamomile base or a base of other plants with a high percentage of essential oils. Eugenol, one of the terpenes present in cannabis, has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. Eucalyptol (1,8-cineol), another terpene, increases blood flow in the brain, and linalool has an anxiolytic and soothing effect.

Because only small quantities of cannabis are recommended for medical use — that is, from one up to a few grams of cannabis — the quantities of terpenes and flavonoids absorbed are minimal, which gives the impression that the pharmacological effects of these substances are relatively slight.

Differences between Sativa and Indica

Among the varieties of cannabis, the most commonly encountered classification is the subclassification of those plants of the indica type, which is shorter, three to five feet in height, with broader leaves, and those of the sativa type, which have narrower leaves and can grow up to twenty feet high. Plants of the indica type reach maturity more rapidly than those of the sativa type when raised under the same growing conditions. The plants smell differently, which indicates that they are composed of different terpenes, or essential oils.

The “sativa high” is often described as stimulating and energizing. The existential feeling is characterized as a mental high. Hallucinogenic effects can occur. The various kinds of sativa lead to a sensation of optimism and well-being. Though the different kinds of sativa generally contain an average amount of THC, today there are pure kinds of sativa with very high concentrations of THC. The sativas are considered to be the best adapted to daily consumption.

Conversely, the effects of indica are characterized as a body high. The indicas are often used for relaxation, for reducing stress as well as for a general feeling of calm and collectedness. They are preferably taken in the evening or particularly in the case of insomnia.

Earlier studies have already shown that the proportion of the most important cannabinoids–THC and CBD — do not provide a relevant explanation for the distinction between C. indica and C. sativa.

The composition of terpenes provides some indication of the possible differences in effects of sativas and indicas. For example, the indica cultivar called White Widow has twice the concentration of alpha-pinene and four times more myrcene than a sativa cultivar called Amnesia. Alpha-pinene is know to counteract some of the less desirable effects of THC, such as anxiety and loss of short-term memory, which suggests that Amnesia, with its lower concentration of this terpene, could indeed cause amnesia. Myrcene is known for its sedative effects, a property that is characteristic of indicas.

White Widow also contains terpenes not present in Amnesia, such as guaiol, beta-eudesmol, gamma-eudesmol, and alpha-bisabolol. These two plants indicate that concentrations of beta-caryophyllene as well as of the cannabinoid CBC (cannabichromene) and especially of CBG (cannabigerol) are much higher in sativas than in indicas.

Note to reader: This excerpt is intended as an informational guide. The remedies, approaches, and techniques described herein are meant to supplement, and not to be a substitute for, professional medical care or treatment. They should not be used to treat a serious ailment without prior consultation with a qualified health care professional.

More from Cannabis Healing

The Endogenous Cannabinoid System


Excerpted with permission from Cannabis Healing A Guide to the Therapeutic use of CBD, THC, and Other Cannabinoids by Franjo Grotenhermen, M.D., published by Park Street Press, 2020.