Cannabinoids are chemicals that interact with our endocannabinoid system. Many types of animals have endocannabinoid systems, even the simple ocean hydra. Our endocannabinoid system is located throughout our body in our nervous systems. There are 2 main types of receptors, CB1 (in the brain) and CB2 (spread throughout the body). Because of the illegal Schedule I status, very little research has been done to fully understand this system and the functions it performs.
Cannabis has over 80 documented cannabinoids, but for our purposes, there are a few main ones you will see mentioned a lot. Here is a brief description of each. This is going to serve as a living document, to be changed and updated as necessary. Note that the effects of different cannabis strains will be determined by a combination of the terpenes (chemicals responsible for smell), ratios of cannabinoids, and your body chemistry. Also, isolating these cannabinoids do not have the same effects as whole plant medicine. Most unbiased research shows that the whole plant medicine is better for you than isolated chemicals. Cannabis works through a process called “The Entourage Effect”. This means that the medicinal effects are dictated by the entire make up of the plant. Without companion chemicals, the therapeutic ones aren’t working to their potential.
THC or tetrahydrocannabinol. Clearly this is the most famous, and most abundant chemical in marijuana. THC was discovered by an Israeli scientist, thus fostering the discovery of the human endocannabinoid system. This is the chemical responsible (mostly) for the psychoactive nature of cannabis. The “high” is determined by chemical interactions between the cannabinoids like THC and CBD, the terpenes (flavonoids responsible for smell), and your body chemistry. THC interacts with the CB1 receptors in the brain, which is why it is psychoactive.
CBD or cannabidiol is the second most understood (though still not fully) cannabinoid. This cannabinoid specifically interacts with the CB2 receptors in the peripheral nervous system. It is thought that CBD helps mitigate the psychoactivity of THC and provides the body with anti-inflammatory benefit. High CBD strains like Charlotte’s Web are being used to stop seizures in children with Dravet’s Syndrome. For more information about CBD, check out Project CBD at http://www.projectcbd.org/
CBN or cannabinol is what happens when THC breaks down over time. CBN is not considered significantly psychoactive, but it most likely interacts with the other chemicals to determine effects. Not a lot is known about it, though it does prefer the CB2 receptors over CB1. They make patches of CBN for use in a way similar to pain patches.
CBG or Cannabigerol is not very well understood, but scientists know this interacts with many of the body’s cannabinoid receptors. CBG is instrumental in determining the effects of the cannabis.
Here is some information you might find useful:
Dr. Raphael Mechoulam isolated THC for the first time in 1964. He is the leading researcher in cannabinoid science and has established the scientific baseline for cannabis research around the world. His work has led to a program at Sheba hospital where cannabis is used for many purposes within the hospital. Israel also has one of the most comprehensive medical marijuana programs in the world. This link has a pdf that can be uploaded and read about cannabinoid science in an interview done about 2006.
This link has a general story about Dr. Mechoulam.