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What is Cannabis?
Cannabis is an herb, original from Central Asia, that has been used by humans for approximately 10,000 years for industrial, medicinal and recreational purposes. Although the classification of cannabis in the tree of life has been revised multiple times, currently, all the varieties of cannabis are considered one species, Cannabis sativa L. Historically, multiple subspecies and varieties have been described in Asia and Europe, including Cannabis sativa subspecies sativa, C. s. subsp. indica, C. s. subsp. ruderalis, C. s. subsp. indica variety afghanica, etc., which could be distinguished from each other based on their growing habits, leaf and flower shapes and colors, and the concentration of intoxicating and non-intoxicant chemicals present in their flowers and young leaves. However, agricultural production and breeding have created numerous hybrid varieties that display mixed characteristics, such that the physical appearance of a cannabis plant does not strictly reflect the chemical profiles of its flowers and leaves. In the US the varieties that have been bred for production of fiber, grain and oilseed are known as industrial hemp, or just hemp; while the cannabis plants bred for chemical production can be legally defined as hemp or as marijuana, based on their content of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-9 THC), an intoxicating chemical. Cannabis plants with less than 0.3% delta-9 THC of their dry weight are classified as hemp, while plants or their derivates that contain more than 0.3% delta-9 THC of their dry weight are classified as marijuana. Stems and older leaves of cannabis plants have residual amounts of cannabinoids; however, the roots and hulled seeds have no detectable amounts of cannabinoids.
What is hemp?
In the US, hemp is defined as cannabis plants with less than 0.3% delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-9 THC) of their dry weight. There are many commercial varieties of hemp that have been bred for production of fiber, grain or dual-purpose (fiber and grain). Currently, the hemp varieties grown in the US are produced from seed imported from Canada and from a few countries in Europe. Numerous research institutions across the country evaluate hemp varieties to identify those that grow best in each state. Breeding programs evaluate agronomic characteristics of the varieties, including total biomass, fiber and grain yield, grain nutritional content, and flower chemical profiles, as well as susceptibility to diseases and pests. The cannabinoid and terpene content of cannabis plants is determined by genetics. However, environmental factors can affect the total content of these chemicals; therefore, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture reports every year the varieties that had one or more reports of delta-9 THC above 0.3% in Pennsylvania and other states in their website.
What are the uses of hemp?
Hemp can be produced to obtain fiber, grain, and phytochemicals. Hemp fiber is used for many industrial purposes, including production of textiles, paper, construction materials (hempcrete, hemp wood flooring, thermal insulation materials, etc.), animal bedding, bioplastics, among others. Hemp grain can be used shelled for food (hemp hearts) or hulled as animal feed (at this time only poultry in Pennsylvania) or for extraction of seed oil. Hemp seed oil is edible and rich in nutrients, but it burns easily, so it is often used in salad dressings or as an ingredient in health products, food, supplements and cosmetics, as well as for other industrial applications. Hemp flowers and the young leaves around them are rich in chemicals (cannabinoids and terpenes), particularly before they are pollinated. Cannabis produce chemicals in small glandular hairs known as trichomes. Trichomes produce hundreds of chemicals, among which the most valuable are cannabinoids and terpenoids, also known as terpenes. Cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabigerol (CBG) are the most abundant cannabinoids in hemp, while β-Caryophyllene and β-myrcene are the most abundant terpenoids in hemp. Both cannabinoids and terpenoids have been studied for their potential beneficial properties.
What are cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids are chemicals (secondary metabolites) produced by plants (phytochemicals) that interact with receptor proteins in the endocannabinoid system of most animals. Their name was assigned because they were first discovered in cannabis plants, however, cannabinoids occur also in other plant species. The role of cannabinoids in plants is associated with defense from herbivores and protection from environmental stresses, such as draught or high light intensity. All cannabinoids derive from a single precursor molecule, cannabigerol (CBG), that is modified by multiple enzymes to produce more than a hundred different cannabinoid molecules. The most abundant cannabinoids in cannabis plants are cannabigerol (CBG), tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and cannabidiol (CBD).
In animals, the endocannabinoid system is a complex molecular system that modulates many physiological processes, including the transmission of signals in the nervous and the immune systems. The endocannabinoid system includes specialized membrane receptors (CB1 and CB2) that are present in the cells in most organs, enzymes and endocannabinoids. CB1 receptors are most abundant in the nervous system, while CB2 receptors are most abundant in the immune system. In the brain, CB1 receptors are located primarily in the central nervous system, especially the basal ganglia, hippocampus, cerebellum and cortex. CB2 receptors are a bit more elusive but tend to be expressed in neurons after internal injury, such as nerve damage. Endocannabinoids are signaling molecules that directly interact and activate the endocannabinoid receptors to help regulate nervous and immune responses. Although the shape of endocannabinoid molecules does not resemble that of plant cannabinoids, the way they interact with the endocannabinoid receptors is very similar, therefore they have similar effects. Several endocannabinoids have been described, with anandamide being the most understood. Anandamide activates with both CB1 and CB2 receptors in a way similar to THC. Although CBD does not have much affinity for the CB1 or the CB2 receptors, it counteracts and modulates the effects of anandamide or THC. Although exposure to high doses of cannabinoids can cause severe undesired effects, like vomit, hallucinations and paranoia, they do not act directly over areas of the brain that regulate vital functions, such as breathing or heart function, therefore, even at high doses are not lethal.
Why does THC make you high and CBD doesn’t?
THC activates neurons in various parts of the brain, including those in the reward system which results in the production of dopamine. THC also activates serotonin receptors and inhibits serotonin uptake. In consequence, THC produces a sense of wellbeing; however, frequent consumption of high doses of THC can also lead to addiction. High doses of THC can overstimulate several regions of the brain, triggering anxiety, paranoia, and in extreme cases it can cause symptoms of severe psychosis, such as hallucinations and delusions.
In contrast, CBD antagonizes the effects of THC and endocannabinoids on CB1 and CB2 receptors; hence it doesn’t have psychoactive effects. CBD enhances the signaling activity of anandamide which explains some of its beneficial effects.
What is the difference between CBD and THC?
CBD and THC are produced by the activity of different enzymes on cannabigerol, but they are very different molecules and they have opposite activities. While THC activates CB1 and CB2 receptors, CBD reduces their activities.