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The Active Ingredients in Marijuana

Mar 17, 2020

The Active Ingredients in Marijuana

People cultivate cannabis for a wide range of reasons, whether it is for personal use, pain management, or to explore the range of benefits it provides. There are many strains of cannabis that, when consumed, have different effects. Some strains give a person a substantial psychoactive experience, while others may help treat severe conditions like epilepsy, depression, or insomnia.

As a person explores their preferences of marijuana, they are often surprised to learn that the strains they enjoy the most are not the ones highest in THC. The experience evoked by a strain is determined by its combined cannabinoid and terpene profile.

At the time this article was written, more than 80 plant-based phytocannabinoids have been identified in marijuana and hemp. There are several synthetic cannabinoids, all of which have some psychoactive or medicinal purposes. Terpenes mainly work alongside cannabinoids to alter their effects and contribute to their smell and taste. The different mixes of each of these chemicals are the main drivers behind defining a strain of cannabis. The most prominent of these ingredients are listed below.


Cannabinoids comprise delta-g-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), CBDA, and TCHA, where “A” represents a carboxylic acid molecule that is produced by the cannabis plant. There is also CBN, which is produced during the chemical breakdown of the plant. Cannabinoids are responsible for both the medicinal and psychoactive attributes of a strain of cannabis.

Experienced growers can selectively breed their cannabis plants to increase certain cannabinoids that provide them with their desired effect while reducing or eliminating the effects they don’t want. Cannabis plants that are high in THC will give the person consuming it a psychoactive experience, whereas those that are CBD dominant will not.

Delta-g-tetrahydrocannabinol THC

Delta-g-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is generally used as the chief metric in measuring a strain’s potency. THC is at concentrations of about .5% in all parts of male hemp plants, 2-3% in the leaves of female plants, and 4-20% in the flowers of high-quality female plants. The highest concentration of THC is found in buds that do not contain seeds, known as sinsemilla. Cannabis flowers can be processed into hashish and distillates to create THC concentrations of up to 90%.

THC is the psychoactive compound in cannabis, producing the “high” feeling for which the plant is often cultivated. THC has several effects that users seek, including an analgesic effect, appetite stimulation, an anti-nausea effect, an anti-inflammatory effect, and can be neuroprotective.  appetite stimulation

Therapeutic doses of THC are generally between 2.5 and 20 milligrams. For reference, the average joint comprising .5 gram of medium-grade marijuana has 25 milligrams of THC. Unfortunately, combustion destroys THC, so around half of it is lost when smoking it.


THCA is the naturally occurring, inactive acid produced by the cannabis plant. If a person were to consume THCA without breaking the acid down into its immediately available form, THC, then it would not produce much of a psychoactive effect. However, it has been shown to have some immune modulation properties, much like other cannabinoids.

The process by which THC is converted into THCA through the application of heat is called decarboxylation. This can be done through heat combustion or through cooking. During this process, THCA is converted into THC rapidly, and will then produce a psychoactive effect on the person consuming it.

Cannabidiol CBD

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a compound in cannabis that does not produce much of a psychoactive effect on the person consuming it, nor does it interact much with a person’s cannabinoid receptors. However, it has several other benefits for which many people seek the plant out. It is the second most prevalent cannabinoid and comes in high concentrations in male hemp plants.

CBD is capable of working with THC to moderate the psychoactive effects of marijuana and boost its medicinal effects. There has even been some research into the use of CBD-heavy cannabis strains to help treat conditions like anxiety. This helps mitigate the panic reactions that some users report after ingesting THC. It is believed that CBD can increase the availability of THC to the body, as well.

CBD has many of its own medicinal properties when consumed by itself, as well. It has anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, anti-epileptic, and sedative effects. It is a powerful antioxidant and has even been indicated for the treatment of arthritis. In lab testing, it is effective in treating diabetes, damage caused by a stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, some cancers, alcoholism, and Huntington’s Disease. Going forward, there are plans to research CBD’s ability to treat psychotic disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, and multiple sclerosis.


CBDA is like THCA in that it is the precursor to the chemical compound that can be absorbed by the body. The plant produces both CBDA and THCA, but when one is high, the other is generally relatively low. Most psychoactive strains contain very low levels of CBD, as growers breed them out to increase the plants’ levels of THC. CBDA and THCA both have medicinal properties and are typically consumed by making tea with or juicing the plant’s leaves and flowers.

Cannabinol CBN

Cannabinol, or CBN, is not a desired chemical compound in a cannabis plant. CBN is formed as THC degrades and consuming it can lead to loss of muscle control, dizziness, and other uncomfortable side effects. Most often, CBN develops when marijuana has been stored improperly for some time. It is not found naturally in fresh, or well-preserved marijuana flowers.


Terpenes can modify the effect of cannabinoids and contribute heavily to the flower’s taste and smell. Terpenes levels are often treated as a strain’s signature and are currently being studied to determine their physiological effects. Below is a summary of some terpenes that have been identified so far.


Pinene is a terpene with a robust pine-like scent and flavor. It is frequently found in turpentine, pine trees, sage, rosemary, and eucalyptus. Some researchers believe it assists in the retention of memories, can increase focus, improve energy, and boost self-satisfaction. Pinene is also considered a bronchodilator, which allows more THC to be absorbed by the lungs.


Terpineol is a floral-heavy terpene that features subtle scents of orange blossom and lilac. It is one of the chemical compounds in cannabis responsible for producing a feeling of sleepiness and the urge to rest. Terpineol and pinene are often both present in a strain of marijuana, which makes the smell of terpineol more challenging to distinguish.

Terpineol is helpful for those with sleep issues. It has been indicated for use as an antibiotic, antioxidant, antitumor, anti-inflammatory, and antimalarial. Outside of cannabis, it is often used in teas, lotions, and other highly fragrant applications.


Caryophyllene is a woody, peppery terpene that is found in cannabis, as well as many edible plants. It is easily detectable in black pepper, cinnamon, oregano, cloves, hops, basil, and rosemary. This terpene is a favorite ingredient for makers of topical CBD salves because of its anti-inflammatory properties. Additionally, caryophyllene has been indicated for use in the treatment of alcohol cravings, anxiety, and depression.


Linalool has a strong floral scent akin to the smell of lilies and lavender. This terpene is often found in cannabis strains that produce a severe sedative effect, as they promote feelings of sleepiness and relaxation. Individuals who want to take their mind off of physical pain or discomfort should search for cannabis strains that have a sweet, floral smell, as these are likely to be high in linalool. Linalool has been suggested for use in the treatment of anxiety, depression, epilepsy, inflammation, and insomnia.


Limonene is a terpene with a bright, citrus smell and taste similar to that of a lemon. In addition to cannabis, limonene can be found in fruit rinds, cosmetics, and household cleaning products. Some benefits of the limonene terpene include stress relief, antibacterial properties, antifungal properties, lifted mood, and gastric reflux relief. Limonene is currently being studied for its antitumor effects and is showing promising results.


Myrcene is a terpene present in cannabis plants with a strong smell. It can also be found in things like mangoes, bay laurel leaves, hops, lemongrass, basil, and thyme. Studies have suggested that it produces a sedative effect, and it increases the potency of THC when consumed. Some research even suggests that eating a mango before ingesting THC will prolong the effects the THC has on the brain and body. Myrcene may be useful as an antibiotic and antimutagenic, as well as in treating pain, inflammation, and insomnia.


Pulgone is somewhat minty. Outside of cannabis, this terpene is often used by candy makers for its sweet, strong flavor and scent. Some research suggests that this terpene diminishes memory loss by reducing the destruction of memory transfer proteins in the brain. It is effective in increasing alertness, increasing focus, and repelling insects.


Borneol is a terpene found in cannabis that plays a huge part in Chinese medicine. As early as 1600, Borneol, often called moxa, was used to treat inflammation, anxiety, and heart disease. In recent years, researchers have suggested that it may be used as a neuroprotectant, analgesic, and antioxidant.

Borneol repels insects, making it easier to protect cannabis plants with a large amount of this terpene against harmful infestations. It has a rich odor similar to camphor or menthol and produces a calming effect.


Bisabolol is a terpene with a fragrant floral smell. Aside from cannabis, bisabolol can be found in chamomile and the candeia tree. This terpene is used heavily in the cosmetic industry, as it boasts a pleasant smell and is an anti-irritant. In recent years, bisabolol has been looked into for its medicinal effects, which include anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, analgesic, and antioxidant properties. In cannabis, bisabolol produces a soothing effect, making it great for the treatment of anxiety and insomnia.


Geraniol is well known for its presence in geraniums, and it produces a delicate floral scent. This terpene can be found in a range of plants, including cannabis, tobacco, and lemon. Most interestingly, it is produced by honeybees as a means of marking flowers that belong to their hive.

Geraniol has been indicated in the treatment of many conditions, including cancer, anxiety, and epilepsy. Research suggests it can be used for its antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties. Geraniol is effective in repelling mosquitoes, as well. It is often found in cannabis strains that also produce linalool, making it great for relaxing and inducing sleep.


Valencene is a bright and citrus-like terpene most commonly found in Valencia oranges. Its aromas are akin to ripe grapefruit, oranges, or tangerines, and can repel ticks and mosquitoes. Valencene is found in a wide range of cannabis strains, and research has proven it useful in a variety of medicinal applications.

Valencene is suggested for use as an anti-inflammatory, and for its anti-allergy properties. New research is emerging that suggests it may increase the effects of a common chemotherapy drug called Doxorubicin. Additionally, valencene has the capability of providing some protection for the skin against the sun’s harmful UV rays.

The Bottom Line

While cannabis has been consumed by humans for thousands of years, recent research has helped identify the ingredients that produce different effects in each strain of marijuana. This information has allowed growers to tinker with the plant’s genetics. Because of this, they can now suppress unwanted characteristics and boost the ingredients that produce the effects they desire. Over the years, this has led to many strains available that treat a wide range of medical conditions and meet a variety of needs.

In today’s cannabis growing industry, there is a strain that will fit the requirements of any marijuana enthusiast. So long as a person understands what ingredients produce the effects they are looking for, they will be able to pinpoint the exact breed of cannabis plant that works for them. Take a look at a catalogue of strain profiles on!

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