What are Cannabinoids Article

What are Cannabinoids

If you’re new to medicinal or recreational marijuana and don’t know your THCs from your CBDs, this simple guide to cannabinoids is for you.

Whether you’re thinking about joining the cannabis revolution or you’re a regular user, it’s important to know more about the chemicals and compounds in your marijuana products, and a deeper understanding of cannabinoids is an essential part of your cannabis education.

Here’s everything a beginner needs to know about the cannabis plants, cannabinoids, and the key considerations ahead of making your next purchase.

An overview of the cannabis plant

The cannabis plant is a genus of the Cannabaceae family that has been used for thousands of years in both medicinal and recreational usage. In fact, the consumption of marijuana hemp for medicinal purposes dates back to 4,000 B.C in Ancient China. It has since spread its way across the globe and is used by millions on every continent.

Over time, its characteristics have been linked to a range of potential health benefits. Furthermore, as the understanding of cannabis continues to grow in conjunction with increased legalisation, research continues on these proposed benefits, and more.

Cannabis plants are most commonly found as one of two strains, known as Sativa and Indica. While the former is known for its light green appearance, long leaves, and high THC levels, the latter is associated with a darker color, wide leaves, and higher levels of CBD.

What are the main cannabinoids to consider?

When looking at the anatomy of the cannabis plant with a view to potential consumption, cannabinoids are the most common ingredients by far. The term cannabinoid is used as a collective to describe a group of just over 60 of the 400+ compounds found in the cannabis plant. Of those compounds, some are more important than others, at least from a consumer’s (or dispensary’s) perspective. The most significant ones are:


Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly known as tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, is the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. It is, therefore, the compound that gives cannabis users the distinct “high” when smoking or consuming a product with high THC levels.

THC’s chemical make-up is C₂₁H₃₀O₂ and causes temporary psychological changes by mimicking the impact of the anandamide chemical that is usually produced in the brain. THC is also commonly used as tinctures, edibles, lotions, and a range of alternative solutions.


While it is commonly thought that THC is the main compound of the cannabis plant, the truth is that the most common compound is actually THCa, also known as tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, which is the precursor capable of developing into THC. Therefore, the two compounds share a lot of key attributes.

The key difference from a consumer’s outlook is that THCa does not evoke a psychological impact. The compound’s chemical formula is C₂2H₃₀O4 while it also goes by the name 2-Carboxy-THC. Its molar mass is 358.478 g·mol−1.


CBD, or Cannabidiol, is the other main cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant and was actually discovered back in 1940. Its chemical makeup is C21H30O2, and it is often preferred due to the lack of psychoactive impact.

Cannabidiol is found in a wide range of products, including edibles, oils, lotions, and more. Moreover, it can be found in products with the addition of THC or without/minimal levels of the THC compound.


CBDa is to CBD what THCa is to THC. It is the precursor to CBD and is an acidic compound that shares many attributes with the more commonly known CBD. Despite this, it wasn’t discovered until 1996, which is why its influence and proposed benefits are still under significant research.

Cannabidiolic acid is found in the raw plant, and the transformation into CBD occurs as a result of being heated, cured, or dried. This factor is particularly significant due to the fact that CBD is only found in small quantities in live cannabis plants.


CBG, or Cannabigerol, is another non-psychologically active cannabinoid. It has a formula of C21H32O2. While it is another agent that has an acidic precursor (CBGa), CBG is considered the most expensive cannabinoid to produce, requiring thousands of pounds of biomass to produce relatively small amounts of the compound.


CBN, Cannabinol is a mildly psychoactive cannabinoid with a formula of C21H26O2 and is found in aged cannabis. Isolated from the cannabis plant in 1899, it was the first cannabinoid to be discovered. Its potency is roughly one-quarter of that shown by THC, which can make it a better compound in items used by people new to cannabis.

What are Terpenes?

In addition to cannabinoids, the cannabis plant is packed with essential oils known as terpenes, which are known for giving the plant its distinct flavor and smell.

While they are actively found in all plants, the terpenes found in cannabis plants carry a host of additional and independent medical value. While there are over 100 terpenes, the most important ones to know are;

  • Myrcene – a terpene with an earthy aroma that may offer pain relief and enhances sleep.
  • Pinene – a terpene with a pine aroma that may aid cancer treatment.
  • Limonene – a terpene with a citrus aroma that may fight anxiety and depression.

What about the endocannabinoid system and endo-cannabinoids?

First discovered in the 1990s, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a network of naturally occurring endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzyme. It is primarily comprised of;

  • The anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG) endocannabinoids.
  • The CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors.
  • Fatty acid amide hydrolase and monoacylglycerol acid lipase

Cannabinoid compounds have their impact on the body by binding with the CB1 and CB2 receptors in a very similar way to endocannabinoids. However, CBD doesn’t bind in the same way that THC does, which explains why the former does not create a psychological change.

As research continues, the full understanding of why and how the interactions between cannabinoids and the ECS will continue to grow too.

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