Cannabinoids: What Are Cannabinoids & What Do They Do?

By WeedWeek May 28, 2020

The cannabinoids found in cannabis plants have natural effects on the human body resulting in pleasant highs, pain relief, and a number of other desirable effects. This article will explore what cannabinoids are and what they do.

What Are Cannabinoids?

If you’ve heard of THC and CBD, then you’ve already heard about two different cannabinoids. All cannabinoids are found in the resin produced by the plant’s trichomes, which are small mushroom-shaped growths found on the buds, and some leaves of mature cannabis. When dried, these trichomes appear as a sugar-like dusting, and create a stickiness on fresh and dried buds. 

Ultimately, cannabinoids are the chemicals that  determine a cannabis plant’s general potency. Whether you’re smoking a joint, hot-kniving some hash, or eating your way through a pot brownie, it is the cannabinoids which provide the effects you’re feeling.

What Do Cannabinoids Do? Effects Of Cannabinoids:

 Human beings have an endocannabinoid system (ECS) in our own bodies, a system set up specifically to process cannabinoids. The ECS maintains an internal homeostasis within our bodies’ many complex systems, including immune and digestive systems. It also is believed to help modulate emotional responses, social interactions, cognition, appetite, pain sensation, sleep, and memory.

Receptors are integral to the functioning of the ECS. These receptors receive information about surrounding conditions in the body and become activated by molecules known as endocannabinoids. It is via the information received by endocannabinoids that the ECS is able to ensure homeostasis. Two of the best known ECS receptors are CB-1, found within areas of the brain regulating emotion, fear and memory; and CB-2, which are found primarily in the immune system.

Because the cannabinoids which naturally occur in cannabis plants are so similar to naturally occuring  human endocannabinoids, they can adhere to receptors within the ECS of the human body. The major difference between cannabinoids and endocannabinoids is their origin: cannabinoids come from the cannabis sativa plant, while endocannabinoids originate from within the human body.

Types Of Cannabinoids

Cannabis plants are highly complex organisms. There are over 100 identified cannabinoids contained within those green leaves and buds, with some estimates pegging that number up to 200. Below are a few of the best known, and studied, cannabinoids.


On its own, tetrahydrocannabinol (THCA) can potentially aid with symptoms associated with chronic inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. When heated through a process known as decarboxylation, THCA becomes activated and transforms into THC, the cannabinoid responsible for providing euphoric effects; Once inside the body, THC joins with the  CB-1 receptors in the ECS, producing psychoactive effects.


Cannabidiol, or CBD, is an increasingly common addition to a variety of products including soft drinks, wellness products and even pet treats. While it doesn’t induce a “high” like THC, it does appear to possess powerful qualities including anti-inflammatory, analgesic (pain relief), anticonvulsant effects, and may even help aid with certain kinds of cancer. CBD has a diverse receptor profile within the ECS, meaning that it has a broad potential for medical applications.


In the past, cannabinol (CBN) was overlooked as a byproduct of THC, since it develops as THC ages and decomposes. However, recent investigations have found this cannabinoid to have potentially potent sedative effects, as well as antibacterial and anticonvulsant properties. It is also mildly psychoactive, owing to the fact that it is a by-product of THC.


Cannabigerol (CBG) is the precursor to many different cannabinoids. In the same way that stem cells can become other types of cells in an animals’ body, CBG can be synthesized to produce some of the more popular, and commercially desirable types of cannabinoids. This transformative power is what’s  leading some to speculate whether it might just be the next CBD.

It’s also known as the Rolls Royce of cannabinoids because it is so costly to produce: requiring thousands of pounds of plant material to generate small outputs of this precious molecule. In many cannabis strains, CBG accounts for 1-2 percent or less of the total cannabinoid profile.

However, research is surging onwards, with product applications like toothpaste and facial ointments becoming increasingly attractive, thanks to CBG’s antibacterial properties. CBG is also thought to increase levels of anandamide, which is connected to feelings of euphoria.


Tetrahydrocannabivarin, or THCV, is somewhat unique among cannabinoids, since it has the opposite effect of the munchies. Some studies speculate THCV may be of use when it comes to regulating type 2 diabetes and weight loss, since it appears to have appetite-suppressant effects as well as improving metabolism. It’s  a reverse-munchies cannabinoid.


Cannabidivarin (CBDV) is similar to CBD, meaning it will not produce intoxicating highs. CBDV is being studied for its potential effectiveness in treating seizures, gastrointestinal inflammation and nausea.


No human-based experiments have been conducted to assess the effects of Cannabichromene (CBC), however there are a host of (painful-sounding) rat studies which appear to indicate antimicrobial and antifungal effects. One study involved injecting rat’s paw with carrageenan, a material made from seaweed which is commonly used in many household products as an emulsifier. After the subsequent application of CBC, the swelling reduced, suggesting CBC has anti-inflammatory properties.


When producing cannabis products – growing plants andthen processing their parts – it is impossible to achieve a totally consistent product, due to natural variations in cannabinoid concentrations within the plants themselves. As weed becomes increasingly legalized across North America and consumption continues to expand, the need for greater degrees of quality control – including the purity and consistency of products – becomes more important.

Enter biosynthesis, a process by which the plant can be skipped altogether, allowing only the cannabinoids to be grown instead. Biosynthesis is a process of cellular agriculture, in which living microorganisms are engineered to produce a given material. In the case of cannabinoids, experiments have been successfully carried out using organisms such as yeasts, bacteria and algae, with companies now looking to bring this technology to scale.

Double Bond Position

The double bond isomer in THC is the microscopic arrangement that holds the key to this cannabioid’s psychoactive properties,  which is why it’s of great interest to scientists and cannabis users alike. The composition of THC is what sets it apart from non-psychoactive cannabinoids such as CBD, which looks nearly identical to THC beneath a microscope.

Both cannabinoids are composed of six carbon atoms arranged in what’s called a cyclohexane ring. These atoms are connected to one another via single covalent bonds. Where THC differs is within one pair in this ring which is connected by a double-bond. This double bond is what produces psychoactive effects.

What Is The Difference Between Cannabinoids?

Each cannabinoid has different properties and effects based on its molecular structure and the ways it interacts with endocannabinoid system receptors in human bodies. Cannabinoids like THC produce intoxicating effects, meaning generating the feeling of euphoria, commonly known as the  ‘high.’ Others, like cannabidiol, tend to produce effects on the body such as anti-inflammatory and anti-nausea.

What Are The Medical Benefits Of Cannabinoids?

The list of established medical benefits of cannabinoids is long, and growing. One of the most well-known benefits is in pain relief, with one review finding that the use of THC resulted in a 30 percent reduction of pain associated with HIV symptoms. These compounds can also help alleviate symptoms associated with chemotherapy, multiple sclerosis and HIV. They can be effective to help you catch those z’s, especially among people with conditions such as PTSD or chronic pain, which tend to keep people awake at night. 

List Of Cannabinoids

Below is a list of 14 of the best-known cannabinoids: 

  1. Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid (THCA)
  2. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)
  3. Cannabidiolic Acid (CBDA)
  4. Cannabidiol (CBD)
  5. Cannabinol (CBN)
  6. Cannabigerol (CBG)
  7. Cannabichromene (CBC)
  8. Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV)
  9. Cannabidivarin (CBDV)
  10. Cannabichromenenic acid (CBCA)
  11. Cannabigerovarinic acid (CBGVA) 
  12. THCVA (Tetrahydrocanabivarinic acid)
  13. Cannabidivarinic acid (CBDVA)
  14. Cannabichromevarinic acid (CBCVA)

Can You Get High From Cannabinoids?

Not all cannabinoids get you high. Those that bind to the CB-1 receptors in the endocannabinoid system, found in areas of the brain, produce psychoactive effects. THC is the primary psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis sativa, although other cannabinoids such as THC’s analog, delta-8-THC, also have these properties. CBN, which is a by-product of THC, is also mildly psychoactive. Cannabinoids like CBD, on the other hand, won’t get you high, though they are psychoactive, being processed as they are by the brain.

Cannabinoids And Other Drugs

Generally speaking, drug interactions occur when multiple drugs or substances are present within the body simultaneously. Interactions between drugs can produce diminished or increased effects, or sometimes altogether different or unexpected outcomes. Drug interactions generally depend on factors including the nature of the substances themselves, coupled with the individual conditions within a person’s body. These conditions can include existing medical conditions or metabolism. Generally, it is advised not to mix drugs, whether recreationally or for medical purposes, unless directed by a physician. 

As with much of marijuana knowledge, many questions remain about how street drugs and pharmaceuticals interact with cannabinoids. There are some indications that cannabinoids may end up amplifying the effects of certain pharmaceuticals in desirable ways. One example comes from a study which found that pain reduction was amplified when opioids and vaporized cannabis were combined.

Other interactions, however, may produce unexpected results. THC may increase the effects of blood thinning medications, including ibuprofen, which may be desirable or not – it all depends upon the individual and the situation. Within more recreational contexts, THC in blood has been found to increase after consuming alcohol.

In order to avoid tricky situations with drug interactions with cannabinoids, always remember to consume responsibly. 

Are Cannabinoids Legal?

Out of all the hundreds of different cannabinoids present in hemp and marijuana plants, only two carry explicit regulations for their use at the federal level in the United States: THC and CBD. Cannabis sativa, which has over 0.3 percent THC, remains classified as a Schedule 1 drug. However, the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp, which contains less than 0.3 percent THC. Because CBD is present in hemp, this rendered CBD legal as long as it is derived from hemp. However CBD derived from cannabis sativa plants still remains illegal. 

Many states have made cannabis entirely legal, such as California, Colorado, Alaska, Nevada and Vermont. In a number of other states, marijuana is only legally permitted for use in medical contexts. In states such as Texas, Virginia and Mississippi, only CBD has been legalized to some degree, though not THC.


Science is just beginning to scratch the surface of the weird and wonderful world of cannabinoids – and there are likely going to be discoveries for years to come. One thing appears certain: many people believe cannabinoids contribute to their well-being.