THC is not the only cannabinoid that can get you high. Tetrahydrocannabipherol (THCP) is significantly more potent than THC according to research published at the end of 2019.  Scientists have identified approximately 150 cannabinoids.  Along with THCB, CBDB, and CBDP, THCP is one of the most recent discoveries.  Although most cannabis strains contain very small amounts of THCP, the isolation of this phytocannabinoid has the potential to change the way we think about medical cannabis. 

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How Does THCP Affect the Body?

THCP’s effects are produced by the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is made up of three components:

  • endocannabinoids
  • cannabinoid receptors 1 and 2 (CB1 and CB2) 
  • and enzymes 

You can think of endocannabinoids, chemicals produced by the brain, as trucks delivering messages throughout the body. CB1 and CB2 receptors are where the trucks stop to make their deliveries. When enzymes unpack these messages, you feel the effects of the cannabinoids. Cannabis works because its phytocannabinoids interact with the ECS similarly to how endocannabinoids do—they send messages which are broken down by enzymes.   Of all the phytocannabinoids in the cannabis plant, THC is the most abundant. It also has the greatest binding affinity for CB1 and CB2.  These receptors are densely located in the central nervous system, the area responsible for integrating sensory information and coordinating body function.  This could explain why THC consumption can distort sensory perception. When you’re high, colors are brighter and music vibrates. Pain fades away as the sensation of overall pleasure swells.   That’s all because of THC. Or is it?  According to Italian researchers authoring a 2019 Scientific Reports study, you may also be experiencing the effects of THCP.   THCP has an even stronger binding affinity for CB1 and CB2 than THC does according to the research group. In fact, the study found that THCP has a binding affinity for CB1 and CB2 that is 33 times more active than THC’s.  The authors of the study suggest that the effects of THC and THCP are related to their side-chain lengths: the longer the side chain, the more potent the effects.  THC has a side chain length of 5 carbons.  THCP has a side chain length of 7 carbons.  Synthetic THC has been created to contain a side chain of up to 8 carbons. However, THCP is the first naturally occurring THC homolog with a side chain length of 7 carbons in scientific discovery.   The researchers treated mice with THCP to analyze the phytocannabinoid’s biological effects. The mice demonstrated decreases in pain, locomotor activity, and rectal temperature.  The mice were also cataleptic after consuming THCP. These are normal biological responses to THC.  However, it only took 5 mg THCP to induce the effects in this study. It typically takes 10 mg THC to induce the same biological response. 

How was THCP Discovered?

The discovery of THCP is credited to a group of Italian researchers affiliated with the National Council of Research, the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, the Università della Campania “L. Vanvitelli,” and the Sapienza University of Rome.  The researchers published their findings in a 2019 Scientific Reports study entitled, “A novel phytocannabinoid isolated from Cannabis sativa L. with an in vivo cannabimimetic activity higher than Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol: Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabipherol.”  The researchers decarboxylated part of the plant material before the cannabinoids were extracted. High-performance liquid chromatography and high-resolution Orbitrap mass spectrometry were used to analyze the extracts.  THCP is not the first novel cannabinoid discovered by this team of researchers.  In 2018, the research group discovered CDBP and THCB. This butyl phytocannabinoid series is characterized by the presence of 4-term side link chains.  Their latest study identified THCP and CBDP, novel phytocannabinoids containing side link chains of 7 carbons.  The study did not examine the biological effects of CBDP. However, the research group will focus future studies on the anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and anti-epileptic effects they expect CBDP to demonstrate. 

Why are Researchers Isolating Cannabinoids like THCP?

Isolating cannabinoids helps researchers understand how these compounds work individually, in tandem with each other, and in response to individual endocannabinoid systems.  For example, the new research on THCP may explain why some cannabis users have a stronger reaction to cannabis than others.   “There exists an astonishing variability” of responses to THC, the researchers write, even when the doses administered are the same.  They suggest that “extremely active phytocannabinoids such as delta-9 THCP” may be responsible for cannabis’ varied psychotropic effects.  “We believe that the discovery of an extremely potent THC-like phytocannabinoid may shed light on several pharmacological effects not ascribable solely to delta-9 THC,” the authors of the THCP study concluded.  Isolating THCP brings researchers one step closer to understanding the effects of medical marijuana.   Technological advances make the possibility of extracting and reproducing an isolated cannabinoid more likely. If researchers discover that isolated THCP is a more effective pain medicine than THC, for example, more potent medicine can be made available to patients.  But pharmaceutical industry researchers may have less altruistic motives.  Some have made claims that the industry doesn’t want cannabis mom and pop shops to lead the industry. Since the 1980’s introduction of dronabinol (synthetic THC), pharmaceutical companies have been trying to dominate cannabinoid ownership.  However the pharmaceutical and cannabis industries use it, research isolating cannabinoids will help researchers and consumers come closer to understanding the most effective way to administer medical marijuana.