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The Two Sides of THC

When people get scared about cannabis use and the effects it may have on them, they’re probably getting worried about THC. This is most likely because THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is psychoactive, so it’s instantly linked with all the negative risk factors of cannabis. Most worryingly, THC has often been linked to psychosis.

But, does all this negative information about THC mean we’re overlooking some of the positive medical benefits of the substance? In this article we take a look at the two sides of THC so you’re more informed about this cannabinoid.

A very brief introduction to THC

If you’ve heard about THC before, it’s probably because you know it’s the compound that creates the high typically associated with recreational cannabis use. The high from THC is created when THC binds to CB1 and CB2 receptors throughout the body, where it acts as a partial agonist of these receptors.

Positive aspects of THC

THC is known to have many medicinal properties and uses. Specifically, we know it:

  • Has analgesic properties
  • Is anti-inflammatory
  • Is a muscle relaxant
  • Has anti-nausea effects
  • Is anti-oxidant

THC is also present in a number of cannabis-based medicines, indicating its usefulness for treating a number of medical conditions.

For instance, one medicine that contains THC is Sativex, which was approved for use on the NHS by NICE back in November 2019. This medicine, containing equal amounts of THC and CBD, was recommended for people suffering from spasticity related to multiple sclerosis.

Despite the fact that Sativex is only currently licensed for the treatment of spasticity symptoms, many people have reported that Sativex helps with other symptoms of multiple sclerosis like bladder problems, pain and difficulty sleeping too.

Another cannabis-based medicine that contains THC is Dronabinol, sometimes known as Marinol. Dronabinol is usually used to treat nausea and vomiting experienced by people going through chemotherapy. It can also be used to treat the loss of appetite and weight loss experienced by those who have developed AIDS.

Dronabinol also shows promise as a treatment for anorexia in patients with other conditions besides AIDS too. For instance, in a study carried out by Volicer et. al. (1997), where researchers were looking at anorexia and disturbed behaviour in Alzheimer’s patients using Dronabinol, there was a small trend showing improvement in appetite, weight gain, mood and quality of life for some patients. Unfortunately, this was found in a very small group of just 15 elderly patients with Alzheimer’s and various other conditions, making more research necessary here before we come to distinct conclusions about Dronabinol’s efficacy in this case.

Another study, a small-scale pilot trial of 28 patients carried out by Wilson et. al. (2007) investigated anorexia in ageing populations being treated with Dronabinol. The researchers found that the addition of Dronabinol was significant in garnering healthy weight gain in this cohort of patients. Again though, the small scale of the trial means more research is needed on this topic before we can generalise the findings of the study for larger populations.

The negative aspects of THC

Some known psychoactive side effects of THC include disorientation,euphoria, paranoia and hallucinations.

An area of particular concern around THC is its supposed link to psychosis and schizophrenia, which is a link that has been stressed in the media throughout the years.

However, because very few medical conditions require THC treatment over and above the use of CBD, it’s possible to mitigate the negative side effects of THC to an extent, as patients can often start their medical cannabis treatment on CBD-rich or balanced products rather than with products with a high THC content. Then, the THC content of the medications used can be increased slowly and carefully if deemed necessary. This typical approach of medical professionals, who tend to ‘start-low and go slow’ with THC dosing, means the risk of any adverse side effects can be controlled as much as possible.

It’s also recommended that young people refrain from using cannabis to avoid the impact THC might have upon brain development, and due to its potential psychoactive side effects. These potential side effects should be taken seriously in all cases and any treatment requiring a medicine with THC should reflect these concerns through an initially cautious approach.

For more in depth information on medical cannabis, UK policy and the conditions medical cannabis can treat, we recommend accessing our in depth modules available on our website. Here, you can find up to date information on cannabis based medicinal products and how best to prescribe them. You can also explore our news section and evidence base for the latest information on this ever-changing area of research.

We urge anyone considering the use of medical cannabis products to consult with a trained medical professional prior to beginning use.

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