The plant Cannabis sativa produces more than 400 chemicals, but only one, THC, gets you high. Or so it seems. A group of Italian researchers announced on December 30th the discovery of two new cannabinoids, chemicals produced by weed like THC and CBD.
The first, tetrahydrocannabiphorol (THCP), is allegedly 30 times more potent than THC, they claim. Whether that means it gets you 30 times as stoned—or if it’s even psychoactive at all—is still unknown. But in mice, it appeared THCP was more active than THC at lower doses. The scientists also found cannabidiphorol (CBDP), a cousin to CBD, the popular wellness additive.
The discovery of THCP, published in Scientific Reports, could explain some of the variability in getting high—why smoking different marijuana blends can give notably different feelings. It could also explain some of the medicinal aspects of THC, which is used to treat nausea and appetite loss in cancer and HIV patients, among other things.
Cannabis flowers are like little factories that produce hundreds of chemicals, around 60 of which are cannabinoids. These drugs mimic chemicals the body naturally produces to balance inflammation. Few cannabinoids are well studied, but have many promising medical applications.
Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), for example, may be able to regulate obesity because it can moderate glucose levels. However, THCV concentrations in most cannabis strains are so small that smoking a joint everyday probably won’t prevent you from getting diabetes.
The amounts of THCP and CBDP found in the study were also low. The researchers analyzed a low-THC cannabis variety called FM2, which is grown by Italy’s military.
THCP and CBDP may be more abundant in other breeds, however, which would take investigating. It wouldn’t be difficult to specially breed cannabis plants to produce high amounts of these novel cannabinoids. Some startup may even try to grow them in a vat of yeast.
For now, what CBDP and THCP could be useful for is still unknown, but it’s possible these chemicals could treat certain conditions better than their counterparts. They could also have entirely novel medical applications—or none at all. We won’t know more without clinical trials, which could be several years away.
Earlier last year, the same Italian research team announced the discovery of two other previously unknown cannabinoids: CBDB and THCB. While THCB seemed to cause pain relief in mice, just as little is known about the properties of these two chemicals.
This body of research demonstrates how much more we have to learn by studying marijuana—research that has been stifled due to marijuana’s status as an illicit drug in most of the world. Illegal drugs are expensive to study, and in the case of cannabis, a lot of weed available for study is low quality, unlike the dank buds regular people typically use.
The discovery of these cannabinoids is thanks to advancements in mass spectrometry, a tool scientists use to weigh the mass of atoms and identify compounds. The Italian researchers next plan to tease out the potential applications for these cannabinoids, such as investigating CBDP’s anti-convulsive and anti-inflammatory properties.
Troy Farah is an independent journalist from Southwest California. His reporting on drug policy and science has appeared in WIRED, The Guardian, Undark, Discover Magazine, VICE and more. He co-hosts the drug policy podcast Narcotica. Follow him on Twitter.