The cannabis plant is probably the most famous psychoactive in history. But, have you ever wondered why the plant creates THC in the first place? As it turns out, our favorite green herb likely produces cannabinoids for defense reasons. Here’s the scoop on how why cannabis produces THC.
Why does cannabis produce THC?
There is one molecule to thank for the psychoactive high caused by the cannabis plant, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is a is one of over 100 compounds produced by the cannabis plant called cannabinoids. To be more specific, these unique chemicals are phytocannabinoids.
Humans, mammals, and possibly even some fungi have their own versions of these compounds, called endocannabinoids. Though they aren’t entirely a perfect fit, the phytocannabinoids in the cannabis plant are a very similar shape to the endocannabinoids found in humans.
They are so similar that phytocannabinoids engage special cell sites in the human body, causing medicinal and psychoactive effects. While researchers are currently trying to find phytocannabinoids in other plants, these compounds are thought to be unique to the cannabis plant.
But, why does cannabis produce THC and other cannabinoids? As it turns out, the plant does not make these precious chemicals just for human consumption. These chemicals play specific though slightly mysterious roles for the mind-bending herb.
The exact reason why the cannabis plant produces these specific compounds is unclear. However, there are a few things that THC and other cannabinoids, like CBD, are thought to provide for the herb. For one, these compounds could be a type of external immune system for the plant, protecting the herb from stressors in the environment.
A plant pharmacy
Cannabinoids, along with many other chemicals that the herb produces, are known to the science world as secondary metabolites. Secondary metabolites can be considered the pharmacies of plants. Humans around the globe have secondary plant metabolites to thank for some of our most valuable medicines.
Morphine and caffeine are two of the most well-known secondary metabolites around. Secondary metabolites are called “secondary” because they are considered non-essential for plant survival.
However, this idea is up for debate. Like humans use speech and touch, secondary metabolites help plants communicate, respond, and interact with their environment.
Some of the functions secondary metabolites provide include:
- Attracting pollinators (often with fragrance)
- Attracting beneficial microorganisms to help nourish the plant
- Attracting certain beneficial insects to ward off pests
- Natural pesticide against certain common threats
- Natural fungicide to prevent rot
- Natural antibiotic to prevent rot
- Natural protection against herbivores
- Communication with other nearby plants
- Communication with plants of the same species
- Sexual hormones
Unfortunately, humans have yet to discover 90 percent of the chemicals that plants can produce. It’s only in the past two decades that scientists have begun to take plant consciousness seriously, studying what these chemicals tell us about how plants interact, cooperate, and compete with the world around them.
Since this research is so new and incomplete, it’s impossible to say precisely why cannabis has evolved to produce compounds as unique as THC and CBD. However, a 2016 paper published in Front Plant Science argues that the cannabis plant produces phytocannabinoids as a defense mechanism.
It is well-known that many phytocannabinoids have strong antibacterial and moderate antifungal properties. This recent paper argues that cannabis trichomes, the resin glands where cannabinoids are stored, are miniature manufacturing plants for these defensive chemicals.
In this sense, trichomes and cannabinoids are one tough external immune system. Yet, only more time and research will be able to unveil the mystery behind how and why THC exists.