As marijuana becomes more and more present in mainstream Colorado culture, a few buzzwords have taken off. You may have heard of cannabinoids, which clearly seem to relate to cannabis, but what are they and what do they mean for the emerging legal cannabis culture?

Cannabinoids are a class of chemical compounds found in the resin of cannabis, which bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain. Among the many known cannabinoids, the most famous is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is responsible for the narcotic effects that marijuana is associated with. However, THC is just one of more than 100 cannabinoids. What effect to the others have on the user? That is a question researchers are still trying to answer.

Besides THC, the main cannabinoids are CBD (cannabidiol), CBN (cannabinol), and CBC (cannabichromene), which are present in different relative amounts depending on the particular plant and its preparation. Of these, only THC is psychoactive, essentially meaning it is chiefly responsible for the “high” associated with cannabis use. There are other psychoactive cannabinoids, but their effects are minor.

The effect that cannabinoids have on humans is largely due to their similarity to chemicals that are naturally produced by the body. These chemicals are called endocannabinoids, which are a group of bioactive lipids. The known receptors for endocannabinoids, CB1 and CB2, are also capable of binding with the cannabinoids from external sources — this includes cannabis. When this happens, the effect mimics endocannabinoids, moderating pain, appetite, memory, and mood. It is possible that other receptors that have not yet been identified will also bind with cannabinoids.

When the human endocannabinoid system is not producing enough endocannabinoids, there is some evidence that negative symptoms can be mitigated by introducing non-psychoactive cannabinoids into the system. Cannabidiol has been the subject of some study on its potential positive effects on various human ailments, including headaches and migraines, inflammation, and other pain management, though certainly more research is needed.

Synthetic cannabinoids are also emerging in recreational drug markets. These man-made chemicals that perhaps seem like they should have the same effect on the brain as endocannabinoids, or cannabinoids from cannabis, are in fact much more dangerous and have been linked to severe side-effects such as rapid heart rate, hallucinations, and vomiting. These toxic cannabinoids are no substitute for natural cannabinoids and should not be treated as such.

Medical marijuana usage typically centers around the non-psychoactive cannabinoids, particularly cannabidiol. Cannabis is commonly accepted as a source of pain relief in many areas of the country, and its potential for insomnia and anxiety relief is promising. CBD is thought to have been providing users with relief for centuries, though the science behind it is as yet relatively unestablished.

Cannabinoids are the key to understanding the effect that marijuana has on us. Cannabis contains many similar yet unique components that together define the way our minds and bodies react. Isolating the effect that each user wants is possible through the use of specific cannabinoids, though research of the medical and recreational implications of cannabinoids is still in early stages due to the recent legalization of marijuana.