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2019 has the potential to be remembered as the year when minor cannabinoids really hit the scene. While it's true that the cannabis market is generally interested in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the intoxicating cannabinoid that most marijuana consumers have come to know and love; as well as cannabidiol (CBD); but cannabinoids such as cannabinol (CBN), tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), along with cannabigerol (CBG) have started to attract attention on their own.

One minor cannabinoid that appears to be gaining attention is tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV). THCV is an analog of THC, but produces a completely different buzz than its intoxicating counterpart. It is also found in trace amounts in marijuana, so the effects are likely attributed to more prominent cannabinoids.

While more research is done for potential health benefits of this trace cannabinoid, THCV-focused products are starting to emerge on the cannabis market. 

What Science Says About THCV

Like CBD and THC, this cannabinoid is initially produced by the cannabis plant in its precursor acidic form of tetrahydrocannabivarin acid (THCVA). Cannabigerovarinic acid (CBGV), a central precursor, converts to THCVA, which itself eventually converts into THCV when exposed to heat, or light.

Under a microscope, there's not much distinguishing THCV and THC. They share a similar molecular structure, except THC has a longer side-chain (tail), according to Itzhak Kurek, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of Cannformatics, a Northern California biotech company that uses bioinformatics (a combination of biology, mathematics, engineering, and computer science, among other fields) to improve medical cannabis science.

Despite sharing a similar molecular composition with THC, existing evidence suggests that THCV interacts with the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in an entirely different way. In one 2018 review, published in Molecular Biology, it was described as an “anomaly” of the cannabis plant, said to be the only known phytocannabinoid that acts as an antagonist of the CB1 receptors.

“Like THC, THCV binds strongly to the CB1 [receptors in the central nervous system] and CB2 receptors [found on immune cells], but THCV has a different effect than THC and does not produce the 'THC-like high' effect,” Kurek said.

In fact, research shows that THCV could act as an antagonist against THC, at least in certain cases. A 2015 study published in Sage's Journal of Psychopharmacology, for instance, found that low doses of THCV inhibited the intoxicating effects of THC. At higher doses, however, the effects of this cannabinoid suddenly became more comparable to THC.

While researchers continue to unearth new information, THCV has demonstrated a potential for the following: 

  • Appetite suppressant: Evidence suggests that, at low doses ranging between 5 and 7.5 milligrams, THCV inhibits appetite by antagonizing the CB1 receptors. A 2015 study found that the effect of it on the CB1 receptors suggested a potential to treating obesity. According to Kurek, the findings of this study suggest that THCV could provide treatment without the risk of side effects found in common anti-obesity drugs, such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
  • Diabetes: In a 2016 study published in Diabetes Care, researchers found that CBD and THCV appeared to help patients with type 2 diabetes maintain tighter glycemic control, which is essential in preventing chronic complications from the condition. Research has also shown that, at moderate to high doses ranging between 10 and 20 milligrams, THCV regulated blood sugar levels and reduced the body's resistance to insulin. 
  • Epilepsy: THCV has also been researched for its anti-epileptic properties, suggesting that it could also be used to reduce seizures for epileptic patients. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics, researchers found that THCV showcased anticonvulsant effects, significantly reducing seizure incidences in an in vitro model induced with epileptic activity. 
  • Parkinson's disease: In a 2011 study on lab mice, researchers found that THCV held antioxidant properties that could prove useful in treating the symptoms and delaying neurodegeneration in Parkinson's disease.  
  • Schizophrenia: A 2015 study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, researchers found that this particular cannabinoid enhanced serotonin receptors and demonstrated antipsychotic effects in lab rats, leading the authors to conclude that THCV could provide “therapeutic potential for ameliorating some of the negative, cognitive, and positive symptoms of schizophrenia.” 

How is THCV Used by the Cannabis Industry?

While THCV could be beneficial for several health-related conditions, the cannabinoid has yet to receive the attention that THC and CBD have amassed. 

One reason is the difficulty in obtaining THCV. While most strains contain high levels of THC or CBD, the levels of THCV are significantly lower.    

THCV-rich cultivars can be hard to come by, as most strains contain zero or trace amounts. According to Steep Hill, a U.S.-based cannabis science and technology company, classic varieties of African origin tend to have notable levels of THCV, such as Durban Poison, which has upwards of 0.5% THCV. The cannabis lab also found that rarer strains such as Pineapple Purps have been said to contain significantly higher levels of it, in this specific case about 4%. In other words, currently, there are not many strains that produce significant levels of this minor cannabinoid, creating a market gap and an opportunity.  

“In general, any natural compound produced in the plant in low concentrations will be cost-prohibitive due to the low yield recovered during the extraction process,” Kurek explained. “This suggests to opportunity for a breeding program to create THCV-dominant plants.”

California's Flow Kana markets strains relatively high in tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), a lesser-known cannabinoid believed to be effective in suppressing appetite and beneficial for patients with diabetes, epilepsy, Parkinson's disease and schizophrenia. Most strains have zero to trace amounts of THCV. (Photo courtesy of Flow Kana)

However, a small swell of THCV-centric products are beginning to hit the market. 

In July 2019, the California-based cannabis flower brand Flow Kana unveiled a new THCV-rich cultivar called Pink Boost Goddess. According to a press release, the strain contains 18.7% THC and 4.24% THCV and is marketed as an ideal product for those seeking to reduce anxiety and suppress appetite while still getting stoned.

“We believe there is great healing potential in sun-grown flower that possesses this rare THCV cannabinoid and are honored to play a role in bringing this unique cultivar to market,” said  Flow Kana CEO Michael Steinmetz in the release.

The cannabinoid has also made its way into a number of vape products. In February 2019, the THCV-focused brand Doug's Varin, owned by the Oakland, California-based California Cannabinoids, released two THCV-rich vape pen products: Doug's Varin Original and Doug's Varin Relief, both of which contain about 25% to 30% THCV cannabis oil by weight. Doug's Varin also has a preroll containing flower that has 3% THCV, 10% THC, and 4% CBG, and plans to release THCV capsules and tinctures in the near future.

David Lampach, the co-founder of Doug's Varin, explained that the company developed a family of THCV-heavy strains, but the original strain is said to have stemmed from a Harlequin cultivar. After about three years of cultivating high-THCV strains, Lampach believes this minor cannabinoid is a “cognitive enhancer” that could be ideal for consumers or patients who are seeking a more energizing and short-lived high. 

“You smoke it and a light bulb goes off in your head,” Lampach explained. “In terms of the duration of how long you feel it, the effects are much shorter, at least half the length of THC.”

Doug's Varin, a brand by California Cannabinoids, was launched in February 2019 to offer tinctures, prerolls, and vape pens high in the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV). The vape pens can offer THCV content as high as 30%, the company said. (Photo courtesy of Doug's Varin)

Another interesting cannabis product that places THCV in the spotlight is Stimulate Tablingual by Level, THCV-enriched sublingual tablets that contain equal levels of THC, THCV, and CBG. As stated on the packaging, this formulation is made using Doug's Varin's special THCV-heavy cannabis and is designed to stimulate and energize the mind while also providing a tantalizing buzz, which according to Lampach could make THCV a potential alternative to Adderall and other commonly prescribed amphetamines. 

More research is needed to support these purported health benefits, but the initial findings seem to signify that THCV could offer several distinct health benefits that THC does not, as well as a more manageable and social buzz.  

Could THCV Become Popular? 

Despite the variety of potential benefits that it appears to offer, the current lack of research and limited affordable access to high-THCV strains has kept more cannabis companies from integrating this cannabinoid into their products. 

Tristan Watkins, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer at LucidMood, a Boulder, Colorado-based brand of proprietary terpene and botanical formulations, believes that there might be other factors influencing the purported benefits of THCV, including the fact that these high-THCV strains such as Durban Poison all typically come from the African region. 

“Unfortunately, a lot of the strains that are naturally high in THCV also have a unique terpene profile as well, so it's really hard to point THCV as being the only player,” he explained. “When you have a strain that was grown in one part of the world, it probably naturally expresses a completely different composition of these compounds in relation to its environment.”

Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) is a very difficult cannabinoid to obtain. THCV-rich strains are found in African-origin cultivars such as Durban Poison. These plants are also harder to grow and produce lower yields. (Photo by Gina Coleman/Weedmaps)

Another hindrance is that THCV can't really be sourced from industrial hemp plants, which are federally legal to grow following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, making it harder to source than other minor cannabinoids, such as CBG. 

“It's difficult to source, there hasn't been a major demand so far,” Watkins continued. “It's also a little difficult to identify because the structure, from a side component, is so close to THC, so you have to run a special analysis to delineate between THC and THCV.” 

According to Lampach, there are certain other obstacles preventing THCV-heavy strains from taking a bigger slice of the cannabis market's fruitful pie, as these plants are both difficult to grow and have lower yields on average. Currently, he stated, high-THCV plant biomass sells for $1,000 per pound, while crude 35% THCV is priced at $30,000 per kilogram.  

Nevertheless, there's still reason to believe that it will become a featured ingredient in cannabis products, especially once it becomes more readily available at a lower price point.  

“It's a really good crossover type of product that can pull people in who don't currently consume cannabis, because it has a completely different set of effects,” Lampach explained. “I think that ability to pull people into cannabis who otherwise wouldn't be into cannabis is a big component of its future.”

Feature image: Although found in minuscule amounts in cannabis, the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) is being studied for its potential to suppress appetite and treat chronic medical conditions. (Gina Coleman/Weedmaps)