What is Delta-9 THC?

Illustration of Delta 9 THC chemical structure and oil bottle
Written by Nina Julia | Last updated: January 31, 2023

This article focuses on delta-9 THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the primary psychoactive compound in the cannabis plant. We explain delta-9’s role in the effects and health benefits of cannabis, discuss potential risks, and elaborate on the difference between delta-9 and other isomers of the THC molecule. After reading this article, you’ll learn how to use 

Cannabis plants are made from thousands of molecules, at least 150 of which belong to a class of chemicals called cannabinoids.

Delta-9 THC, or THC for short, is the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — the one that gets you high.

The dry mouth feeling, red eyes, euphoria, giggles, altered perception of surroundings, sharpened senses, and short-term memory issues — THC is to blame.

Delta-9 THC also offers a plethora of health benefits, especially for inflammation, pain, neurodegeneration, anxiety, depression, and cancer.

It’s not federally legal — nor is it worldwide — but as more states and countries legalize marijuana for recreational use, this trend will reverse.

In this article, you’ll learn everything there is to know about delta-9 THC: it’s chemical properties, effects, benefits, medical uses, risks, and where to buy it.

What is Delta-9 THC?

Delta 9 THC Chemical Structure

Delta-9 THC stands for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. In the commercial space, it’s abbreviated to THC.

THC is the main reason why you get high and experience the medical benefits of cannabis. When you smoke, vape, or eat the plant, your body receives significant concentrations of this cannabinoid.

Ironically, unlike 140 other non-THC cannabinoids, delta-9 THC is illegal at the federal level. This makes marijuana illegal too, placing it in the same category of controlled substances as heroin.

Cannabis with less than 0.3% THC is considered hemp and is federally legal under the 2018 Farm Bill.

21 states have currently legalized marijuana for recreational use, and 39 states have a medical marijuana program for patients.

Delta-9 THC has many isomers, such as delta-8 or delta-10 THC. These analogs are federally legal because they can be extracted from hemp. However, you need to check with your local state laws to see if they allow delta-8 and delta-10 products.

History of THC

Humans have been using cannabis for thousands of years. In fact, they domesticated high-T

HC 12,000 years ago, according to a recent scientific analysis.

Cannabis has been used in China for food, textiles, and medicine. Then it conquered Europe and both Americas, where people used it both for recreational, ritual, and industrial purposes.

The United States welcomed cannabis in the 1600s. Americans were mainly growing hemp to make clothes, and sometimes as a currency.

U.S. doctors used cannabis for a number of medical purposes too, but the true revolution came with the discoveries of British scientists in India in the 1840s. Since then, cannabis has been the number one analgesic drug in America; doctors prescribed it for around 100 medical conditions.

The recreational use of cannabis in the US exploded during the 1930s and 1940s. At that time, anti-drug campaigns waged by the federal government were run in the press and cinemas. In 1936, the “Reefer Madness” portrayed marijuana in an irrational and unscientific way — as a violence-inducing drug that leads to crime.

In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was introduced, razing the entire medical and industrial cannabis market to the ground. In 1970, the federal government came up with the Federal Controlled Substances Act, placing cannabis in the same category as heroin.

While it’s still illegal at the federal level, many states have legalized cannabis and THC for medical and recreational purposes. Always check your state laws before you by any products infused with THC.

Does Delta-9 THC Get You High?

Yes, delta-9 THC is the “why” behind getting high — and it doesn’t happen by accident.

The effects of THC are mediated by a complex biological network called the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

The ECS is responsible for maintaining homeostasis (balance) between the other systems and organs in the body. It controls essential functions like memory, mood, sleep, body temperature, fertility, pain perception, appetite, neurogenesis, immune response, etc.

How THC Works

The ECS consists of three major elements:

  • Receptors
  • Endocannabinoids
  • Enzymes

There are two types of cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2.

The CB1 receptors occur in the brain and central nervous system; they’re responsible for motor function, memory, mood, learning processes, emotion signaling, and appetite.

The CB2 receptors are mostly found in the immune system, regulating inflammatory responses and metabolism.

Delta-9 THC has a strong binding affinity for the CB1 receptor. Activating this receptor produces a range of psychoactive and therapeutic effects.

Delta-9 THC Effects

THC comes with remarkable relaxing properties that induce euphoria and make you feel a few feet above the ground.

People who consume cannabis report the following effects:

  • Uplifted mood
  • Deep relaxation
  • Sleepiness
  • Energy boost
  • Creativity
  • Increased social skills
  • More focus
  • Giggles
  • Increased appetite

There are well over 700 different cannabis strains, each with its unique cannabinoid and terpene profile that produces different effects. Some strains will make you more relaxed and sleepy, while others will work great for a morning jolt of positive energy.

Delta-9 THC Benefits

Now to the medical benefits.

There are over 30,000 studies on cannabis. Researchers believe that delta-9 THC may help treat symptoms related to:

  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Cancer
  • Cachexia
  • Glaucoma
  • Chronic pain
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Severe nausea
  • Seizures
  • Muscle spasms

Is Delta-9 THC Safe?

Delta-9 THC has a decent safety profile compared to substances like alcohol and tobacco.

The two latter are actually classified as “high-risk” substances by studies, while THC remains in the “low-risk” category.”

That doesn’t mean it comes without side effects.

The adverse reactions to delta-9 THC are dose-dependent and include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Red eyes
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Dizziness
  • Cold sweats
  • Increased heart rate
  • Memory problems
  • Impaired motor function
  • Confusion

That’s why you should always start low and go slow with weed. While you won’t die from overdosing on delta-9 THC, doing so may ruin your session.

Does Delta-9 THC Show Up on a Drug Test?

Yes, and that’s one of the most common problems among cannabis aficionados. Employer drug tests look specifically for THC-COOH, a metabolite that is the same across all THC variants.

It doesn’t matter whether you smoke weed or vape delta-8 THC, or take delta-10 THC gummies. If you take them regularly, THC will build up in your system and the screening will detect it.

How Long Does Delta-9 THC Stay in Your System?

These are just general figures, but according to conventional wisdom, your body should flush THC after 30 days, but the exact time depends on the frequency of use.

THC will leave your system faster if you only smoke every once in a while.

I don’t have good news if you’re a regular smoker, though. Daily users may have THC in their urine even for months after quitting.

Different types of drug tests also have different detection windows. For example, usine tests can detect delta-9 THC for up to 30 days; blood tests may detect it for up to two days; hair tests, on the other hand, hair may store THC metabolites for up to 90 days.

Delta-9 THC vs. Delta-8 and Delta-10 THC

When you hear “THC,” your thoughts drift toward delta-9, the “classic” variant.

However, THC has many different faces, such as delta-8 and delta-10 THC.

These are natural analogs of delta-9 THC that are extracted through a process called isomerization.

Isomers have similar chemical formulas, but their structure is slightly different, so while the effects are the same at the core — they vary in intensity.

Related: Difference Between Delta-8, Delta-9, and Delta-10

Is Delta-9 THC Stronger than Delta-8 and Delta-10?

Yes, delta-9 THC is about twice as potent as delta-8 THC. That’s because delta-9 has a double bond at the 9th carbon chain, while delta-8 has it at the eighth chain.

In plain English, you need to consume twice the amount of delta-8 THC to achieve the same type of effects as with delta-9.

Delta-10 THC has an even milder effect profile, making it the preferred version among first-time consumers.

Does Delta-9 THC Stay in Your System Longer than Delta-8 and Delta-10?

No, all THC variants will stay in your body for the same amount of time. How long each compound stays in your system depends on the consumption method.

Vapes last for up to 3-4 hours; tinctures for 6; and the effects of edibles may linger for up to 10 hours.

Is Delta-9 THC Legal?

Delta-9 THC is illegal at the federal level. Only 21 states have legalized THC for recreational use. 39 states have a medical marijuana program for patients who need high-THC cannabis to treat their symptoms.

Marijuana is also legal in Canada, Uruguay, Thailand, and Malta.

Where to Buy Delta-9 THC

If you live in one of these 21 states, you can purchase cannabis and delta-9 THC products from state-licensed recreational dispensaries.

People with qualified medical conditions can apply for a medical marijuana card and benefit from one of the perks such as higher possession limits or more plants to grow per person.

Some recreational states even allow online cannabis sales. There are two ways to buy delta-9 products online: you can have them delivered to your house or pick them up later at a dispensary to avoid standing in lines.

How to Look for High-Quality Delta-9 THC Products

Some people still turn to black-market weed because of the high costs of regulated delta-9 THC products. However, you may want to reconsider your choice if you know the not-so-optimistic numbers.

In California, 90% of the samples from seized illicit cannabis farms were contaminated with dangerous levels of pesticides and heavy metals.

Similar contamination was found in 40% of black-market cannabis products in New York, with a bonus of salmonella and e.coli.

The best way to find high-quality delta-9 THC products is to visit a licensed dispensary that sells lab-tested products. Always ask for current certificates of analysis (CoAs) when you buy cannabis.

The CBD:THC ratio is another factor affecting your experience. If you’re just getting started with delta-9 THC, opt for products with a higher CBD content to balance out the psychedelic effects of THC.

Last but not least, keep terpenes in mind. Different aromas modulate the effects of delta-9 THC, making certain cannabis strains more sedating, energizing, or psychoactive.

Different forms of Delta-9 THC

Delta 9 tinctures, cream, and cannabis leaf

The most common form of delta-9 THC is marijuana. People smoke its dried and cured flowers in joints, bowls, bongs, or vape them in a vaporizer.

Here’s how you can deliver delta-9 THC to your body:

  • Inhalation: this method offers the fastest effects and boasts the highest bioavailability. Aside from smoking weed, you can inhale delta-9 THC in the form of oil, isolate, or distillate.
  • Edibles: you can also take delta-9 THC by mouth. You’ll need to wait longer for the effects to kick in — up to 90 minutes — but once they do, they’ll hit you harder because delta-9 turns into 11-hydroxy-THC, a more potent metabolite. The effects last for up to 8 hours.
  • Sublingual products: medical marijuana users take THC tinctures under the tongue because they offer relatively high bioavailability and fast-acting effects (up to 20 minutes). Tinctures come in different strengths and flavors.
  • Topicals: products like creams and lotions can address localized discomfort, such as redness, pain, itching, and swelling. They won’t get you high, but you can experience significant physical relaxation.

What Are the Possession Limits for Delta-9 THC?

Looking at most states with adult-use cannabis, 28 grams of flower per person is considered the standard. Some states have higher possession limits, both for flowers and for other products, such as edibles, oils, and concentrates.

Medical users usually benefit from higher possession limits.

Can I Ship Delta-9 THC to Another State?

No, it’s illegal to ship any high-THC cannabis product. Marijuana contains more than 0.3% THC, which is against the provisions of the 2018 Farm Bill.

Transporting any form of delta-9 THC is considered drug trafficking and is severely punished with fines and jail time.

Hemp-derived delta-9, delta-8, and delta-10 THC products can be shipped between states, but their delta-9 THC content must remain below 0.3% on a dry-weight basis.

Key Takeaways on Delta-9 THC

Delta-9 THC is the most common and well-studied cannabinoid. Not only is it a potent psychoactive compound, but it also offers a wide range of therapeutic effects that make it a versatile natural remedy.

Delta-9 THC has been studied for its ability to help with the symptoms of chronic pain, neurodegeneration, cancer, nausea, autoimmune conditions, mood disorders, and metabolic issues.

However, it also comes with habit-forming properties, so you need to exercise caution if you’re prone to behavioral addiction. Using marijuana responsibly will help you avoid episodes of anxiety and paranoia, not to mention tolerance build-ups that require you to use more delta-9 THC to achieve the same results as before.

Related Posts:

Nina created CFAH.org following the birth of her second child. She was a science and math teacher for 6 years prior to becoming a parent — teaching in schools in White Plains, New York and later in Paterson, New Jersey.