Thursday May 13, 2021

By Paul Barach


Edibles just hit different. But we probably don’t need to tell you that. That consumed cannabis tends to be a far stronger and more psychoactive experience than inhaled cannabis is one of those marijuana facts of life. It’s right up there with “wait at least an hour before taking another edible.”

In some cities, edible sales at dispensaries are surpassing the sales for all other cannabis products. There are many reasons for this. Some people are trying cannabis for the first time, and ingesting cannabis is a far more natural starting point than trying to smoke pot or vape. Other consumers enjoy the longevity of edibles. They get far more bang for their buck with a 4-6 hour experience rather than the 1-2 hour experience you get inhaling cannabis. Others just really enjoy the smooth ride that edibles provide, whether chilling through a weekend or winding down after work. 

But why do edibles hit so differently? After all, THC is THC, right? Well, not exactly. Some THC is delta-9 THC. Some THC is 11-hydroxy THC (or 11-hydroxy-delta-9-THC on it’s birth certificate). 

Understanding the difference between Delta-9 and 11-Hydroxy THC is important for any cannabis consumer. It helps to make a more informed decision on what they’re consuming and which method will give them the most satisfying effects.

With that in mind, PotGuide is here with a deep dive into one of the most popular forms of THC amongst cannabis consumers, 11-Hydroxy THC. 

What Is Delta-9 THC?

Any discussion of 11-hydroxy THC begins with its precursor, delta-9 THC. This is the most common cannabinoid produced by the cannabis plant and is the molecule most responsible for marijuana’s psychoactive experience (and historic, worldwide popularity). In the cannabis plant, delta-9 THC starts as a molecule of THCA. Once that molecule is heated, it loses its acid chain and becomes the active delta-9 THC that we all know and love. 

Person smoking a joint
When you smoke cannabis products you are consuming Delta-9 THC. photo credit

If you’re smoking a bowl or bong, hitting a vape, or taking a dab, delta-9 THC enters your body through your lungs. From there, delta-9 THC climbs aboard the bloodstream express. The final stop of the THC molecule’s commute is the brain receptors. That’s where they all go to work. Once they reach the brain, the delta-9 THC molecules cross the blood-brain barrier and bind to your brain’s cannabinoid receptors. This activates the release of neurochemicals like dopamine, which is what gets you stoned. Since blood from the lungs goes straight to your brain, the effects of inhaled cannabis come on much faster. However, delta-9 THC is fat-soluble, which means that the molecule does not get broken down in the watery bloodstream. This is what makes it different from 11-hydroxy THC. 

How is 11-Hydroxy THC Different?

When you ingest cannabis products, delta-9 THC takes a much longer route through the lower intestines into your liver before entering the bloodstream. Once inside the liver, delta-9 THC molecules get broken down into smaller pieces. This creates the metabolite 11-hydroxy THC. 

While delta-9 THC is the most common cannabinoid in the cannabis plant, 11-hydroxy THC does not exist anywhere outside your body. It is only created when your liver breaks down the precursor delta-9 THC molecules.

When you inhale cannabis, some delta-9 THC does get broken down by the liver. However, most of it travels unmetabolized through your bloodstream to your brain. When eaten, it passes through your small intestine and liver, your body has more time to process THC. Since there’s a lot more available delta-9 THC hanging around, the liver has far more time and thus can create a lot more molecules of 11-hydroxy THC. This then enters the bloodstream over a longer period of time.  

This slow and steady breakdown of delta-9 THC into 11-hydroxy THC is also why edibles take much longer to process out of your system than smoking cannabis. There are more molecules of 11-hydroxy THC entering your bloodstream, and they will continue entering it until your liver finishes breaking them down. That is why it’s important to be aware of dosages when ingesting edibles. Your liver is meticulous and once it starts breaking delta-9 THC down, it stays on the job until it’s done, whether you want it to or not. 

Why is 11-Hydroxy THC so Much Stronger?

The reason that edibles can hit so much stronger, and create a more psychoactive effect, is that 11-hydroxy THC’s shape allows it to pass through the blood-brain barrier much easier than delta-9 THC. The molecule also binds much stronger to the brain’s cannabinoid receptors. The stronger the bond to the CB1 receptor, the greater the activation of that receptor. Because there are so many more 11-hydroxy THC molecules in the blood, that means more receptors are being activated. This means more neurotransmitters being released into your brain, which are what cause cannabis’ psychoactive effects.

Someone eating a gummie
Because there are so many more neurotransmitters being released when consuming an edible, this can sometimes lead to overconsumption, resulting in unpleasant effects. photo credit

Think of your brain’s cannabinoid (CB1) receptors as a keyhole and THC as the key. The delta-9 THC molecule is more of a lock-pick. It fits inside the receptor, and is able to push up enough tumblers to jimmy open the lock. While this makes it able to open doors, it is far less efficient and thus a lot of doors remain closed. 11-hydroxy THC on the other hand is like a machine-cut key. Because it fits the keyhole, it slides right in, turns the tumblers, and opens the door with ease. Since your body had spent more time breaking down the larger delta-9 THC molecules into smaller 11-hydroxy THC molecules, that’s a lot of keys opening a lot of doors all at once. Behind those doors are neurotransmitters like dopamine, which can now roam freely. If you take the right amount of edibles, those neurotransmitters can be welcome guests coming to your party. If you take too much, those can become unwelcome guests who are coming to party all night.

The Wrap Up

Some cannabis consumers enjoy the quick and easy experience of smoking a bowl or hitting a dab. Others enjoy the slow, steady, and potent effects of edibles. To debate whether delta-9 THC or 11-hydroxy THC is “better” defeats the purpose of consuming marijuana. If you’re looking for an enjoyable experience, a way to pass the time, or relief from a medical issue, being informed on the different types of THC and how they affect the body can help you to find the cannabis experience that you’re looking for.

What do you like about 11-hydroxy-THC? Share in the comments!

Photo Credit: The Rosen Group (license)

Paul Barach Paul Barach

Paul Barach is a Seattle-based freelance writer, editor, and author with experience creating well-researched, edited web articles covering cannabis news, culture, history and science. Paul is a regular contributor to PotGuide and has also contributed to publications such as, SlabMechanix, Litro, and The Trek. He prefers to spend his free time outdoors and most recently hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. So far he has only fallen into the La Brea Tarpits once. You can follow him on Instagram @BarachOutdoors and stay up to date professionally through his LinkedIn page.

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