It sounds like a mysterious chemical, but if you’ve ever taken a cannabis edible, you’ve experienced the effects of 11-hydroxy-THC (11-OH-THC) . This powerful cannabinoid is likely responsible for many of the medicinal and psychoactive effects in cannabis edibles — but it isn’t actually in cannabis or even part of your cannabis edible. Interestingly, this chemical is created in your own body when one of cannabis’ main ingredients, THC, is metabolized.
Cannabis can be taken in a number of different ways: inhaling its smoke or vapor, eating it with an edible, spraying it into your mouth, taking a tablet, or rubbing it onto your skin. And many people assume that it doesn’t matter whether you eat cannabis or smoke it — that it’s still the same thing going into your body.
In reality, the way we consume has a tremendous impact on what chemicals are absorbed from cannabis, how the body metabolizes those chemicals, and has a major effect on the overall cannabis experience.
How the body metabolizes cannabis
Cannabis can produce over 500 known chemicals, but the most common (and most researched) chemical in the plant is delta-9-THC. Often referred to as just THC, this compound provides cannabis with most of its well known effects like pain relief, appetite stimulation, and the quintessential cannabis “high.”. When researchers talk about the effects of cannabis, they usually focus on THC. And this makes some sense — if you are smoking or vaping your cannabis.
When you inhale cannabis, THC quickly enters your bloodstream through your lungs, an organ where little metabolism takes place. The THC is then rapidly distributed to all parts of the body and brain where it activates cannabinoid receptors and cause its wide range of effects. Only a small portion of the THC remains in the blood and travels to the liver, where it can be metabolized and become 11-hydroxy-THC.
When you eat cannabis, things play out quite differently. When eaten, THC must first travel through the digestive tract. Along the way, anything absorbed from the digestive tract must first pass through the liver. The liver functions kind of like a natural filter, trying to prevent anything we eat from harming our bodies.
In the liver, enzymes break compounds down to make them easier to clear from the system, often transforming them into new compounds called metabolites in the process. So when THC makes its way to the liver, it is metabolized into its metabolite — 11-hydroxy-THC.
Inhaling THC will also lead to some 11-hydroxy-THC being created but around 10-times less than when it’s eaten. So while THC is usually the primary cannabinoid affecting us from inhaled cannabis, 11-hydroxy-THC is the main compound affecting us when using edibles.
The Research on 11-Hydroxy-THC
While derived from THC, and somewhat similar, 11-hydroxy-THC has some of its own effects. Both substances show similar psychoactive and physiological effects but 11-hydroxy-THC is more potent and more psychoactive than THC.
In one study researchers gave two groups of patients the same amount of either THC or 11-hydroxy-THC, and asked them to report on how they felt afterwards. When asked how high they felt, with 0 being not high at all and 10 being as high as possible. Those given THC rated their high as an average of 3 out of 10, while those given 11-hydroxy-THC rated it as an average of 8 out of 10.
The researchers concluded that 11-hydroxy-THC is 2-3 times more potent than THC, which certainly means added psychoactive effects (given the research above), and could potentially extend to increased potency for physiological effects as well. Most users (but not all) report increased psychoactivity with cannabis edibles compared to smoking, often reporting waves of effects rolling over them intermittently for many hours after consuming.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a great deal more research into the specific medicinal benefits of 11-hydroxy-THC. Some studies have looked at the differences between inhaled and oral cannabis and have found differences in these two methods — differences which may or may not be related to 11-hydroxy-THC’s differences from THC. One noted difference is that oral cannabis takes longer to kick in and lasts longer than inhaled methods.
Importantly, taking edibles or cannabis oils with a high fat snack or meal can substantially impact absorption. You don’t have to take all edibles with food, goodies like brownies already have the calories baked in, but a high fat meal will probably increase overall absorption of the cannabinoids.
In the future hopefully more studies will look at the differences between these two compounds so that we can better understand why and how one method of using cannabis might be more effective than another.
Why 11-hydroxy-THC matters
The way we consume our cannabis is directly related to the experience we derive from it. Inhalation is faster, shorter, and more direct. Taking edibles is a more dynamic and variable experience. The edible experience can be highly variable and is dependent on a number factors like what meals you had recently, sex, body composition, cannabis tolerance, and individual genetics.
However, just because edibles can have varying effects does not mean we shouldn’t use them. In fact, many practitioners recommend using edibles as the base of medical cannabis therapy, reserving inhalation only for breakthrough symptoms. Due to these variabilities with edible therapy, as is always the case with cannabis, starting with a low dose and titrating slowly is important.
Because metabolism of THC into the more psychoactive 11-OH-THC is somewhat unpredictable, it can take four or more hours after eating an edible before its full effects are felt. Redosing with THC edibles too soon is a common rookie mistake and can lead to a pretty unpleasant — but not dangerous — experience.
There are many good reasons to use cannabis edibles, but you’ll wanna make sure you understand that there are differences between edibles and inhalation. Many variables make it difficult to predict how someone will respond to edibles, but be sure that 11-hydroxy-THC is a major variable in the equation. Finding the right dose will take some patience and mindfulness but once you find the right cannabis product, edibles can be a powerful tool in your cannabis arsenal.