THCV: California’s Rare “Diet Weed”

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Cannabis leaves THCV
Photo: Shutterstock

Impossible to get a decade ago, THCV cannabis has some surprising possible effects, including an energy boost and even ‘reverse munchies’

I was halfway to the most remote grove of Sequoia trees on Earth when, for the first time in my life, I regretted smoking pot while hiking.

Usually, pot is a performance-enhancing drug for backpacking. It helps me sleep, eases achy muscles and keeps me hungry enough to consume the massive amounts of food you need to eat while backpacking.

But this time, something very strange happened. As I exhaled pot smoke on my first evening on the trail, I became more awake and suddenly had almost no interest in food. And then I realized I had made a terrible error. In my rush to pack for the trip, I hadn’t brought normal cannabis. I had mistakenly packed “diet weed.”

I was smoking a weed strain called Pink Boost Goddess, grown by Mendocino County’s Emerald Spirit Botanicals. It contains THCV, a unique compound that behaves wholly unlike THC, the most common intoxicant found in cannabis. This type of cannabis is extremely rare; however, California has become one of the best places in the world to find it.

THCV cannabis has earned the nickname “diet weed” because a growing body of research shows that THCV can make you feel energetic and reduce your appetite. It sounds like a stoner fairytale — that a drug known for giving people “the munchies” could actually suppress your appetite. But there’s actually some science to support these claims.

‘Focused and energized’
My mistake in the woods would have been almost impossible a decade ago. THCV cannabis has historically been exceptionally hard to find. Most cannabis plants do not produce this compound, and experts have traveled around the world looking for ones that do. In 2017, Vice followed a group of cannabis “strain hunters” to Africa as they looked for THCV cannabis. The journey was ill-fated — one member of the group died from malaria — yet they were still elated when they found one strain of pot with a mere 1.1% THCV.

But THCV is becoming increasingly easy to buy. The hemp industry sells synthetic THCV, and advances in cannabis breeding have allowed some California pot farms to grow strains of cannabis that naturally contain high levels of THCV.

That’s made California the best place in the country to experience this very strange weed. You can find cannabis flower that tests over 10% THCV. There are cannabis pills that contain precise doses of THCV. And even PBR is putting THCV into its weed drinks sold in California.

The Pink Boost Goddess I smoked in the Sierra contains between 5% and 11% THCV and between 8% and 16% THC. Joseph Haggard, one of the owners of Emerald Spirit Botanicals, told me that his mother had found the cannabis strain via a friend in Mendocino County in 2016. The family farm then started breeding the plant to increase its THCV content.

Haggard said they’ve noticed the strain has appetite-regulating effects but cautioned that he doesn’t think smoking THCV alone could cause you to lose weight. He said the strain’s energizing effects are especially notable: “It leaves you focused and energized. You’re joyful, but you want to get up and do something.”

Laurie Vollen, a Berkeley medical doctor who specializes in medical marijuana, said a handful of her patients have used THCV over the past 10 years. She usually recommends it to people who have issues gaining weight or people who want cannabis to help with creative projects like writing.

“I’ve been working with it for a number of years, and primarily, my initial interest came from the very early reports of no increase in appetite,” Vollen said. “… I had a few patients [using THCV flower], and they have noticed that it’s not an appetite stimulant in any way.”

Vollen said she thinks THCV has the potential to help treat obesity or even diabetes, but for now, there isn’t enough evidence for it to be a primary treatment for either. “I’m not going to contend that I have had patients with weight loss [from using THCV],” Vollen said.

How is THCV different?
THCV cannabis has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a weight loss drug, and there’s no published research testing THCV cannabis as an appetite suppressant in a clinical trial. That hasn’t stopped some pot companies from claiming otherwise.

Wana Brands, a Colorado company, said on its website that a clinical trial found that 100 of 100 people lost weight while using its THCV edible, but when the New York Times investigated, it found that the trial may have been entirely fabricated.

And yet, I clearly felt my appetite fade away when I smoked THCV on my backpacking trip. Even if the clinical proof that THCV causes weight loss isn’t there (yet), something interesting is still happening when we consume it. THCV is, in some ways, the chemical opposite of the normal THC we find in marijuana.

Regular THC gets you high by igniting your brain’s CB1 receptors. Neuroscientists call THC a “partial agonist” of CB1 because it partially turns these receptors up, similar to how you partially illuminate a room by turning a dimmer switch halfway up. When THC turns CB1 receptors up, it causes a cascade of bodily functions that result in what we call the munchies. It can make food taste better and even make you feel hungry when you’re full.

THCV, however, behaves very differently. THCV is considered a CB1 antagonist when consumed at low doses. That means it turns the dimmer switch down instead of up and could possibly have the opposite effect on appetite — essentially giving us the reverse munchies.

Turning down our CB1 receptors has been linked to weight loss. In 2006, a French pharmaceutical company won approval in Europe for a weight loss drug called Rimonabant that was a CB1 blockade, meaning it turned these receptors off completely. The drug was effective at causing weight loss during large clinical trials, but it came with severe side effects. A concerning number of patients developed suicidal ideation and other mental health problems, leading the FDA to never approve the drug and European authorities to rescind approval in 2008.

Rimonabant’s concerning side effects should be a warning sign for people who use THCV cannabis, according to Sherry Yafai, a Santa Monica medical doctor and cannabis expert.

“It is best to learn from prior research failures, in this case in particular, where the negative outcome resulted in death by suicide,” Yafai wrote in an email to SFGATE. “As physicians and scientists, when it comes to the brain, we can not be cavalier. It is even more important when it comes to a ‘hot topic’ … like weight loss.”

Yafai said we need more evidence, including clinical trials of THCV cannabis, before she starts widely recommending this type of cannabis. She has, however, recommended it to a few patients who were using cannabis to treat severe autism. Because these patients had severe weight problems, she advised they try THCV to “help balance the use of THC, which can lead to increased appetite.”

‘Like you had a pot of coffee’
THCV is almost always combined with other compounds — the Pink Boost Goddess strain has roughly the same amount of THC as THCV — and that’s a good thing, according to Chris Emerson, the founder and CEO of Sonoma County’s Level cannabis company. Emerson said consuming THCV by itself is not an enjoyable experience.

“We found that THCV on its own tends to feel like you had a pot of coffee. You have all of this frenetic energy, and you can’t really use it or focus,” Emerson told SFGATE.

Level has been selling THCV products since 2017, always combining THCV with other cannabis compounds, like THC, CBD and CBG, another unique cannabis compound. Its Protab Boost product is a cannabis-infused pill that contains THC, THCV and CBG. Emerson said he’s been taking it every afternoon for five years.

“For me, it really gives me that pick-me-up and a little bit of motivation so I can work a little longer, or here’s a task I don’t really want to do …” Emerson said.

Emerson said THCV is best used for being productive, and if you take it for other reasons, you might be disappointed. “The main complaint we get is that I didn’t get high from it, but that’s the point,” Emerson said.

I understood THCV’s uniqueness all too well after my backpacking trip. I didn’t smoke any weed for the rest of the three days in the woods, even when I finally got to that remote grove of Sequoia trees. But accidentally packing “diet weed” also taught me that cannabis can be far more complex and powerful than the popular image of a stoner with the munchies makes it seem.