THCA and THC: What’s the difference?
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- Why we get high on THC and not THCA, how cannabinoids convert, and raw cannabis as a superfood
- THCA vs. THC: decarboxylation process
Why we get high on THC and not THCA, how cannabinoids convert, and raw cannabis as a superfood
Surprise! You’re just not going to get high by eating that freshly picked weed. At all. When cannabis is harvested and raw, no matter how much potential resides within, there is practically none of marijuana’s most famous and intoxicating cannabinoid, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). There is, however, a wealth of tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), an inactive compound found within the trichomes of living cannabis plants.
So, if someone ever asks you “ what does THC stand for?” don’t confuse the two similar terms. As you’ll soon discover, they are vastly different in both chemical structure and how they interact with the human body.
THCA is a cannabinoid that until recently has been closely compared to THC. Though THCA doesn’t get one high and THC certainly does, there is a relation: THCA is the precursor to psychoactive THC effects .
So why does THC get us elevated and THCA doesn’t? The reason is due to the three-dimensional shape of the THCA molecule. It is a larger molecule that doesn’t fit into our cannabinoid receptors, specifically the CB1 receptors. A cannabinoid must fit into a body’s CB1 receptor in order to have an intoxicating effect at all.
The cannabis plant produces hundreds of cannabinoids , the chemical compounds responsible for the therapeutic and psychoactive effects of cannabis. Only a few cannabinoids contribute to the euphoric high that is unique to the cannabis plant, though. The most celebrated, researched, and sought-after is THC.
It’s commonly assumed that as a marijuana plant grows, it is ramping up THC levels until ripe for the picking. But the primary cannabinoid being produced is actually THCA. How does THCA become THC?
The simplified answer is through heat and light — or the process of decarboxylation . Heat removes a carboxylic acid group of atoms from THCA, converting it into a molecule and altering the THC chemical structure , thus becoming the perfect shape to fit into our endocannabinoid system (ECS) and the CB1 receptors that run throughout the central nervous system, producing that classic elevated experience.
In a process called decarboxylation, heat removes a carboxylic acid group of atoms from THCA, converting it into a molecule and altering the THC chemical structure.
The non-intoxicating effects of THCA are a big part of the reason that fresh, raw, unheated cannabis is a superfood. You may have heard of juicing cannabis or adding raw cannabis to smoothies for health enhancement. There’s good reason for that.
Like other superfoods, including avocados, kale, Greek yogurt, green tea, and garlic, raw cannabis has the potential to ease arthritis, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and other ailments.
THCA is believed to offer an assortment of medicinal benefits and is commonly used as a nutritional supplement and dietary enhancement for its:
- Anti-inflammatory properties – A 2011 study published in the Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin suggested that, along with other cannabinoids, THCA demonstrated anti-inflammatory properties.
- Anti-proliferativeproperties – A 2013 study that analyzed cell cultures and animal models concluded that THCA could prevent the spread of prostate cancer cells.
- Neuroprotective properties – In a 2012 preclinical study published in Phytomedicine, researchers found that THCA showed the ability to help protect against neurodegenerative diseases.
- Antiemetic properties (increasing appetite and decreasing nausea) – A 2013 study conducted by researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario found that both THCA and CBDA were effective in reducing nausea and vomiting in rat models, even more so than THC and CBD, respectively.
Most cannabinoids, including cannabidiol ( CBD ), cannabigerol (CBG), and tetrahydrocannabivarin ( THCV ), are in the acidic form (CBDA, CBGA , and THCVA) when cannabis is harvested. The unactivated forms of THC and CBD , along with other cannabinoids, have benefits themselves that we are still learning about.
It’s only after these unactivated cannabinoid acids go through the decarboxylation process, though, that they become the cannabinoids we’re most familiar with and that most interact with our ECS.
The acidic precursors are considered “thermally unstable,” which is another way to emphasize that they will alter when exposed to heat. Because of this instability, the molecules lend themselves to several different methods of decarboxylation.
THCA vs. THC: decarboxylation process
Here are the most common ways that weed is decarboxylated:
Sunlight conversion: THCA converts to THC in varying degrees through exposure to heat or light. If a cannabis plant sits in the warm sun for an extended period of time, its THCA molecules will slowly convert to THC.
Room temperature conversion: THCA also converts to THC when stored at room temperature for a long enough time. In olive oil, 22% of THCA will convert over the course of 10 days at 77 degrees Fahrenheit, or 25 degrees Celsius. Under the same conditions, 67% will convert in an ethanol extraction. And over time, cannabis stored at room temperature and with little light exposure, will convert 20% of its THCA into THC.
Smoking: When a flame is used to smoke dried, cured bud, a high degree of heat is applied in a short amount of time, resulting in the rapid conversion of THCA to THC. However, not all THCA will convert and, though smoking is the most common way to enjoy THC’s effects, it’s not the most efficient.
When a flame is used to smoke dried, cured bud, a high degree of heat is applied in a short amount of time, resulting in the rapid conversion of THCA to THC. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
Vaporizing: This is perhaps the most efficient way of decarboxylating ground nugs. When heated at a low temperature, the cannabinoids are converted and released. Continuing to increase the heat will make sure that the prime amount of THCA is converted into THC and binds to CB1 receptors.
Vape pens: Even more efficient than vaporizing flowers is the use of already decarboxylated cannabis distillate found in preloaded vape pens. Since the THCA is already mostly converted to THC and the following vaporization takes care of even more, this is a good, efficient method of taking in intoxicating cannabis. Be sure you’re using a reliable brand of vape pen, for safety’s sake , and do your best to purchase products that are recyclable.
Cannabis concentrates: By isolating the THCA content from a cannabis plant, THCA crystalline can be extracted and consumed in dabs. Similar to vaporization, decarboxylation transpires rapidly when using the dabbing method, breaking down the THCA into active THC. In its pure form, THCA crystalline has little flavor or aroma, as most cannabis extractions aim to strip away the terpenes and flavonoids to isolate the cannabinoids. But many producers reintroduce cannabis-derived terpene blends back into the concentrate. Not only does the addition of terpenes improve the flavor, but these distinctively aromatic plant molecules also work together with cannabinoids to produce entourage effects that enhance the therapeutic potential of cannabis.
Conventional oven: When making edibles, you’ll want to activate, or decarboxylate, the weed before adding it to the butter, oil, or other medium. When weed gets ground up, spread evenly across a baking sheet that’s lined with parchment paper, and is baked at 230 degrees Fahrenheit, or 110 degrees Celsius, for 30-90 minutes (depending on the bud’s moisture content), it slowly converts most THCA into THC.
When making edibles, you’ll want to activate, or decarboxylate, the weed before adding it to the butter, oil, or other medium. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
Whether cannabis is smoked, eaten, vaped, or juiced raw, understanding the plant’s properties and how and why they interact with our bodies the way they do is crucial in achieving the desired effects and avoiding adverse side effects . Cannabis molecules each have their own benefits and as raw cannabis is further studied, we can rest easy knowing that it’s safe to integrate it into a healthful diet.
There is a big difference between THCA & THC. Learn the differences between the two and how that affects your body.
THCA Vs THC: What Are the Differences?
Even if you don’t know very much about cannabis, chances are you’ll have heard of THC.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the chemical compound responsible for the intoxicating effects that come with cannabis use, and depending on the exact strain of cannabis used, it can be one of the most abundant cannabinoids present in a product. There are even strains of cannabis that have been specially bred by cultivators for the express purpose of developing very high levels of THC, thereby becoming a more potent plant.
And yet, if you were to chew on the leaves of some freshly picked high-THC cannabis, you wouldn’t feel a thing.
Why? No matter how potent a cannabis strain might claim to be, there is almost no THC present in the raw cannabis plant material.
All of the major cannabinoids present in cannabis come from the “mother of all cannabinoids” – cannabigerolic acid (CBGA).
As the cannabis plant matures, enzymes which are unique to each cannabis strain convert the CBGA into some combination of the three major cannabinoid precursor compounds: tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), and cannabichromenic acid (CBCA) .
Conversion of cannabigerolic acid (CBGA), to tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)
THCA is the precursor to the intoxicating THC compound. In order to produce THC, the cannabis plant material needs to be exposed to heat, or some other driving force, that is capable of initiating thermal decarboxylation – the process through which THCA loses its acidic carbonyl group to become THC. This is why you wouldn’t feel anything if you chewed on some freshly harvested cannabis; there has been very little time for sunlight or other sources of energy to encourage THC formation in this way.
Cannabis is able to produce intoxicating effects when used because the most common methods of consuming cannabis – smoking, vaporizing, baking into an edible, or extraction to form a concentrate – are all powerful enough to be able to kickstart this process and transform THCA into the more intoxicating THC.
THCA and potency
Since THCA is a precursor to THC, THCA is still an important cannabinoid to take into account when calculating the potency of a cannabis strain, even though THCA itself is non-intoxicating.
One of the most popular methods for measuring cannabis potency is gas chromatography. In this method, there should be enough heat applied to the cannabis material being tested in order to decarboxylate the THCA present and form THC. As potency is normally expressed in terms of percentage THC, this method should, in theory, be able to directly determine the potency of a product.
However, this heating and subsequent decarboxylation will also cause the cannabis material to lose a noticeable amount of weight as the THCA molecules lose their carbonyl groups en masse. In order to accurate determine the total THC content of a raw cannabis strain, this needs to be taken into account in potency calculations. Generally, this formula looks like:
THC total = (% THCA) x [final mass/initial mass] + (% THC)
This gives a good estimation of the total THC present in the raw cannabis strain. This is also sometimes referred to as the maximum THC, as in practice, under typical smoking conditions not all THCA will be converted into THC. The true amount of THC consumed is hard to estimate, but studies suggest that anywhere between 30-70 percent of THCA in a strain may not be converted in the smoking process.
The potential benefits of THCA
Thanks to its non-intoxicating nature, THCA is a much poorer agonist of the body’s CB1 cannabinoid receptors than THC. However, that doesn’t mean that THCA has no important effects.
Compared to THC, there have been relatively few studies done on the potential therapeutic uses of THCA. But preliminary research and anecdotal reports appear to suggest that the pre-cursor could also have a multipurpose array of potential therapeutic benefits.
So far, preliminary studies have linked THCA to:
- Anti-inflammatory properties in the treatment of arthritis and lupus
- Neuroprotective effects useful in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases
- Anti-emetic effects for combatting nausea and appetite loss
- Anti-proliferative effects , specifically noted in studies of prostate cancer
Anecdotal evidence would also suggest that THCA could be effective in managing insomnia, muscle spasms, pain, and other related symptoms , though these claims have yet to be backed up by any high-quality scientific research.
Methods of consuming THCA
As THCA quickly becomes THC when exposed to heat, if you are consuming cannabis by smoking, vaping, or eating cooked foods containing cannabis, there is likely to be relatively little THCA remaining in these products.
One of the most popular ways to consume THCA is through raw cannabis juicing . Cannabis juices have become a trend amongst “cannabis influencers,” and have now begun to find their way onto the menus of trendy cannabis wellness shops and cafes.
Making a cannabis juice is simple; it’s essentially the same process as making kale juice, but using cannabis leaves instead of traditional leafy greens. As the cannabis is never heated in this process, juicing can extract THCA from the cannabis material without converting significant amounts to THC. This way, consumers can enjoy using THCA for medicinal or therapeutic purposes without getting a cannabis high.
There are also raw cannabis tinctures , and raw cannabis edibles that can be bought pre-made on the market, which contain high levels of THCA and other raw cannabinoids. These products have the advantage of being labelled with precise dosing information, so that users know exactly how much THCA (plus other cannabinoids) they’re consuming. With cannabis juicing and other DIY raw cannabis trends, it’s much harder for consumers to estimate what, and how much, they’re taking.
This article is a companion piece to an earlier article published by Analytical Cannabis, CBDA Vs CBD: What Are the Differences?
Alexander Beadle has been working as a freelance science writer since 2017 and has covered the cannabis industry for Analytical Cannabis since 2018. He has also written for our sister publication, Technology Networks, and the cannabis industry consultant firm Prohibition Partners, among others. Alexander holds an MChem in materials chemistry from the University of St Andrews, where he won a Chemistry Purdie Scholarship and conducted research into zeolite crystal growth mechanisms and the action of single-molecule transistors.
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THCA Vs THC: What Are the Differences? Even if you don’t know very much about cannabis, chances are you’ll have heard of THC. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the chemical compound responsible