To date, at least 113 phytocannabinoids have been discovered and isolated from the cannabis L Sativa plant. You most definitely have heard about delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, and cannabidiol (CBD) which is purported to offer incredible health benefits.

As technology advances, scientists continuously discover new wonders buried in the cannabis (hemp and marijuana) plant. Tetrahydrocannabidiolic acid, abbreviated as THCA, is a cannabinoid that has recently skyrocketed in popularity. THCA is mainly found in fresh, undried cannabis plants. However, THCA is progressively converted into THC with drying or heating, a process known as decarboxylation.

What is THCA?

The first cannabinoid content produced by growing cannabis plants is known as cannabigerolic acid (CBGA). CBGA is commonly referred to as the mother of all cannabinoids because it gradually breaks down into cannabis primary cannabinoids, such as THCA and CBDA.

Discovered in 1965 by Professor Friedhelm Korte, THCA is the most abundant non-psychoactive ingredient found in live or raw cannabis plants. It is the acidic form and precursor of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol. THCA is non-intoxicating because it contains an extra carboxyl ring in its molecular structure. This ring hinders it from binding to the cannabinoid receptors in our brain that cause a euphoric high.

Once cannabis plants are cut down, THCA slowly converts into delta-9 THC over the time of drying and curing. The top-shelf cannabis buds you purchase from your favorite dispensary also contain a large amount of the non-psychoactive THCA. However, the THCA is immediately converted into its intoxicating form THC when you apply heat, for instance, when smoking, dabbing, vaporizing, or baking.

When THCA is heated, it loses the extra carboxyl ring, converting it into delta-9 THC. This process is known as decarboxylation. That’s why cannabutter recipes insist that weed must be decarboxylated in an oven for the edibles to deliver highly potent medicinal or recreational effects.

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THCA vs. THC: What is the difference?

THC is by and large the most popular cannabinoid thanks to its mind-altering high. However, there is quite a bit of confusion when consumers hear of THCA. Besides the additional letter in their abbreviations, there are several other important differences between THCA vs. THC.

For one, THCA is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in abundant amounts in the trichomes of live and freshly harvested cannabis plants. On the flip side, THC is the intoxicating and psychoactive cannabinoid found in negligible or no amounts in raw cannabis plants.

Both cannabinoids possess a similar chemical composition. However, THCA has an extra carboxyl ring in its molecular structure. As discussed above, the extra carboxyl group prevents THCA from binding with the CB1 and CB2 receptors in our endocannabinoid system (ECS). A cannabinoid can only produce intoxicating effects by binding to the CB1 receptors that are primarily located in the brain. For THCA to fit into the CB1 receptors, it must lose the extra carboxyl group through heating (decarboxylation), converting it into THC.

Though THCA does not give a euphoric high, its therapeutic effects may be more potent than THC in some cases. For instance, THCA has shown promise as a potent anti-inflammatory agent. In addition, while THC is not recommended for seizure disorders due to its side effects, some studies suggest that THCA may be helpful for people with epilepsy. Lastly, THC may be more beneficial for people with sleep problems than THCA, thanks to its intoxicating effects.

What are the side effects of THCA?

Studies into THCA are still in their early stages. Hence, its side effects are not well documented. Currently, THCA side effects are mostly anecdotal and not science-based. Some people report that the cannabinoid has negligible side effects. 

Other users contend that THCA has the same possible side effects as THC. Therefore, people sensitive to THC may experience the same unwanted reaction with THCA. But the effects will be much milder, if at all they occur.

Here are the side effects of THCA that may or may not occur:

  • Tiredness
  • Drowsiness
  • Red eyes
  • Dry mouth
  • Anxiousness
  • Increased heart rate

THCA is also thought to interact with prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications. Therefore, it’s important that patients consult their healthcare providers first before incorporating the cannabinoid into their healthy routine.

What is a good THCA percentage?

It can be pretty challenging to determine the potency of weed by looking at its THCA levels. Firstly, THCA does not ‘add’ to the amount of THC in weed. Instead, the THCA in a product or strain is its THC before decarboxylation.

The cannabis industry is yet to agree on one standardized method for presenting potency testing data to consumers. Hence, it can be tricky for consumers to interpret product labels and lab reports.  

The most commonly used methods for testing cannabis potency are gas chromatography (GC) and liquid chromatography (LC). Both of these techniques will provide different potency levels for the same cannabis sample. This can be explained by the fact that the high temperatures used in GC testing will decarboxylate most of the THCA in the sample.

On the other hand, the LC method does not utilize high temperatures, hence providing different THC results. The best thing to do is consult the budtender at the dispensary to understand how the potency of a specific cannabis product will influence your overall experience.

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Is a higher level of THCA or THC better?

For most cannabis consumers, THC content and list price are the key priorities when choosing a new strain or cannabis product for recreational purposes. Extremely potent marijuana products with concentrations of 25 % THC or more fill dispensary shelves. In fact, consumers are willing to pay more for high THC products while weed with a lower concentration gathers dust. Unfortunately, this could be inaccurate.

THCA and THC content can help you know how potent a product is. Consumers typically want flowers with a high THC content. However, please note that THC can degrade or burn away when exposed to direct heat, meaning that you will essentially get less bang for your buck. When looking for marijuana products, with the exception of edibles, you want a higher level of THCA.

THCA indicates the full potency of products whose consumption method involves heating (decarboxylation), for instance, smoking, vaping, and dabbing. That’s because the THCA is directly converted into THC once heated. As such, you want higher THCA numbers, not THC, if you’re buying cannabis concentrates, flowers, or vape cartridges.  

THCA on a vape pen to consume
THCA on a vape pen. Consuming THCA this way will turn THCA into THC and make you high.

What are the benefits of THCA?

Research into the benefits of THCA is still in its infancy. However, there is some evidence suggesting that this non-psychoactive cannabinoid may have some positive effects. Consuming high-quality THCA through cannabis juicing may provide the therapeutic benefits of THC but without its intoxication.

Some critics argue that acidic cannabinoids do not bind with the cannabinoid receptors in our ECS. Hence, they cannot exert any effects whatsoever. In addition, there is no scientific evidence indicating that THCA can offer potent relief from pain as THC.

However, some studies suggest that THCA may have neuroprotective properties, protecting users from neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. There are also studies pointing towards THCA’s potential to help treat epilepsy.

THCA extract
THCA extract close up

How to use THCA?

THCA is a minor cannabinoid. This means that it exists in less than 1% in most cannabis strains. Hence, THCA products are extremely rare but not inexistent. The main reason for this is because producing THCA can be extremely expensive on the producer’s side. They’d require countless cannabis plants and a meticulous extraction process to produce a single bottle of THCA oil. However, some brands are selling really good THCA tinctures, diamonds, and topicals.

Most cannabis users consume a small amount of THCA every time they smoke, vape, or dab weed. But this can be quite frustrating for people looking to consume high THCA levels as it is immediately turned into THC upon heating. Luckily, there are several ways to circumvent this.

The most common way to ingest THCA is by consuming raw cannabis. You can do this by literary eating it raw or adjusting the settings on your vaporizer. THCA is converted into THC at around 220 degrees Celsius (420°F). Turning the heat of your vaporizer down anywhere between 150°F and 250°F can help you consume higher THCA amounts.

But the most convenient and easiest way to consume THCA is by cannabis juicing. Juicing the raw leaves of cannabis involves putting the plant material in a juicer or blender. You can add the raw juice to smoothies, salads, and fruit juices. Alternatively, you can freeze the juice to make ice cubes. Since no heat is utilized when juicing cannabis, most of the THCA is retained. Experts recommend daily consumption of 30g of raw cannabis leaves. 

A glass of cannabis smoothie
Juicing cannabis and using it in smoothie is a good way to consume THCA and its wholesome benefits

What is the difference between THCA and Delta 8 or Delta 9?

THCA is the precursor or acidic form of delta 9 THC. It is the non-psychoactive form of delta 9, which is the main intoxicating compound in cannabis.

The only chemical difference between delta 9 THC and delta 8 THC is in the arrangement of their carbon atoms. The two cannabinoids contain the same number of carbon atoms. However, their arrangements differ in that delta 8 has its double bond placed on the 8th carbon atom while delta 9 has its double bond on the 9th carbon atom.

This slight chemical difference impacts the effects of the two cannabinoids. While the psychoactive effects of Delta 9 THC are highly potent, those produced by Delta 8 THC are usually mild. Legal delta 8 THC products are usually extracted from hemp plants, which produce less than 0.3 % delta 9. Delta 9 THC, on the other hand, is mainly extracted from marijuana plants. Despite many states legalizing marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes, it is still considered illegal at a federal level.

Is THCA legal? 

The legality of THCA is still murky. THCA does not produce intoxicating effects. Yet, it is extracted from marijuana plants and will immediately convert to THC upon heating. With time, THCA eventually degrades to CBN, which is also a cannabis derivative that produces mild psychoactive effects when consumed in large doses.  

Depending on the local and state laws in your area, you may be able to conveniently buy THCA products over the counter without a medical card. In fact, THCA is available in the legal cannabis market, and it’s becoming a popular product in legal marijuana dispensaries.

Although THCA is not considered illegal and not listed as a controlled substance at a federal level, possessing illegal amounts of THCA products can land you in legal hot water. 

Final thoughts 

THCA is the acidic form of delta 9 THC, the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana plants. It is non-psychoactive, meaning that, unlike THC, THCA won’t give you a euphoric high. This makes it a good option for people who want to experience the benefits of marijuana without feeling high or intoxicated.

Emerging research has demonstrated the medicinal potential of THCA in helping with multiple conditions such as chronic pain, neurodegenerative diseases, seizure disorder, and inflammation issues such as lupus and arthritis. However, research into the potential health benefits of THCA is very limited. Hence, more well-organized studies, especially clinical trials, are still needed to thoroughly explore the therapeutic potential and possible side effects of THCA. 

‌References

Perucca, E. (2017). Cannabinoids in the Treatment of Epilepsy: Hard Evidence at Last? Journal of Epilepsy Research, [online] 7(2), pp.61–76. doi:10.14581/jer.17012. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5767492/

Nallathambi, R., Mazuz, M., Ion, A., Selvaraj, G., Weininger, S., Fridlender, M., Nasser, A., Sagee, O., Kumari, P., Nemichenizer, D., Mendelovitz, M., Firstein, N., Hanin, O., Konikoff, F., Kapulnik, Y., Naftali, T. and Koltai, H. (2017). Anti-Inflammatory Activity in Colon Models Is Derived from Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid That Interacts with Additional Compounds in Cannabis Extracts. Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, 2(1), pp.167–182. doi:10.1089/can.2017.0027. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5627671/

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