THCA (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) Guide

Published September 19, 2020
THCA (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) Guide - Secret Nature

There isn’t a cannabis aficionado on the planet who hasn’t heard of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Whatever your opinion may be on this addictive, intoxicating cannabinoid, the term “cannabis” is practically synonymous with “THC.”

Less is known, however, about Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA). Most hemp and cannabis enthusiasts coming across this name would immediately associate it with THC, and they wouldn’t be far from the truth. THCA is not the same thing as THC, however, and in this guide, we’ll explore the nature of THCA and discover the unique benefits of this cannabinoid acid.

What is THCA?

THCA is a carboxylic acid found in mature Cannabis sativa flower. Though their structures are different from those of mature cannabinoids, carboxylic acids found in cannabis are also called cannabinoids, or more accurately, they are often called cannabinoid acids.

The primary difference between cannabinoid acids, such as THCA, and cannabinoids, such as THC, is that cannabinoid acids are equipped with carboxyl groups. These chemical groupings consist of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and they appear at the ends of cannabinoid molecules.

Cannabinoid acids naturally transform into full-fledged cannabinoids via a process called decarboxylation, but these unique Cannabis sativa compounds can also be harnessed before their carboxyl groups are transformed. Most cannabis lovers want to use the mature forms of cannabinoids, but growing awareness of the potential benefits of cannabinoid acids means that decarboxylation isn’t always the only way to go.

THCA gradually decarboxylates into THC as it dries and cures, but even Cannabis sativa bud that’s dried and ready for sale usually contains more THCA than THC. The remaining THCA is transformed into THC as it is heated by smoking, vaping, or cooking. The decarboxylation temperature of THCA is around 105° C, so whenever this cannabinoid acid is exposed to heat meeting or exceeding this temperature, it turns into THC.

Is THCA legal?

Under the 2018 Farm Bill, cannabinoids aside from delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are considered to be industrial hemp. While the wording of this bill is relatively unclear, the DEA has repeatedly clarified that conventional THC is now the only cannabinoid identified federally as “marijuana.”

As a result, THCA appears to have the same legal status as CBD, CBG, or any other hemp cannabinoid despite the fact that it transforms into THC, a federally illicit substance, at relatively low temperatures. The legality of THCA is a complex subject that is continuing to evolve, but it’s an undeniable fact that there has been a recent uptick in THCA commerce online, indicating that producers now believe it safe to market this THCA precursor on the internet and across state lines.

Differences between THCA and THC

The primary difference between THCA and THC is the intoxication potential of each cannabinoid. While THC appears to be the most intoxicating cannabinoid present in Cannabis sativa, THCA does not cause significant intoxicating effects. 

While research into THCA is still in its infancy, this cannabinoid may also be more beneficial than THC. For some, the intoxicating effects of THC are a benefit, but others would rather avoid both this cannabinoid’s intoxicating properties and its notorious side effects. Beyond simple intoxication preferences, however, THCA may exert a wider range of beneficial qualities than its stable cannabinoid endpoint.

THCA is harder to use than THC. To use this cannabinoid acid, you have to consume it in a way that does not involve heat, which rules out smoking, vaping, and cooking. As we’ll cover later in this guide, however, there are certainly ways to consume THCA without converting it into THC.

Origins of THCA

Like many other cannabinoid acids, THCA starts its life as cannabigerolic acid (CBGA), the carboxylic acid precursor to the cannabinoid cannabigerol (CBG). As Cannabis sativa flower matures, each strain releases a unique set of enzymes that direct CBGA to transform into various other cannabinoid acids. In the case of THC-rich flower, CBGA is told to transform into THCA.

As a result, CBGA is currently a prime target of cannabinoid research. Some intrepid entrepreneurs believe that this cannabinoid acid may be the key to synthesizing recombinant THC, which would make it financially feasible to mass-produce molecularly identical forms of THC in a lab for the first time. To turn CBGA into THC, however, it must first be transformed into THCA, making this non-intoxicating cannabinoid acid more important than ever before.

History of THCA research

THCA has been researched far less than THC. After realizing that THCA did not transform into THC inside the human body, the world’s cannabis research community essentially dropped this cannabinoid acid as a subject of research. In recent years, however, research into THCA has picked up again, perhaps partially due to the realization that this carboxylic acid may play a critical role in the future of THC synthesis in laboratory settings.

Despite being overshadowed by its final form, THCA may be just as beneficial as THC but with fewer side effects. THCA has, for instance, been researched for its potential anti-inflammatory profile, and this research uncovered the fact that THCA appears to work best when paired with other cannabinoids.

Intriguingly, studies have also been conducted to determine the potential immunomodulatory properties of THCA. In the course of this inquiry, scientists discovered that, unlike THC, THCA does not appear to significantly stimulate the brain’s CB1 and CB2 receptors, which are believed to be the neuroreceptors responsible for THC intoxication.

Perhaps the most promising research into THCA has surrounded this carboxylic acid’s potential neuroprotective properties. THC is also believed to have neuroprotective properties, but any positive neurological properties this cannabinoid may exert have the tendency to be canceled out by THC’s addictive and psychosis-inducing attributes.

Scientists have known about THCA since the early 20th century, and in the 1990s, interest in this cannabinoid acid resurged due to the discovery that CBGA is its immediate chemical precursor. Only time will tell, however, if THCA will receive the attention it deserves within the international scientific community.

Recent THCA studies

Over the last few years, research into THCA has soldiered on with the release of additional animal studies conducted to determine this cannabinoid’s potential therapeutic properties. In 2021, for instance, an Italian study was released providing evidence that THCA may be useful for inflammation and fibrosis in the liver, finding that “Δ9-THCA prevents TGFβ-induced fibrotic markers in vitro and liver inflammation and fibrogenesis in vivo.”

Then, in 2022, another animal study into THCA was published, this time investigating the cannabinoid’s potential usefulness against epilepsy. The results of both studies are inconclusive, and THCA research in general continues to be released at a trickle due to THC’s near-global status as an illegal narcotic. Little by little, though, we’re learning more about THCA’s potential usefulness and how it’s distinct from THC.

What is THCA currently used for?

At present, THCA is not as commonly used as THC for a few main reasons. Cannabis users simply aren’t aware of THCA, for instance, and all they generally know about this substance is that it doesn’t get you high. Also, since THCA converts into THC at relatively low temperatures, cannabis users are limited in the methods they can use to ingest this cannabinoid acid.

While interest in the potential anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting effects of THCA may increase as more people become aware of the attributes of this cannabis constituent, THCA is currently used most commonly for research purposes. Scientists are keenly interested in the relationship between THCA and THC, and they also want to learn more about how CBGA turns into THCA.

It is the hope of the international pharmaceutical community that THCA synthesized from CBGA may end up providing a stable, economically efficient alternative to THC derived from Cannabis sativa flower. Currently, researchers are exploring methods of deriving CBGA from genetically modified yeast and transforming this CBGA into THCA.

Even though THCA isn’t currently demanded for medical or recreational purposes, it’s worth noting that this carboxylic acid is the most abundant cannabinoid present in most strains of Cannabis sativa. Even after being dried and cured, THC-rich cannabis flower contains far more THCA than THC, which technically makes THCA the most popular cannabinoid even though it’s almost always converted into THC via vaping, smoking, or cooking.

What might THCA be used for in the future?

As cannabis users become more aware of the existence of THCA and this cannabinoid acid’s potential benefits, they might start actively seeking out THCA instead of THC. Based on initial research, it appears that THCA may share many of the most impressive benefits of THC while lacking any intoxicating properties.

Many THC users start using this cannabinoid due to its perceived benefits without understanding that this cannabinoid can be highly addictive and cause psychiatric side effects. Especially with the growth of the “raw” food movement, health-conscious cannabis consumers may gradually transition to using THCA instead of THC.

Even though this carboxylic acid is non-intoxicating, however, it’s practically impossible to market THCA in states that do not have recreational or medical marijuana laws, which puts the future of the THCA industry in jeopardy. It’s simply too easy to transform non-intoxicating THCA into intoxicating THC, so this cannabinoid acid can only be sold through state-sanctioned legal cannabis programs.

Unlike some of the other cannabinoid acids, THCA stands a significant chance of becoming a highly in-demand cannabis constituent if its benefits are properly disseminated. Cannabis users are actively on the lookout for non-intoxicating alternatives to THC with similar benefits, which is part of the reason that CBD has become so popular. Since THCA is so similar to THC, it is the natural alternative to THC and all of this cannabinoid’s undesirable attributes.

How does THCA work in the body?

Not much is known regarding the potential ways in which THCA may interact with your body differently from THC. It has been suggested, though, that THCA must not have any particular affinity for your brain’s CB1 receptors, which are the primary neurochemical mechanisms that get you high.

Instead, it’s very likely that THCA stimulates the peripheral nervous system’s CB2 receptors with greater affinity. However, early research conducted into the pharmacokinetics of THCA indicates that this cannabinoid is unlikely to considerably stimulate your brain’s CB2 receptors either.

As a result, the mechanisms of action of THCA in the body remain largely unknown. All that’s truly certain is that THCA is non-intoxicating, but it’s not known how the cannabinoid exerts its other benefits.

What are the best ways to use THCA?

It’s only possible to use THCA if you avoid heating this cannabinoid acid above 105° C. Cryogenic cannabis flower extraction methods do not involve heat, so one way to consume THCA is to ingest cryogenically extracted THCA-rich cannabis extract in a way that does involve the application of heat.

Since THCA is so abundant in most forms of cannabis, however, there’s another ingestion option at your disposal that’s rapidly gaining popularity across the nation. Raw cannabis juicing is a great way to enjoy the nutritional benefits of Cannabis sativa flower, and since this processing method does not involve heat, it’s the perfect way to ingest THCA.

To make raw cannabis juice, however, you’ll need to get your hands on THC-rich cannabis flower that has not been cured or dried. Since most recreational and medical marijuana dispensaries do not sell raw cannabis flower, you’ll need to grow your own cannabis if you want to experience the benefits of THCA in the form of a DIY juice.

Does THCA have any side effects?

THCA is not known to have any specific side effects above and beyond those caused by conventional THC. In fact, the side effects of THCA are likely to be considerably lesser than those of THC given this precursor compound’s limited overall impact on your body and nervous system.

If THCA is heated or otherwise used in a way that converts it to THC, however, it will pose the same risk of side effects as THC would normally. The most commonly reported side effects of THC are paranoia, anxiety, increased heart rate, and dry mouth.

What types of THCA products are there?

The most popular types of THCA products available online are flower and vapes. THCA flower is commonly sold online as long as it contains less than 0.3% THC, the federal threshold for a product being considered “industrial hemp.”

As long as THCA products contain less than that amount of converted THC, they are usually considered industrial hemp even if the design of the product converts the THCA it contains into THC as a matter of course. THCA vapes and flower are, in this way, essentially indistinguishable from THC weed — they provide the same effects and even contain the same compounds when used.

What is THCA flower?

THCA flower is hemp flower that has been bred to be high in THCA and low in THC. At the point of harvest, cannabis is naturally higher in precursor carboxylic acids than it is in converted cannabinoids, but THCA flower has been bred to take this trend to the extreme with less than 0.3% THC present in the product at the time it is packaged.

When smoked, the THCA in the flower will convert into THC, thereby providing the same exact effects as THC cannabis sold in adult-use dispensaries. THCA flower, though, is available online and can be shipped directly to your door.

THCA flower products come in all the strains and terpene profiles that you’re used to with THC or CBD weed. Hybrid, sativa, and indica options are all there, and THCA flowers often contain as much as 10-15% THCA, which is plenty to get the job done.

As is always the case with hemp flower, quality matters a lot as you shop for THCA buds. Seek out THCA flower that is organically grown indoors in climate-controlled conditions.

What are THCA diamonds?

“THCA diamonds” is a term sometimes used to refer to the type of high-potency THCA extract that is commonly used in vapes. This type of extract consists of THCA isolate combined with terpenes from cannabis or other botanical sources, and it can result in vapes that push 90% in cannabinoid potency.

Some THCA vapes, though, don’t contain diamonds. Just as popular is live resin distillate, which is not available in THCA form as well. Taking slightly lower concentrations of converted THCA and combining it with the full, cryogenically extracted terpene profile from a cannabis strain, live resin THCA vapes provide a richer flavor even if they’re less potent.

THCA—beyond the high

THC is a fascinating cannabinoid that has many beneficial aspects. As a result, scientists and cannabis consumers alike have often lamented the intoxicating properties of this substance. In THCA, it appears that we have a viable alternative to THC that shares many of this cannabinoid’s beneficial properties while remaining non-intoxicating.

It’s too soon to say whether THCA will achieve any significant degree of popularity, but with the popularity of CBD, the groundwork has been laid for other non-intoxicating cannabinoids to take the stage. To learn more about cannabinoids, visit the Secret Nature blog, and don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions.
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