THC versus THCa

Jen Olson

By now, everyone in the weed world is familiar with cannabinoids - the active constituents of cannabis. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the superstar of them all, being the most well-known psychotropic ingredient of cannabis - the main cannabinoid responsible for getting you high. What most folks don’t know is that THC has a precursor. Living and freshly harvested cannabis plants contain a compound called THCa (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid), which only converts to the desirable THC cannabinoid after it is heated up (i.e. decarboxylated or “decarbed”) in some way. More about decarboxylation later, but first...

What is the Difference Between THC and THCa?

molecular difference between thc and thca

THCa is a cannabinoid that contains carboxylic acid and is a precursor acid to THC. THCa is the most abundant non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in the living or freshly harvested cannabis plant. So as healthy as it sounds, eating a salad sprinkled with raw bud won’t actually get you high. It is commonly thought that as the cannabis plant matures, the level of THC increases. There is actually no THC present in a live plant or fresh cannabis material. However, the levels of THCa do increase as the plant grows, which in turn increases the level of THC in the product after the decarboxylation process.

THC produces a high because it is able to bind with receptors CB1 and CB2 in our endocannabinoid system. THCa has a large, 3-D structure which prevents it from fitting into the CB1 receptors. In order to produce a high, the cannabinoids must be able to fit into CB1 receptors. So how does one transform the compounds into a suitable size? The compounds must be heated up. 

Decarboxylation is the process of transforming THCa into THC (or CBDa into CBD) through the process of applying heat. If THCa was the caterpillar, and THC was the butterfly, then decarboxylation would be the cocoon stage of metamorphosis. The decarb process can be immediate or gradual and there are various methods;

  • Smoking. This can be smoking a joint, taking a hit off the bong, and using a pipe or chillum among other things. 
  • Atomizing through vaporization. Vape pens, water vaporizers, volcanoes. The sky's the limit. 
  • Dabbing.
  • Cooking and baking with cannabis butter or oil. This involves infusing butter or cooking oil with cannabis and using the butter or oil in recipes. 
  • Drying and curing. There are many different techniques involved in drying and curing bud. That’s a whole other conversation. ;)
  • Sunlight.
  • Exposure to room temperatures over a period of time.

Does THCa Have Any Benefits?

A growing interest in the potential health benefits of THCa has inspired considerable research efforts in the medical world. Similar to its cannabinoid cousin CBC (cannabichromene), THCa is not able to produce a high. However, it is able to create other pharmacological actions. These actions include;

  • Anti-inflammatory. THCa can help to reduce heat and swelling within the body. Since inflammation is a main factor of pain, many people including those with arthritis experience pain relief while using THCa. 
  • Immunomodulatory. THCa can contribute to the body’s ability to either stimulate or suppress the immune system. This may help the body to fight cancer, infections and other diseases, as well as to modulate the immune response in autoimmune conditions. 
  • Neuroprotective. THCa acts to protect nerve cells against damage, degeneration, or impairment of function. This could be beneficial when treating Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and other serious neurological conditions.
  • Antiproliferative. THCa can contribute to helping to retard or prevent cell (especially malignant) growth. This action could make THCa a beneficial part of cancer treatment. 
  • Antiemetic. Similar to THC, the anti-nauseant and appetite-stimulating qualities of THCa can be an important part of treating eating disorders such as anorexia. It can also be used to help counteract some of the negative effects of chemotherapy such as weight loss, loss of appetite and nausea.

How THCa Potency Levels Are Tested

There are currently two methods used for testing cannabinoid potency; Gas Chromatography (GC) and High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). The GC method involves heat, and the HPLC method doesn’t. Since heat transforms THC to THCa, naturally the HPLC method is the one used to test THCa. 

In the High Performance Liquid Chromatography method, the cannabis material is ground to a fine powder. The cannabinoids are then extracted using sonification (applying sound energy using ultrasonic frequencies to particles in a solution) and centrifuging (separating molecules having different densities in a solution around a central axis). The sample then passes through a column in a liquid phase, and ultraviolet light is used to detect cannabinoids. 

Because the HPLC method does not involve heat, this method is safe to use for testing THCa and CBDa levels as well as other cannabinoids that are not heat-sensitive. 

Raw Cannabis and How to Incorporate It 

scientist picking buds of hemp

Raw cannabis is a nutritious way to access valuable heat-sensitive cannabinoids such as THCa. It also contains omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, vitamins A, B1, B2, C and E, and complete proteins. 

Juicing is a popular way to ingest raw cannabis. A great way to juice cannabis is by using the lush, chlorophyll-rich outer fan leaves of the plant. Since raw cannabis material can often be hard to come by, one can access the same raw cannabis benefits from using tinctures, topical applications such as salves, balms and massage oils, and capsules. 

Does THCa Have Any Side Effects?

Just like with the other cannabinoids, there is anecdotal evidence claiming some side effects to THCa. These include; 

  • Sedative qualities - feelings of tiredness, heaviness, or drowsiness.
  • Energizing qualities
  • Anxiousness (at high doses)

Since these symptoms are anecdotal and not based on scientific research, it is hard to determine whether or not THCa could be harmful, and at what doses. The best way to start taking any cannabis products is to start with a very low dose. Using the instructions on the package or bottle as a guide, observe and track your experiences and gradually increase the dose from there until you find your sweet spot. 

Cannabinoids and the Future

Cannabinoids are a hot topic in the world of science and health. More and more studies are published every day revealing the potential of cannabis as a powerful healing agent. Cannabinoids are numerous and there is still so much to learn about these diverse compounds. When using cannabis recreationally or medicinally, it is always best to learn as much as possible about the types of products available, so that you can make informed choices and avoid any potential side effects or negative reactions. The Green Dragon CBD website is loaded with informative blogs, where you can stay up to date with the latest cannabis news and products.  

THC versus THCa
What is THCa? How is it related to THC? Is there a difference? Read our latest blog to see what all the fuss is about surrounding THCa?
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THC versus THCa
September 20, 2023
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