THCA and THC: What’s the Difference?

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, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). There is, however, a wealth of Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid (THCA).

THCA is a cannabinoid that up 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 THC.

So why does THC get us elevated and THCA doesn’t? The reason is due to the 3-D shape of the THCA molecule. It is a larger molecule that doesn’t fit into our cannabinoid receptors, specifically the CB1 sites. 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 during the marijuana plant’s growth process that it is ramping up THC levels until ripe for the picking, but the primary cannabinoid being produced is actually THCA. Which begs the question, 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 THC molecule, thus becoming the perfect shape to fit into our endocannabinoid system (ECS) CB1 receptors that run throughout the human brain, producing the elevated experience.

THCA, on the other hand, even though non-intoxicating, is a big part of the reason that fresh, raw, unheated cannabis is in fact a superfood. You may have heard of juicing cannabis or adding raw cannabis to smoothies for health enhancement. There’s good reason.

Like other superfoods, including avocados, kale, greek yogurt, green tea, and garlic, raw cannabis has potential in easing arthritis, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and other ailments.

THCA is commonly being used as a nutritional supplement and dietary enhancement for its prospective:

  • Anti-inflammatory properties
  • Antidiabetic properties
  • Neuroprotective properties
  • Antispasmodic properties
  • Antiemetic properties (increasing appetite and decreasing nausea)

Most cannabinoids (including greats like CBD, CBG, and THCV) are in the acidic form (CBDA, CBGA, THCVA…) when cannabis is harvested and have benefits themselves that we are still learning about. It’s only after they go through the decarboxylation process, though, that they become the cannabinoids we’re most familiar with and that most interact with our ECS.

Decarboxylation of THCA

The human body is not capable of converting THCA into THC.

 

 

 

The acidic precursors are considered “thermally unstable,” which is another way to emphasize that they will alter when provoked by heat. Because of this instability, the molecules lend themselves to several different methods of decarboxylation.

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. 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 nearly all THCA will convert and, though the most common way to enjoy THC’s effects, it’s not the most efficient.

Vaporizing: This is perhaps the most efficient way of decarboxylating ground nugs. When heated at a low temp, the cannabinoids are converted and released. Continuing to increase the heat with each pull or sesh 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. (Just make sure you’re using a reliable brand of vape pen, for safety’s sake, and do your best to purchase products that are recyclable.)

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 °F for 30-90 minutes (depending on the bud’s moisture content), it slowly converts most THCA into THC.

Whether smoked, eaten, vaped, or juiced raw, understanding cannabis properties and how and why they interact with our bodies the way they do is crucial in achieving the desired effects and avoiding the ones that aren’t wanted or needed. Cannabis molecules each have their own benefits and as raw cannabis is further studied, we can rest easy knowing that it’s not only safe to integrate it into a healthy diet, but advisable if you have the access, means, and especially dire systemic needs.