How Cannabinoids Are Converted, the Deal With Eating Raw Cannabis, and What That Little “A” Actually Means, Answered.
You may have stumbled upon an interesting ingredient in the search for a super healthy juice or smoothie recipe: raw cannabis.
And no, that isn’t a mistake. Raw cannabis belongs to the realm of superfoods alongside avocados, kale, and greek yogurt; they help fight arthritis, chronic pain, and other maladies — without any intoxicating effects.
This is all thanks to Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid (THCA), a cannabinoid that, until recently, has been most closely related to Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the most intoxicating chemical compound in cannabis. The relation? THCA becomes THC.
Which begs the question: how is a THCA non-intoxicating when consumed in raw cannabis (fresh, uncured, and unheated) but intoxicating once it has become THC when smoked? What exactly is THC in relation to THCA, and vice versa?
Decarboxylation: How Cannabinoids Convert to Change the Way They Interact with Our Bodies.
The cannabis plant produces hundreds of cannabinoids,the chemical compounds responsible for the therapeutic and psychoactive effects of cannabis. But only a few cannabinoids cause the euphoric high that is unique to the cannabis plant. Most people assume that during the growth period the cannabis plant is producing THC molecules, the most desired cannabinoid to cannabis cultivators, when it is actually primarily producing a larger molecule: THCA.
THCA molecules are non-intoxicating precursors that becomes THC molecules as they are exposed to heat over a prolonged period of time, often by way of smoking. THCA that’s found in the cannabis plant won’t make you feel high. This is how you can eat or drink the raw plant and not feel its intoxicating effects.
But what keeps THCA from producing the intoxicating effects of a THC molecule? The simple answer: The THCA molecule doesn’t fit into the brain’s cannabinoid receptors.
In terms of physical size, THCA is a larger compound than THC. This is due to the extra carboxyl group attached to the molecule; it’s this carboxyl group that defines THCA as an acid. In fact, most cannabinoids (CBDA, CBGA, THCVA) take this acidic form when harvested and it is only later that they become the cannabinoids (CBD, CBG, THCV) we’re more familiar with.
The term for converting THCA into THC is decarboxylation. Simply put, it’s the process of removing the carboxylic acid group from a cannabinoid, a change that enhances its ability to interact with the body. Smoking cannabis, for example, decarboxylates THCA into THC. Without decarboxylation, THCA have very little affinity for the cannabinoid type I (CBI) receptor since they can’t fit. CB1 receptor activation is a requirement for intoxication; if molecules don’t fit here, they can’t get you high.
Heat removes a carboxylic acid group from THCA, which decarboxylates into a THC molecule. As a smaller cannabinoid, THC is able to bind to CB1 receptors throughout the human body, producing intoxication.
The human body is not capable of converting THCA into THC.
Heat, Light, and the Many Ways THCA Converts to THC.
THCA is considered “thermally unstable,” which is another way to emphasize that it will alter when provoked by heat. Because of THCA’s instability, the molecule lends itself to several different methods of decarboxylation.
Sunlight conversion: THCA can convert to THC to varying degrees through exposure to light and heat. 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 an olive oil extract, 22% of THCA will convert to THC over the course of 10 days at 77 degrees. Under the same conditions, 67% of THCA in an ethanol extraction will convert. Over time, cannabis stored at room temperature with very little light exposure will convert 20% of its THCA to THC.
Smoking: If dried and cured bud is exposed to a high degree of heat for a short time, as a match or lighter would provide during smoking, much of the existing THCA rapidly changes to THC. However, not all THCA converts to THC (smoking THCA isn’t the most efficient method of decarboxylation).
The Benefits of THCA and Reasons to Go Raw
The raw cannabis movement is largely led by the benefits of THCA. More consumers are looking for smoothie and juice recipes to consume raw cannabis for its non-intoxicating, medicinal benefits (thanks to CBD’s rise in popularity).
Research is still preliminary and some results are still anecdotal, but the consumption of cannabinoid acids (the “A” in THCA) is believed to be a key to preventing chronic diseases (IBS, glaucoma, fibromyalgia) caused by an endocannabinoid production deficiency.
THCA is commonly being used as a nutritional supplement and dietary enhancer for its:
- Anti-inflammatory properties to help with conditions like lupus and arthritis
- Antidiabetic properties, reducing the risk of developing early onset diabetes
- Neuroprotective properties to treat neurodegenerative diseases
- Antiemetic properties to battle loss of appetite and nausea
Whether you’re smoking or juicing, understanding the various ways cannabinoids convert and interact with our bodies is crucial to achieving the effects we desire (and avoiding the ones we don’t). As more research is conducted in pursuit of a deeper understanding of how humans and cannabinoids interact, we can safely integrate raw cannabis into our daily diets to take full advantage of everything the plant has to offer.