Acidic and activated cannabinoids: What's the difference?

Whether you're a seasoned cannabis user or a total newbie to the herb, cannabinoids are likely to be familiar to you. The unique chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant are famed for affecting the body's endocannabinoid system in various ways. For example, THC leads with an intoxicating high, while CBD may help relieve anxiety.    

But did you know that plant cannabinoids, like THC and CBD, can occur in both an activated and an acidic form? Or that the different forms of the same cannabinoid can enact distinct effects on our physiology?

Let's explore what acidic cannabinoids are, how cannabinoids become activated, and the potential benefits of each form. 

What are acidic/non-activated cannabinoids?

Acidic cannabinoids are raw and occur naturally in cannabis and industrial hemp plants. THCA and CBDA are both acidic cannabinoids. The extra “A” stands for acid.

“Many people are surprised to learn that cannabis and hemp plants do not directly produce the well-known cannabinoids tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), or any of the hundreds of others researchers have identified,” said Dr. Dustin Sulak, founder of Healer, a medical cannabis education platform.

raw cannabis nug
One of the most important distinguishing features of acidic cannabinoids is that they are non-psychoactive when taken alone.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

One of the most important distinguishing features of acidic cannabinoids is that they are non-psychoactive when taken alone. In other words, you can't green out after eating a bag of raw cannabis. This is because acidic cannabinoids don't have the same affinity for the body's cannabinoid receptors as activated cannabinoids. 

Over time, acidic cannabinoids will naturally, slowly convert into activated cannabinoids. Subjecting raw cannabis to high temperatures can accelerate this process.

What are the benefits of using acidic/non-activated cannabinoids?

A lack of knowledge around acidic cannabinoids has led to a presumption that they are inactive. Not so. Sulak emphasized that, in fact, acidic cannabinoids carry a host of benefits.

"The vast majority of cannabis users are missing out on the health benefits of the acidic cannabinoids,” said Sulak. 

“Acidic cannabinoids are still widely considered inactive or irrelevant, despite a quickly growing body of clinical and preclinical evidence that these compounds are highly absorbable, physiologically active in low doses, and work via mechanisms both distinct and complementary to their more well-known decarboxylated counterparts.” 

Sulak also noted that his patients who have added THCA and CBDA into their regime noted significant changes in their chronic, inflammation-based conditions.

Research is also emerging to suggest that acidic cannabinoids carry their own therapeutic benefits. For example:

Sulak also emphasized that acidic cannabinoids may further enhance the entourage effect when teamed with activated cannabinoids. 

Acidic cannabinoids represent a good option for individuals who want to enjoy the therapeutic benefits of cannabis, without the intoxicating psychoactive effects.

What are activated cannabinoids?

If you've experimented with smoking weed or sampled edibles, then you're already familiar with activated cannabinoids. Cannabinoids become activated thanks to the process of decarboxylation. In the simplest terms, when raw cannabis is exposed to heat or left to its own devices over a long period of time (like months or years), the cannabinoids in the plant undergo a chemical reaction. 

Decarboxylation of THCA
Cannabinoids become activated thanks to the process of decarboxylation.

This chemical reaction removes a carboxyl group from the cannabinoid, changing it from acidic into an activated form. To decarb cannabis immediately with heat, for example, dried cannabis buds can be baked in a 220 degrees Fahrenheit (104 Celsius) oven for approximately 30 minutes.

Users consume activated cannabinoids more often than their raw counterparts. It follows then, that the majority of cannabinoid research also focuses on activated cannabinoids. As a result, we have more knowledge about the interactions with activated cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system. 

When THCA undergoes decarboxylation to become activated THC, it can bind more efficiently to CB1 receptors in the endocannabinoid system. Activated THC kicks off the euphoric, intoxicating high for which marijuana is famed. Intoxication only occurs with activated cannabinoids.

how to smoke a bong
Intoxication only occurs with activated cannabinoids.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

What are the benefits of activated cannabinoids?

The therapeutic profiles of activated cannabinoids are well-established in clinical studies. With the shift towards cannabis legalization both throughout the US and globally, research into activated cannabinoids is proliferating. 

THC has the potential to stimulate appetite, relieve nausea, help with cancer pain, reduce muscle spasticity, sedate, and relax. CBD is being studied for anti-anxiety effects, reducing pain and inflammation, and as a possible treatment for certain addictions. Minor cannabinoids, like CBN, CBG, and CBC, have all been associated with their own unique therapeutic potentials.

Activated cannabinoids may also provide the immediate onset of relief for symptoms such as pain, nausea, convulsions, and anxiety. Thanks to an ever-growing repository of knowledge around activated cannabinoids, there are resources to help manage dosage and avoid interactions with other drugs. 

How are acidic cannabinoids best prepared?

If acidic cannabinoids sound intriguing, raw juicing represents an easy entry point for experimenting with them. Simply cold-press fresh cannabis buds and leaves in a cold-press juicer, which helps preserve the integrity of the plant's properties, and blend with fruit or vegetable juice. 

Sulak also recommended brewing tea with raw cannabis or using cannabis products, like tinctures, containing THCA and/or CBDA. Both represent easy ways to experiment with acidic cannabinoids.

“I encourage you to experiment with adding acidic cannabinoids to your regimen in the range of 5 to 20 milligrams one to three times daily for at least two weeks,” he advised.

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The information contained in this site is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical or legal advice. This page was last updated on April 14, 2022.