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What is THCa? | Understanding The Latest Delta 9 THC Contender

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“Delta 9 THC, CBD, Delta 8 THC…” These days, it seems as though there are new cannabis product offerings every week. While many of these are simply a new spin on familiar cannabinoids like Delta 9 THC and CBD, more recently new products have been hitting the market that maintain dominant concentrations of minor or underlying cannabinoids. What probably appears to many as an alphabet soup — I’ve spotted some questionable products that make outrageous label claims like “LOADED WITH D9THC + THCa + HHC + D8 + THC-O + THCP”…and so on. Although it is plausible that products contain these wild mixtures, ultimately these are just the result of an uninformed marketing department trying to catch the attention of consumers. I’ll do a deep dive into synthetic cannabinoids in a later post, but for this article, I wanted to share some insight into a naturally occurring cannabinoid that has seen significant growth in popularity over the past few months due to its accessibility and effects — and admittedly, a new personal favorite of mine — THCa. 

 

What is THCa? 

Over the past decade, the amount of research being devoted to the cannabis plant has increased significantly. A quick look at the findings from such research makes one thing very clear — there is much more to cannabis than meets the eye. That said, the THCa isomer is no new discovery. THCa was first discovered in 1969 by — you guessed it — the highly celebrated Israeli scientist and father of cannabis, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam (whom I’ve discussed before). However, it wasn’t until more recently that cannabis consumers and brands started giving this cannabinoid the attention it deserves (just check out this two year Google search trend). 

So, what is THCa? Bear with me while I nerd-out for a moment. THCa stands for tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, and it is the acidic precursor to the more commonly known THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) — hence the “a”, which represents the attached “acid”. THCa is found naturally in the cannabis plant, and thanks to the bright minds behind modern cannabis genetic engineering, can also be produced abundantly in certain cultivars or strains of cannabis. In its raw form, THCa is considered non-psychoactive, meaning that it won’t cause the euphoric high that THC is known for. However, the key point here is “in its raw form”. More on that in a moment. 

Chemically, THCa is similar to THC, but it contains what scientists refer to as an extra carboxyl group (-COOH), which is attached to its molecule. This group is key in understanding THCa because it influences how it interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is involved in regulating a variety of physiological and cognitive processes including pain sensation, mood, and memory. As research has shown, cannabinoids rely on the endocannabinoid system or ECS to produce many of the effects that we’re familiar with — and THCa is no exception.  

I stated above that THCa is considered non-psychoactive in its raw state, however — and this is a very big however — when heated through smoking, vaping, or cooking, THCa undergoes a process known as decarboxylation or decarbing. This process removes the carboxyl group, converting THCa into THC almost instantly, and thus changing its effects dramatically — get it? deCARBing is the removal of a CARBoxyl group. I know most of us haven’t given chemistry a second thought since college, but understanding this transformation is key to utilizing THCa effectively. 

Given this information, you may have put the puzzle pieces together and realized that THCa, when heated, is converted to everyone’s favorite cannabinoid, THC. This isn’t a situation where it converts to something kind of like or similar to THC — it simply converts to the one and only THC

THC vs. THCa  

If you made it through the chemistry lesson above, you’re probably curious why a THC vs. THCa section is warranted. Going back to the fact that THCa is different from THC in a raw, unheated form, there are some notable differences between these two cannabinoids. 

Although once converted through decarbing, THCa functions — for the sake of brevity — in the same manner as THC as far as psychoactive/intoxicating effects go. Certainly, there are consumers out there who claim that they can “feel” a difference in the high that [decarbed] THCa produces compared to THC, but these are only anecdotal reports. And since we’re considering anecdotes, I’ll add my own to the mix and say that, without a doubt, smoking and/or vaping THCa flower produces effects that are indistinguishable from those produced by THC flower — and I’ve done my fair share of “personal testing” over the years. 

However, THCa in a raw state before any decarbing has occurred, actually shows some differences when compared to THC. For example, research suggests that the anti-inflammatory effects of THCa are far greater than those produced by THC. Another study by the Journal of Epilepsy Research suggests that THCa could possibly address seizure disorders, something that THC can’t — or at least researchers haven’t figured out yet. 

 

Will THCa Get Me High?

Yes and no. Raw THCa won’t cause the psychoactive or intoxicating effects like THC but remember — THCa converts to THC at nearly the instant that the flame of your lighter contacts the flower. So technically, THCa won’t produce the effects of being high, but if you’re smoking or vaping your THCa flower, then you’re actually consuming THC by the time it reaches your lungs, due to the decarboxylation that occurs. In essence and for the sake of fully informing readers, if you’re smoking, vaping, or consuming decarbed THCa flower, you will absolutely feel high, just as you would if you were consuming THC. 

 

Can I Smoke THCa In a Blunt?

Absolutely! In fact, rolling up some fresh THCa flower — which in many cases, can be ordered online and shipped to most states — is an excellent way to not only decarb your THCa, thus turning it into THC, but with the exciting new THCa strains out there, consumers have a cornucopia of genetics to try. In fact, I would personally go as far as to recommend cannabis consumers try out THCa flower in a blunt, if only to develop your own opinion of THCa compared to THC. 

Another aspect that I’ve found compelling about smoking THCa in blunt wraps or blunt cones is the flavorful experience when you find a high-quality terpene-infused blunt wrap that pairs well with the specific THCa strain that you’re smoking. Many of the high-volume THCa growers around the nation are very proud of their genetics and take the extra step of providing third-party lab tested terpene profiles with their THCa. This alone opens Pandora’s Box in terms of flavor and aroma combinations. I typically steer clear of direct plugs, but I’ve got to share this one because the experience was like none other. Find a reputable vendor, grower, or dispensary that sells THCa dominant Grandaddy Purp flower and combine this with these Purple Punch chamomile leaf blunt cones and you’re in for a treat! Seriously…*Chef’s kiss* 🤌

 

THCa FAQ – The Quick and Dirty

For those of you who are familiar with my articles, you’re probably aware that I don’t typically keep my thoughts short and sweet. Although I remain unapologetic for that, I do think this is a great chance to provide readers with some quick and dirty THCa questions and answers. 

Is THCa Natural or Synthetic? 

THCa is produced naturally by the cannabis plant. 

Is THCa Better Than Delta 8?

This simply comes down to personal preference and risk tolerance. The risk being the manner in which delta 8 is produced in bulk, which could result in residual production chemicals that may get left behind in Delta 8 products. For this reason, I personally don’t consume Delta 8 on a regular basis or without a chain of custody for the product’s source. Ultimately, “better” is subjective, but I would choose THCa over Delta 8 every time. 

Can You Make Edibles with THCa?

Yes! In fact, part of the “baking” process when you’re making any cannabis-infused edibles serves as the decarbing process that we discussed earlier. It is the reason that you can’t simply eat a raw cannabis nug off the plant and feel any effects. Decarbing allows our bodies, specifically the liver, to metabolize THC. 

Is THCa Stronger Than THC?  

It can be! Remember, THCa simply converts to THC once heated. Considering this, you can compare a THC product’s strength to that of a THCa product by comparing the percentage of THC or THCa concentration. This isn’t an all-encompassing comparison but should provide you with a sense of where the two products fall in terms of THC concentration. Most of the time, these numbers are going to fall into the 15-25% concentration range. 

Is THCa an Indica, Sativa, or Hybrid? 

THCa can be all of these! This type of cultivar categorization is being largely replaced now that brands and labs can produce complete terpene profiles, but the sentiment remains that any cannabis plant can technically be placed into one of these categories. 

Will THCa Get Me Higher Than THC? 

THCa converts to THC when heated, so in essence, they’re one in the same. This means that THC isn’t inherently stronger than THCa or that it will produce a more intense high, once the THCa has been converted. Pre-conversion/decarbing however, THCa does not produce psychoactive effects. 

Does THCa Have Terpenes and Flavonoids? 

Yes. Just like any other cannabinoid-dominant cannabis flower, THCa-dominant cannabis plants produce some of the most robust flavors and aromas that I’ve personally experienced. 

 

The Takeaway – THCa is Like a Pizza Topping…

…By that, I mean THCa is just another pizza topping that cannabis consumers can choose from. Some folks may love it, some may hate it, and some folks may be indifferent — but there’s no wrong or right way to go about it. In other words, do I predict that THCa will overtake the THC market? Not hardly. Do I think THCa will stick around pending any regulatory changes? Most likely.

THCa won’t be the last exciting cannabinoid that we discover, isolate, and research, but it could very well be the most exciting mainstream cannabinoid since CBD. If you’ve not had a chance to experience THCa yet, I highly recommend finding a vetted grower or vendor and sparking up a blunt, bowl, or vape to form your own opinion (pro tip: try to find a vendor who also operates the growing operation – this will usually result in much fresher flower that is shipped directly from the farm). In the meantime, I’ll be over here adding all of the new weed holidays to my calendar so that I keep an eye on THCa sales promos. 

This article is for informational purposes only and not to be used as medical advice. Please speak with a medical professional before making any changes to your diet, medications, or daily routine. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. 

Grady Moore is a marketing and development consultant for the cannabis and hemp industry. He holds a Master of Science in medical cannabis science and therapeutics from the University of Maryland. Grady is passionate about increasing medical cannabis literacy and education. When he isn’t working, you can likely find him playing with his golden retriever named Doobie, taking time-lapse photography, or practicing cello. To connect with or keep up with Grady, follow him on LinkedIn.

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