If you have even a minimal amount of experience with cannabis, then you’re likely familiar with the compound THC–the intoxicating cannabinoid responsible for producing the “high” associated with marijuana.
THCA, which, while sounding extremely similar to THC, is a fundamentally different compound.
What is THC?
THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol, though it almost always refers explicitly to delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol.
Likely the most well-known of all the cannabinoids, THC famously is the compound that gets you high. Many cultivators specifically breed cannabis to contain hefty amounts of THC to create intense psychedelic effects in recreational marijuana users.
What is THCA?
THCA stands for tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, and it’s actually a precursor to THC.
You see, cannabis doesn’t actually produce much THC and CBD naturally. It does, however, produce hefty amounts of the acidic forms of the compounds THCA and CBDA. It isn’t until THCA is exposed to heat that it transforms into THC through a process called decarboxylation. If you’ve ever made edibles at home, then you know that decarboxylation is essential to activate the cannabinoids.
THCA in itself isn’t intoxicating in the same way THC is. The compound THCA is actually too large to bind to the cannabinoid receptors in our ECS, which is why it doesn’t get us high. However, because when THCA is heated, it turns into regular old THC, smoking or vaping THCA will still result in THC intoxication. If you want to glean the benefits of THCA while remaining clearheaded, look for THCA in the form of an herbal tincture. Recently, juicing cannabis has become a popular way for consumers to enjoy the benefits of THCA.
What’s Better THC or THCA?
The answer will depend on what you want to get out of your cannabis. If you’re looking to stay sober and use cannabinoids as wellness supplements, THCA will definitely be your preferred compound of the two.
However, if you’re looking to get lit, keep in mind only a maximum of 87.7% of inactive THCA can be successfully converted into THC. So if you have two strains, one with 10% THC and one with 10%THCA, the THC strain will have more overall delta-9 THC when smoked.
Total THC vs Delta-9 THC
Because THCa converts to THC when smoked, determining accurate potency levels of cannabis can be a bit tricky. You can’t simply add the THCa percentages and the THC percentages together since not all of the THCa will actually convert into THC, and the amount that will convert is pretty unpredictable.
One common method of determining total THC percentages is a technique called gas chromatography (GC), which involves heating the material that decarboxylates the THCa and transforms the product into a gas measured for THC content.
Another option is to use the formula THCtotal = (%THCA) x 0.877 + (%THC) to determine the maximum amount of total THC that could be present in a given strain. This method is less precise but more accessible.
Is THCa legal?
The legality of cannabis-derived compounds is nuanced, ever-changing, and complicated by the fact that hemp laws by state will vary.
However, the 2018 Farm Bill decriminalized hemp on a federal level. The definition of hemp as laid out in the bill is any strain of cannabis that contains less than 0.3% delta-9 THC. Because the bill’s language specifically refers to delta-9 THC, and strain of cannabis could hypothetically contain upwards of 20% THCA. As long as it remains under 0.3% delta-9 THC, it could still be considered hemp and therefore be federally decriminalized despite being intoxicating when smoked.
However, this product would still be subject to the individual laws governing cannabis in the state where it was cultivated and sold. Some states regulate based on total THC percentages, while others use delta-9 THC percentages.