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Beyond THC: Discover What Is THCA in Cannabis

While THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is widely recognized as the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis, responsible for inducing euphoria or a 'high,' cannabis contains a multitude of chemical compounds, each with its isolated effects. Among these, cannabidiol (CBD) products have become increasingly popular due to their potentially beneficial effects without psychoactive properties. Additionally, tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) has become a more prominent cannabinoid in recent years, so it’s important to understand its origins and how it works in the body.

Despite the name THCA drawing obvious associations with THC, these two chemicals have different activity in the body. Let’s look closer at THCA and how it works in the body.

What is THCA?

Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) is a compound found in cannabis, similar to THC, which is responsible for the euphoric sensation ('high') associated with cannabis use. However, THCA doesn't have the same effects as THC; instead, it has its own potential risks and benefits.

When cannabis plants are harvested, they contain THCA, not THC. It's only when the plant is dried and heated, such as by smoking or cooking, that THCA is converted into THC and produces its psychoactive effects. This process is called decarboxylation, or removing a carboxyl group from the chemical structure.

The carboxyl group is seen in the upper left corner of the chemical structure of THCA. When the carboxyl group is removed, THCA is converted to THC:

THC and THCA molecular geometry

THCA products aren’t supposed to make you feel 'high' unless they are heated, making them appealing to those who want the potential benefits of cannabis without the psychoactive effects. While research is ongoing, some studies suggest that THCA could potentially have anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties. However, more research is needed to fully understand how THCA works and whether it may be effective for different medical uses.

Is THCA safe?

By avoiding smoking or heating THCA and bulk conversion to THC, harmful effects like lung damage, increased anxiety, or impaired memory may be largely avoided. Currently, safety concerns related to consuming THCA directly are not known since research is still limited. Many studies focus on animal models and cell cultures rather than randomized controlled human trials. Research is still very much in the early, speculative phases, and further studies are needed to pinpoint any potential safety concerns.

It’s also important to note that THCA can easily convert to THC, with some conversion taking place at room temperature. Although not necessarily intentional, some contamination with THC is likely inevitable. When buying any over-the-counter product, it’s best to purchase reputable brands that undergo independent third-party testing to verify the ingredients and avoid other potentially harmful contaminants. This can help you avoid some of the dangers associated with products from less reputable brands.

In the United States, products containing cannabinoids like CBD and THCA are considered legal at the federal level as long as they are derived from hemp and contain less than 0.3% THC. Legality differs by state, however, so it’s important to take some time to familiarize yourself with local regulations. For instance, while THC without a medical waiver is illegal in states like Florida and Texas, buying THCA is considered legal as long as federal guidelines related to THC content are met. However, possession still opens the door for potential legal implications because these products can readily be converted to THC.

In states where recreational marijuana is legal, unregulated THCA is also available. Nonetheless, it’s important to note that consuming THCA directly can be detected on a drug test.

THC vs. THCA: what’s the difference?

Although the structures of THC and THCA are similar, they interact with the body in different ways. Research is still ongoing as to how exactly THCA may differ, but some of the initial data have suggested the following:

THCTHCA
Psychoactive, produces a ‘high’Not psychoactive, does not produce a ‘high’
Smoking can cause lung damageNot smoked
May contribute to memory impairmentHas not been associated with memory impairment
Potentially effective for nauseaPotential benefits in nausea management in animal studies
Studies show its appetite-stimulating properties in certain populationsAnimal studies hint that it might not greatly boost appetite but could potentially reduce body fat and enhance blood sugar control

In general, the potential clinical uses of THC are more established in research. THCA is likely to be further studied as an alternative offering similar benefits while avoiding psychotropic effects. This research is still very much in its early phases.

What does THCA do to the brain?

When THCA retains its structure and is not converted to THC, it does not cause a psychotropic effect or ‘high.’ Despite this, mice studies show that THCA may seem to have some potentially positive activity for protecting neurons. This has been associated with peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-γ (PPARγ) activity, which plays a role in neuroinflammatory processes.

Through this pathway, THCA may potentially help slow down the progression of diseases like Huntington’s or Alzheimer’s, but, again, the evidence is still new and emerging.

Benefits of THCA

While THC is among the most recognizable, cannabis is made up of many individual components. Research related to cannabinoids is expanding to include more of these components, but the bulk of existing research has been limited primarily to THC and CBD. THC, CBD, and combination products have been studied and have shown some promising potential effects for managing:

  • Chronic pain
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Treatment-resistant forms of epilepsy
  • Nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy
  • Unintentional weight loss and loss of appetite due to certain conditions

THCA may ultimately be explored for some of these purposes, but the current research is limited. Much of the current research now involves animal models and cell lines rather than human subjects. There have been some promising findings related to potential benefits for nausea management and support for neurodegenerative diseases, but further research is needed to confirm whether any beneficial effects will translate consistently to humans.

Side effects of THCA

Because studies involving THCA in humans are limited, formal data related to risks and side effects are also limited. THCA is often formulated to be taken by mouth, so some stomach discomfort or nausea may occur. If you take prescription or over-the-counter medications, it’s crucial to talk with your healthcare providers about potential drug interactions. Cannabinoids can influence the levels of other drugs (e.g., warfarin), which can lead to potentially dangerous side effects.

As the research and use of cannabis products expands, THCA has become a focus for individuals seeking an alternative to THC and CBD products. THCA may potentially offer some health benefits while avoiding psychotropic effects or a ‘high.’ However, the research related to potential benefits is still in the early phases, and much of it has not been performed with human subjects.

If you are considering THCA products, it’s important to discuss them with your healthcare provider first, especially if you have any chronic diseases, and familiarize yourself with your local regulations as the laws vary by state. THCA readily converts to THC, so possession may result in legal repercussions depending on the jurisdiction.

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