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THCa vs. THC: What’s the Difference?

THCA Molecule

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The well-known cannabinoid THC is famous for its intoxicating effects, as well as its promising benefits. Before THC becomes THC, it’s found in fresh cannabis flowers in a different form known as a cannabinoid acid. 

The acidic form of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is known as THCa (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid). They are similar in structure and share certain similarities, but there are also some specific, definitive differences between the two. 

THCa vs. THC

Did you know that it’s impossible to get high from eating raw cannabis? You could juice cannabis flowers, blend them in a smoothie, sprinkle them on your salad or eat buds like popcorn and you wouldn’t feel a thing. There’s a reason for this. Raw cannabis does not contain activated THC, but it is loaded with THCa. 

This acidic form of THC (THCa) is commonly referred to as the precursor to THC. That “a” on the end stands for “acid,” and it makes for some significant differences between the two. 

THCa and THC share a very similar chemical structure. The only difference is that THCa contains the addition of a carboxyl group. This seemingly small difference actually makes a huge difference in the way the two cannabinoids interact with the body. 

THCa doesn’t bind well to CB1 or CB2 receptors. Because it’s a larger size and three-dimensional (thanks to that extra carboxyl group), it doesn’t fit with CB1 receptors in the same manner as THC. This is why THCa doesn’t cause intoxication. 

Keep in mind that there are 100+ cannabinoids produced in cannabis. THC is the most commonly occurring, followed by other major cannabinoids such as CBD, CBC, and CBG.. Before these cannabinoids become the active compounds most people are familiar with, they’re found in live cannabis plants in their acidic states. For example, CBD starts as CBDa (cannabidiolic acid), CBC as CBCa (cannabichromenic acid) and CBG as CBGa (cannabigerolic acid). 

THCa is no different. In order to become THC, it must first be activated. This is achieved through a process known as decarboxylation. 

Decarboxylation: How THCa Becomes THC

The process for THCa to become THC is relatively simple. It must be exposed to heat and light through a process known as decarboxylation. Ultimately this removes the carboxylic acid group, altering the molecule’s chemical structure and size. Decarboxylation turns THCa into THC, which fits into CB1 receptors like a lock and key, leading to the intoxicating effects for which the cannabinoid is famous. 

Decarboxylation can occur in a few different ways. Heat exposure is one of the most common. For example, when someone smokes or vapes cannabis flowers, the combustion of the heat causes THCa to turn into THC. Decarbing cannabis in the oven on low heat settings is also common. Sunlight and room temperature exposure can also convert acidic THCa into active THC. 

THCa Won’t Get You High

The intoxicating effect (or lack thereof) is one of the biggest differences between the two cannabinoids. If THCa is the precursor to THC, why doesn’t this acidic counterpart cause any euphoric effects? 

Again, it all comes down to structure and size of the two molecules. THCa is larger than THC. This larger size combined with its slightly different shape makes a huge difference when it comes to its aptitude for intoxication. 

Here’s how it works. 

THC binds to CB1 receptors in the brain, one of the receptors found in the endocannabinoid system (ECS) that regulates intoxication. THC fits perfectly with CB1 receptors and when it binds to them, it can activate feelings of euphoria that stem from the reward system in the brain. 

Here’s the thing, though: The size and structure of THCa don’t mesh with CB1 receptors. THCa is too big, and the extra carboxyl chain makes it an imperfect match. CBD is similar in that it doesn’t “fit” with CB1 receptors, which is exactly why CBD doesn’t make you high. In fact, CBD is known to impede the CB1 receptor to the point it can inhibit the effects of THC

While THC is essentially made from THCa, the acidic counterpart to the intoxicating cannabinoid will not cause intoxication. This is simply for the fact that it doesn’t fit with the cannabinoid receptor responsible for feelings of euphoria. 

THCa & the Benefits of Raw Cannabis

While THCa doesn’t cause intoxication, raw and fresh cannabis flowers are widely considered a superfood. Superfoods such as blueberries, dark leafy greens, avocados, almonds, and dark chocolate are all known for their high antioxidant levels and superior nutritional content. 

You’ve probably heard that hempseeds are said to be a superfood, but did you know raw cannabis leaves and flowers are suggested to contain some of the same powerful health benefits? 

True story. Don’t forget that cannabis is a patented antioxidant. According to the National Institute of Health, cannabinoids contain both antioxidant and brain-supporting properties. 

THCa is one of these cannabinoids, which is exactly why raw cannabis is often used to make fresh juice or is added to smoothies. It contains the antioxidant potential superfoods are famous for, which is why the acidic precursor to THC is believed to be beneficial for enhancing wellbeing. 

What Are the Potential Benefits of THCa?

While research is fairly limited, there have been some studies on THCa that support the reasons raw cannabis is popular among health enthusiasts, as well as why the cannabinoid is becoming more popular as a dietary supplement. 

  • A 2011 study found THCa (and other cannabinoids) were beneficial in supporting a balanced inflammatory response. 
  • In a 2021 study, researchers discovered that THCa was more effective in managing nausea in animal models than THC.

While more research is needed, there’s a handful of preliminary evidence to maintain that THCa contains some exciting potential. 

Keep in mind that cannabis research has been limited for years due to the plant’s regulatory status. THC is suggested to contain several benefits, and medical marijuana containing THC is legal in 37 states and Washington D.C. THCa and THC are said to contain some of the same benefits; however, more research is necessary to determine exact differences between the two. 

THCa vs. THC: Final Thoughts   

Since THCa is the precursor to THC, it’s easy to assume they’d share a lot of similarities. They definitely do share some Like THC, THCa is also federally legal under the 2018 Farm Bill when it is derived from industrial hemp that contains less than 0.3% THC

That being said, there are also some significant differences between THC and THCa.

The biggest by far is that THCa does not produce any intoxicating effects. This is simply for the fact that the molecule contains that extra carboxyl ring, making it too big to bind to cannabinoid receptors that cause intoxication. In order to lose that carbon atom, cannabis must go through the process of decarboxylation. 

Cannabinoid acids contain potential benefits that are slowly being discovered as cannabis research expands. While cannabinoid acids like THCa might not bind to cannabinoid receptors in the same way as activated cannabinoids, it’s suggested they may act in multifaceted ways with other receptors found throughout the body and mind. 

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