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What Is Synthetic THC?

THC is loaded into vape cartridges.

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The legal hemp market exploded after the 2018 Farm Bill was passed, ultimately legalizing hemp and all the cannabinoids that could be derived from it. CBD, of course, was the most popular hemp cannabinoid at the time, and the already flooded CBD industry was soon saturated with countless brands interested in cashing in on the hemp craze. 

As the CBD market exponentially expanded, so did the number of CBD extraction companies. Eventually CBD supply became greater than CBD demand, leaving a number of these companies struggling to stay in business. In attempts to become successful in an inundated industry, some extraction labs started experimenting with various ways to create synthetic THC from CBD. 

What Is Synthetic THC? 

Synthetic THC is exactly what it sounds like: THC created in a lab using unnatural processes and synthetic chemicals. 

The first synthetic form of THC was known as Delta-8 THC, which was created using various chemicals to create a version of THC derived from CBD. Because Delta-8 THC was derived from CBD, however, it was technically considered legal under the 2018 Farm Bill. 

Containing similar mind-altering effects to THC, sales of Delta-8 products soon exploded, especially in states where recreational marijuana was illegal. 

Not long after, another synthetic form of THC derived from hemp was introduced: Delta-9 THC. It was created using a similar process used to make Delta-8 THC, and a plethora of products soon followed. Today you can find several synthetic Delta-9 THC products such as gummies, gum, other edibles, vaporizers and more sold across the country. 

Synthetically made THC derived from CBD is legal, yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe. As far as being natural, no way. Here we’ll take a deeper look at synthetic THC, and why choosing THC products that are naturally derived from hemp is the best way to go. 

How Is Synthetic THC Made? 

Consider this. THC has been consumed for thousands of years for medicinal, recreational, and spiritual purposes. Synthetic THC derivatives, on the other hand, have only been around for a couple years and little is known about the safety profile they contain. 

To be considered legal, Delta-9 THC must come from hemp. While there are ways to naturally extract them from the hemp plant, the majority of Delta-8 and Delta-9 THC products are synthetically produced. 

The conversion of CBD into THC is complicated, and there are two primary ways to produce hemp-derived Delta-9 THC:

  • Isomerization: Uses chemicals to modify cannabinoids found in hemp from their original state. 
  • Natural Extraction: Naturally extracts Delta-9 THC from hemp plants.

Following you’ll find a brief explanation of each. 

How Synthetic THC Is Derived from Hemp

The process of isomerization is a complicated chemical process that uses a technique known as refluxing, which heats a solution in a controlled environment for a specific amount of time and cools the vapor that’s produced back into a liquid form. 

The method of creating synthetic Delta-9 THC from hemp essentially involves refluxing CBD in a chemical solvent like heptane or toluene along with p-toluenesulfonic acid or another acid that acts as a catalyst. 

It’s an extremely aggressive process using synthetic conditions, strong acids and high temperatures. And different companies might perform this conversion in different ways. Regardless of how it's done, this aggressive, synthetic process often results in the presence of chemical reaction compounds and byproducts, such as metal catalysts, residual solvents, and acids. 

One of the most popular methods of creating synthetic Delta-9 THC uses dichloromethane, more commonly known as methylene chloride. Widely used in paint strippers, cleaners, adhesives and sealants, this solvent is associated with several health risks and may even be a carcinogen. Chemicals like these can end up in several of the “legal” Delta-9 THC products on the market. 

In a pharmaceutical environment, it goes without saying that synthetic products don’t contain harmful reaction byproducts. The hemp industry isn’t regulated, though. Most manufacturers of synthetic Delta-9 THC aren’t testing for these strong acids or residual chemicals that can be left behind in the process. 

While there exists the possibility of separating these unwanted byproducts and leftover contaminants from the conversion process, most extraction companies aren’t taking the time to do so. Considering it requires state-of-the-art distillation or chromatography processes, which are expensive and time-consuming, the majority of companies don’t remove them. 

The result? Potentially contaminated synthetic THC products, which people have no idea of what they contain. 

Naturally Deriving THC from Hemp

THC extracted from hemp doesn’t need to be synthetic. While THC levels are relatively low in hemp plants (which must contain 0.3% or less THC to be considered legal), THC can be naturally extracted from hemp. 

The processes of taking Delta-9 from hemp can happen while distilling other cannabinoids. Naturally extracting THC in this way is appealing as it doesn’t require the chemical manipulation and aggressive processing used to make synthetic THC.

When this method is used, Delta-9 THC remains in its natural, original form. No harmful chemicals or acids. Zero residual solvents. Simply pure THC extracted from cannabis, exactly the way nature intended. This type of extraction is sometimes referred to as hemp-extracted Delta-9 THC. 

Is Synthetic THC Legal? 

Both synthetically made Delta-9 THC and hemp-extracted Delta-9 THC are considered legal as long as they maintain the 0.3% dry weight standard. 

What exactly does this mean? 

According to the USDA, “dry weight” concerning cannabis is defined as the following: 

“The ratio of the amount of moisture in a sample to the amount of dry solid in a sample. A basis for expressing the percentage of a chemical in a substance after removing the moisture from the substance. Percentage of THC on a dry weight basis means the percentage of THC, by weight, in a cannabis item (plant, extract, or other derivative), after excluding moisture from the item.”

This is why Delta-9 THC gummies that weigh 3.3 grams could contain up to 9mg of THC and still be legal under the 2018 Farm Bill. 

The Other Type of Synthetic Cannabinoid: Spice

While we’ve primarily focused on synthetically-converted Delta-9 THC in this article. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention its more dangerous cousin.

Designed to create the same effects as THC and typically sold as “herbal smoking blends” or “herbal incense,” Spice and K2 are also considered synthetic cannabinoids—but their origins are much different. The popularity of these “designer drugs” increased in the early 2000s when they were marketed widely as a “legal high” that offered the same effects as THC, but wouldn’t show up on a drug test. 

Synthetic cannabinoids like Spice should not be confused with synthetic THC that’s created in a lab through chemical manipulation. Spice and other synthetic cannabinoids are considered extremely dangerous, as they can cause serious physical and mental health problems. 

Synthetic cannabinoids are made by spraying some kind of plant matter with an array of different chemicals. Aminoalkylindoles, for example, are a common class of synthetic cannabinoids, typically produced in large chemical factories in China and shipped overseas. This powder is then applied to the plant matter using solvents like methanol or acetone. Once dry, the plant matter is then packaged and sold. 

Just like THC, this class of synthetic cannabinoids works by attaching to CB1 receptors. In fact, most have a greater binding affinity to the CB1 receptor than natural THC. The effects of synthetic cannabinoids like Spice are very similar to THC but with a much greater intensity. They can also cause serious mental and physical emergencies and severe illness. In some cases, they can even lead to death. 

Adverse effects of synthetic cannabinoids include: 

  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting
  • Shortness of breath / shallow breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Muscle twitches
  • Acute kidney failure 
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Psychosis
  • Suicidal ideation

Due to the very serious risks of this class of synthetic cannabinoids, many are illegal at the federal and state level. Unfortunately, companies that manufacture synthetic cannabinoids work around these bans by altering their chemical composition so they are produced with seemingly legal compounds. 

Again, it’s important to understand there are very distinct differences between synthetic cannabinoids like Spice and synthetic THC. 

How to Determine whether a Delta-9 Product Contains Synthetic THC

For those interested in legal, hemp-derived Delta THC products, there are ways to determine if they’re all-natural or synthetically produced. 

One way is to look at the products’ third-party lab test results, something you should do with any CBD products whether or not they contain THC. Natural Delta-9 THC products contain other cannabinoids and terpenes, all of which will be listed on lab reports. If a company producing synthetic THC products provides lab reports, they won’t show the presence of any other cannabinoids or cannabis compounds. 

Another way to tell whether a Delta-9 product is made with synthetic THC is by tasting it—though obviously this isn’t 100% accurate. Products made with hemp-extracted Delta-9 THC will taste distinctively like hemp. This earthy, grassy, and somewhat bitter flavor is apparent in products that are naturally made. 

Synthetic THC is certainly something to be aware of in the ever-expanding cannabis industry. Knowing what to look out for when choosing Delta-9 THC products can help you determine which products are safe and from which to steer clear. Insist on Delta-9 products with lab reports that contain a Certificate of Analysis (COA) to ensure you’re getting the safest hemp-derived THC products possible.

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