When cannabis grows it builds a profile full of cannabinoids unique to each plant. THC is the most well-known cannabinoid as it’s responsible for the psychoactive effects we get when consuming cannabis, but did you know that cannabis doesn’t directly produce THC? Instead, it creates all cannabinoids in an acid form, synthesizing tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) and cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) from their cannabigerolic acid (CBGA) precursor.
This antecedent to THC is non-psychoactive. To convert THCa to THC the cannabinoid must go through a process called decarboxylation. This begins to take place when fresh buds are dried and cured. However, most of the THCa converts to THC when exposed to heat, for example by smoking, vaporizing, or cooking edibles. Essentially, THCa is THC in its acidic, non-psychoactive form.
What is THCA?
All of the major cannabinoids present in cannabis come from the “mother of all cannabinoids” – cannabigerolic acid (CBGA).
As the cannabis plant matures, enzymes which are unique to each cannabis strain convert the CBGA into some combination of the three major cannabinoid precursor compounds: tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), and cannabichromenic acid (CBCA).
THCA is the precursor to the intoxicating THC compound. In order to produce THC, the cannabis plant material needs to be exposed to heat, or some other driving force, that is capable of initiating thermal decarboxylation – the process through which THCA loses its acidic carbonyl group to become THC. This is why you wouldn’t feel anything if you chewed on some freshly harvested cannabis; there has been very little time for sunlight or other sources of energy to encourage THC formation in this way.
Cannabis is able to produce intoxicating effects when used because the most common methods of consuming cannabis – smoking, vaporizing, baking into an edible, or extraction to form a concentrate – are all powerful enough to be able to kickstart this process and transform THCA into the more intoxicating THC.
The Difference Between THC and THCa
THCa is very different from THC in both its chemical makeup and how it interacts with the body. THCa gradually becomes THC during the drying process — a process that is accelerated when heat is added to the equation, such as when vaping, smoking or cooking over a period of time in order to be ingested. Heat and light lead to a chemical reaction called decarboxylation, which removes a carboxyl group, resulting in a molecule that more readily interacts with the body.
THCa molecules are larger than THC molecules and cannot bind to the body’s cannabinoid receptors that make up the endocannabinoid system. THC is one of the cannabinoids that readily interacts with CB1 receptors to produce a high, euphoric feeling. But that doesn’t mean there are no benefits to THCa or raw cannabis. There are quite a few, and more are being discovered and studied.
THCA vs THC
THCA and THC are similar in some ways, and dramatically different in others. Check out the lists below to find out where they are alike, and where they differ.
Properties of THCA:
- Naturally occurs in raw cannabis
- Weak activator of CB1 and CB2 receptors
- Represents up to 90% of the total THC content of cannabis plants
- May provide soothing and neurological effects
Properties of THC:
- Exerts psychoactive effects
- Produced through decarboxylation
- Stronger activator of the CB1 receptor
- Synergises with numerous cannabis terpenes including pinene, limonene, caryophyllene, and linalool
- Associated with several benefits including relaxation, sleep and appetite promotion, and euphoria
What Does the Research Say About THCA?
Research on THCA remains preliminary, with most studies being conducted on animals or cells. Until clinical trials emerge, we have to remain sceptical of THCA’s effects on humans. However, the research so far does serve as an indicator of what we can expect.
· Weight Loss
Research conducted in mice suggests that THCA might help to shift a few pounds. A 2020 study showed the cannabinoid to drive down fat mass in mice by interfacing with the PPARy receptor.
· May Soothe Joints
THCA may help to soothe joints and other parts of the body through its action on PPARy and the CB1 receptor of the endocannabinoid system.
Further early research suggests that THCA might help to ease a queasy stomach. Although not yet fully substantiated, this finding could make THCA an important agent in the future of cannabis science.
· Organ Health
Additional research explored the effects of THCA on liver health in mice. The results showed promise, serving as the groundwork for much more future work in this area.
Benefits of THCa vs. THC
Cannabis is an incredible superfood because it is dense with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Not only is raw cannabis high in fiber, but also omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins C and K, calcium, iron and folate. In addition, ongoing research into the benefits of THCa and THC has already produced very intriguing conclusions. Apart from being a non-psychoactive alternative to many of the benefits of THC, THCa can help support the body’s ability to fight nausea and appetite loss, inflammation and pain. So if you’re struggling to find natural solutions to support whatever it is your body may be needing — whether it’s after a long and stressful day or to help in recovery, THCa can be the perfect option for you. Here are some additional benefits of THCa:
- THCa may have neuroprotective properties, showing promise in the relief from symptoms
of neurodegenerative disorders.
- THCa and other cannabinoids deserve further research in the treatment of various types of epilepsy.
- Research shows promise for THCa in the reduction of inflammation due to inflammatory bowel diseases.
- Early studies in mice suggest that THCa reduced weight gain and inflammation associated with diet-induced obesity.
A significant feature of THCa is its ability to work at lower doses than THC. The therapeutic potential of THCa is all the more exciting due to legalization of the cannabis plant in conjunction with the non-psychoactive nature of the compound, making it readily accessible to most anyone who would like to try it. Not only can you get the benefits of THCa from raw cannabis, but also get a few key nutrients in as well.
How to Consume THCA
If you don’t want the high but want to obtain all the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of THCa, there are plenty of ways to do so. Because THCa is highly bioavailable in raw cannabis, the number of ways to ingest it is only limited by your creativity. Eat the plant like any other leafy green vegetable — add it to salads, juices, salad dressings or sauces is a great way to get started. As with any form of cannabis, start low with a low dosage and increase the dosage slowly to find your sweet spot.
Other methods of obtaining the benefits of THCa include Papa & Barkley’s THCa Living Tincture, a fresh frozen, low-heat cannabis flower infusion — think of cold-pressed juice. It’s easy to add to your routine alone, or to incorporate into other smoothies, shakes and other existing parts of your wellness regimen.
Papa & Barkley offers whole-plant infused products containing a full spectrum of cannabinoids and terpenes, so you get the full synergistic benefits of the cannabis plant. As with any cannabis product, it is important to seek quality sources. Papa & Barkley offers details about its production and a certificate of analysis for each product upon request.
Understanding THC and THCA Potency Testing
In order to understand how your marijuana is labeled, it is necessary to take a quick detour into the two common testing methods.
Gas chromatography (GC) occurs at high temperatures that convert extracted cannabinoids to a gaseous mixture, which is then run through a sort of filter that measures the different cannabinoid levels.
One challenge to GC is that the heating process causes some – but not all – of the THCA (and CBDA) to decarboxylate. Decarboxylation is the process where the naturally occurring acid forms of cannabinoids (THCA and CBDA) release carbon dioxide and convert to THC and CBD. Unfortunately, this makes GC an ineffective method for testing edibles. It also introduces the possibility that the final test results slightly understate a plant’s actual potency.*
Liquid chromatography (LC), on the other hand, occurs at room temperature, allowing labs to test both THC and THCA levels (as well as CBD and CBDA) without the loss that occurs during decarboxylation.
The more detailed test results can be beneficial for medical marijuana users, but it creates its own unique challenges that make it less desirable for recreational dispensaries. For starters, LC systems and solvents are more expensive than their GC counterparts, and the increased cost of testing isn’t an option for some dispensaries. And just as important, LC test results can be confusing, increasing the chances a label will be misinterpreted and a marijuana consumer will take more than intended.
If a strain is labeled to have 22% THCA and 3% THC, how much active THC will you get with each hit? How can you interpret THCA vs THC?
Clearly 3% can’t be right – that’s too low. You might think 22% since THCA is what converts into psychoactive THC when burned. Or maybe you’re supposed to add the two numbers together – THCA and THC – giving you a 25% strain. But THCA isn’t converted to THC with perfect efficiency, giving us another mathematical hurdle before we know the strain’s strength.
A recent investigation into lab testing procedures proposes the following THC formula to calculate total THC when you know the percentages for both THC and THCA.**
THCtotal = (%THCA) x 0.877 + (%THC)
So in our example:
THCtotal = 22% x 0.877 + 3%
That gives us a total THC level of about 22.3%. There. We did it. But unless you’re a medical marijuana patient, one might argue the slight increase in accuracy isn’t worth the added effort and cost.
What’s the best way to take THCA?
So depending on your needs, you can either heat THCA or administer without the heat.
The moment you heat THCA it’s going to transform into a very strong form of THC. So, if that’s what you’re looking for, you’re probably wondering, “How the heck do I smoke it?” You’ll be pleased to know it’s not very difficult: you can dab it, or sprinkle it on a bowl or joint of your favorite flower to amp up the potency. No fancy gear or engineering necessary.
When we tested smoking THCA the main response has been “Woah.” It’s clean hitting, and just in case you’re concerned about taste, when asked to describe it, we got an overwhelming response of, “Like cannabis.” Since the potency is strong, we’ve gotta recommend using caution until you’re confident with your tolerance.
Non-Heat Methods of Administering THCA:
If you don’t want to feel a psychoactive high and are seeking THCA for potential anti-inflammatory effects medicinal purposes, there are a wide range of edible products designed specifically for administering THCA in its raw form, including:
- Juicing: Yes, you can simply juice your raw, fresh cannabis leaves like another vegetable and blend them into a smoothie. This method allows you to extract the most THCA that’s present in the leaves. If you can’t get a constant supply of fresh cannabis fan leaves regularly make a large batch and freeze the juice to defrost at your convenience.
- Tinctures or drops: Raw cannabis tinctures have high levels of THCA. These tinctures are easy to dose and are easier to travel with than juicing.
- Transdermal patches: THCA patches work just like nicotine patches, simply adhere to any veinous (prominent or noticeable veins) part of the skin for 8-12 hours, typically areas like the inside of the wrist or the top of the foot.
- Pre-made edibles: There are a wide variety of THCA edibles on the market. We recommend doing your research, buying from a trusted brand, and ensure that each product comes with a batch number with accompanying test results.
THCA and potency
Since THCA is a precursor to THC, THCA is still an important cannabinoid to take into account when calculating the potency of a cannabis strain, even though THCA itself is non-intoxicating.
One of the most popular methods for measuring cannabis potency is gas chromatography. In this method, there should be enough heat applied to the cannabis material being tested in order to decarboxylate the THCA present and form THC. As potency is normally expressed in terms of percentage THC, this method should, in theory, be able to directly determine the potency of a product.
However, this heating and subsequent decarboxylation will also cause the cannabis material to lose a noticeable amount of weight as the THCA molecules lose their carbonyl groups en masse. In order to accurate determine the total THC content of a raw cannabis strain, this needs to be taken into account in potency calculations. Generally, this formula looks like:
THC total = (% THCA) x [final mass/initial mass] + (% THC)
This gives a good estimation of the total THC present in the raw cannabis strain. This is also sometimes referred to as the maximum THC, as in practice, under typical smoking conditions not all THCA will be converted into THC. The true amount of THC consumed is hard to estimate, but studies suggest that anywhere between 30-70 percent of THCA in a strain may not be converted in the smoking process.