If you have ever purchased lab-tested cannabis found in dispensaries and taken a closer look at its cannabinoid makeup, you may have noticed a high percentage of THCA and a much lower percentage of THC present. These two percentages are often combined to indicate the total percentage of THC and indicate the product’s overall potency. So what is THCA, how does it compare to THC, and what is the relationship between these two cannabinoids?
What’s the Difference Between THCA and THC?
The truth is fresh, raw cannabis leaves contain virtually no THC — not nearly enough to get you high no matter how much you ingest. However, raw cannabis leaves do contain plenty of THCA; a non-intoxicating cannabinoid previously thought to induce similar psychoactive effects as THC.
It isn’t a coincidence that the acronyms THC and THCA share three letters in common. Research has shown that THCA is actually the precursor to THC, meaning THCA effectively converts into THC through a process called decarboxylation. Decarboxylation occurs naturally when cannabis leaves are harvested and begin to dry. However, other factors, like heat and light, can expedite this conversion.
Decarboxylation via heat and light converts THCA to THC much quicker than what happens during the drying process. When you smoke or vaporize cannabis, decarboxylation rapidly converts the flower’s THCA into THC as you inhale. This is how THC enters your body, binds to your cannabinoid receptors, and creates THC’s famous intoxicating high.
The Molecular Structure of THCA and THC
So why does THC make you high, but THCA does not? It is because THCA’s molecular structure is too large to fit into the CB1 cannabinoid receptors in your body’s central and peripheral nervous systems. Cannabinoids that do not fit into the CB1 receptors are unable to have an intoxicating effect on the body, but that does not mean that they cannot have other nonpsychoactive beneficial effects.
Early research of THCA has shown that this cannabinoid can act as a pain reliever and sleep aid, as well as an anti-emetic to reduce nausea, vomiting, and appetite loss. It also demonstrates potential in its neuroprotective properties that slow damage to the nervous system and the brain.
The Impact of Temperature
So what does all of this mean for the average cannabis consumer? First and foremost, you shouldn’t try to eat raw cannabis leaves in an attempt to get high.
Edible cannabis products found in dispensaries are made from cannabis that is heated precisely at the right time and temperature for the THCA to be converted into THC and infused into various food products.
If you’ve ever tried your hand at making edibles at home and didn’t feel anything, it’s probably because the product was not heated to the right temperature long enough for decarboxylation to occur. The cannabis decarboxylation process starts at roughly 220 degrees Fahrenheit (104 degrees Celcius) after about 30 to 45 minutes of exposure, but the full decarboxylation process takes longer.
Understanding the decarboxylation process also helps you understand why you should protect your bud from laying out in direct sunlight or in a hot area. Both the sunlight and the heat begin to increase the speed of THCA to THC conversion, which can definitely impact the potency of your product.
It also explains why you should seal your flower in an airtight container when not in use — it can help prevent the product from continuing to dry out and slowly releasing THC.