There are hundreds of active substances in cannabis. Still, most consumers are familiar with only a few, particularly THC (specifically Delta-9 THC), the cannabinoid that gives marijuana its notable mind-altering “high.” However, THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) can also influence your marijuana experience, but few people know about it.
Aside from adding a single letter to THC’s abbreviated name, what is THCA, and why should it matter to you? Here we break down the basics and answer the most commonly asked questions about THCA, including how it affects you, its benefits, products, and legality.
What Is THCA?
THCA is a non-psychotropic cannabinoid found in marijuana and hemp plants. Chemically, it is almost identical to THC, except that it contains an added carboxyl group. This fact leads to the most significant difference between THC vs. THCA: THCA won’t get you high. THCA’s extra molecular carboxyl ring stops it from binding to the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, which produces marijuana’s iconic euphoric, trippy effects.
THCA mainly exists in young, freshly harvested marijuana plants. As plants age and experience sun, heat, and oxygen, such as during the drying and curing process, THCA gradually converts into THC.
So, in simplest terms, you can think of THCA as the non-active “precursor” chemical to THC.
How Does THCA Become THC?
THCA turns into THC through “decarboxylation” (or decarbing), a chemical reaction that removes one carboxyl group and releases carbon dioxide from the cannabinoid’s molecular structure. Once THCA loses the extra carboxylic acid group, it converts into regular THC. The transformation creates the perfect chemical structure to bind with receptors in the brain, resulting in THC’s mind-altering effects.
Decarbing occurs for various reasons.
- Increased room temperatures
- Direct heat exposure, such as smoking and vaping
Interestingly, cannabis plants are often low in Delta-9 THC and very high in THCA at harvest. However, once you apply heat to smoke the plant, you instantly decarboxylate the acidic precursor compound into THC, making it readily available for your brain receptors to absorb.
The THCA Experience
The most notable difference between THCA and THC is that THC is a natural psychoactive cannabinoid that produces intoxicating effects, and THCA isn’t. However, THC and THCA have remarkably similar therapeutic potential. Although THCA research is scarce, some studies indicate it can help with appetite loss, nausea, chronic pain, and muscle spasms, similar to THC.
THCA is also similar to CBD, marijuana’s widely known non-psychoactive cannabinoid. THCA and CBD seem to work via neurotransmitters responsible for helping your body maintain a natural balance. Like CBD, THCA fights inflammation, helps as a sleep aid, and may assist with seizure disorders.
Because THCA lacks THC’s intoxicating effects, it could be an excellent alternative if you seek therapeutic relief without the risk of getting high. Research shows that THCA has promise for multiple health benefits and medical uses, including:
- Anti-Inflammatory: THCA may possess more anti-inflammatory properties than CBD, particularly for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.
- Brain Health: Some studies indicate that THCA may have neuroprotective effects that could protect memory and coordination as you age. It could be especially effective against Huntington’s disease and other neuroinflammatory diseases, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS.
- Anti-Nausea: A 2020 study found THCA could be more effective than THC in reducing vomiting and nausea.
- Anti-Cancer: THCA displays anti-tumor properties and could slow the progression of cancer cells, specifically prostate cancer.
- Anti-Obesity: THCA’s anti-inflammatory effects could help stop fat cells from accumulating, helping prevent metabolic disease and obesity.
Cannabis experts say consuming THCA daily, even just 10-20 mg, can help reduce pain and improve cognitive function.
Raw cannabis: Eating raw cannabis leaves might be the best way to consume THCA, especially if you supplement with superfoods like dandelion greens and blueberries. Some people blend raw cannabis into salad dressings, sauces, and smoothies.
Raw cannabis juice: Cannabis juicing is mixing cannabis plants (ideally 100% organic) in a blender with water and other nutritious ingredients, such as carrot or pomegranate juice, spinach, almond milk, and bananas. The result is a tasty beverage full of THCA.
Tinctures or drops: Raw cannabis tinctures have high levels of THCA and are easier to dose and travel with than juicing.
Edibles and gummies: Most edibles require cooking, which converts THCA into THC. However, there are numerous THCA edibles and gummies on the market. To be sure you’re getting a legitimate product, check for the brand’s potency test results that prove it contains THCA.
Topicals: Another option to use THCA is transdermal patches, which you apply to the skin like nicotine patches and leave on for 8-12 hours. Some people use these products for localized pain and inflammation relief.
Users have not reported significant adverse experiences from THCA. However, some THCA may convert into THC in the digestive tract and cause mild psychotropic effects. Those sensitive to THC may consider these outcomes undesirable.
Potential effects include:
- Dry mouth
- Red eyes
- Increased heart rate
Unlike THC, THCA is federally legal and not listed as a DEA-controlled substance. However, the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized low-THC hemp mandated that growers include total THCA content when determining whether a plant falls under the 0.3% THC limit.
Regulators created this rule because THCA changes into THC when heated, causing users to become high. As a result, hemp cannot contain an unlimited amount of THCA, even though it is technically non-psychoactive.
The Bottom Line
THCA is the non-psychoactive precursor to THC. Chemically, these compounds are almost identical, but THCA produces a very different experience. Research on THCA is in earlier stages, but the cannabinoid displays numerous therapeutic benefits, potentially helping fight pain, inflammation, nausea, obesity, cancer cells, and brain diseases. Ingesting THCA appears safe and beneficial, and raw products have the highest concentration and best absorption rate.