THC vs THCA: Explained

THC and THCA. These two molecules certainly sound about the same, and there’s only one letter changed between them, so how different can they be? As it turns out, quite a bit.

When we think of cannabis we think of THC – Smoke weed or eat a cannabis edible, THC then gets you high. So why don’t we just eat the raw cannabis plant? If we can eat edibles and get the benefits of THC from them, shouldn’t we just be able to munch on a marijuana bud and get the same effects?

Anyone who’s tried this knows this isn’t the case, same with anyone who’s attempted to make edibles by just dumping raw cannabis flower into some brownie mix – Rather than getting high you just end up with weed stuck between your teeth and some seriously bad breath for the rest of the afternoon.

Though we heavily associate cannabis with THC it turns out that cannabis plants in their raw and natural state don’t actually contain much THC. Raw cannabis plants mostly contain THCA (AKA “Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid“), a non-psychoactive cannabinoid that is the precursor to THC (or “Tetrahydrocannabinol“), and it’s the “A” that makes all the difference in the world. We’ll detail out some of the differences between the two below.

The Difference between THC and THCA

As noted above one of the major differences between THC and THCA is that THCA will not, under any circumstances, get you high. You can eat raw cannabis as much as you’d like, and though you may still see some benefits from it (more on that in a bit) you will not get a buzz.

When cannabis plants grow they contain a number of substances we humans find beneficial, primarily cannabinoids and terpenes. Plants such as industrial hemp are specifically cultivated from strains bred for a low percentage of THCA content (less than 0.3% THCA to be grown legally under USDA guidelines), but most cannabis plants are known for their psychoactive potential.

When we intake THC this molecule travels through our body via the bloodstream, eventually passing through the blood-brain barrier inside our heads. From there the THC molecule “binds” (or “antagonizes”) specially-designed cannabinoid receptors (known as “CB1 receptors”) located on the cells within our brain; much like a puzzle piece sliding into place these cannabinoids “fit” precisely into our receptors, giving us the buzz often sought after from smoking (or eating) marijuana.

High or No High?

THCA cannot work like THC. Whereas THC has a chemical makeup that can be utilized by our cannabinoid receptors, THCA has an additional carboxylic acid chain attached, essentially making it too oddly shaped to go inside our receptors. Much like the proverbial square peg in a round hole, no matter what you do the THCA cannabinoid simply will not fit.

Again, THCA is the natural form of the THC molecule as found inside cannabis plants – THCA turns into THC when exposed to heat (and light, though more slowly), meaning that while eating raw cannabis won’t do anything for you, as soon as you apply the right amount of heat you’re now converting this THCA into THC via a process called “decarboxylation”.

thca crystals

Decarbing Makes the Difference

We talk about decarboxylation (aka “decarbing”) at length in our article “How to Properly Decarb Your Weed” but the basic gist is that heat, applied properly, will ‘burn’ away that extra carboxylic acid chain in THCA, thus converting it to the THC that will actually give someone a high.

Decarbing can happen in one of two ways. First, the traditional method, which is taking your marijuana and setting it on fire. From here the process of applying heat to the cannabis flower turns THCA into THC, released via smoke, which we then inhale to get high. This process has it’s benefits and detriments:

Smoking Pros:

  • Takes little prep work
  • Relatively immediate high

Smoking Cons:

  • Inefficient
  • The smell of weed smoke

Smoking weed is a classic because applying fire to cannabis and inhaling the results is doable by just about anyone anywhere – Even without fancy million dollar bongs or small batch bespoke blunt wraps people have been smoking weed for a very, very long time, just because it’s the easiest way to go about it. But direct flame isn’t the only way to decarb your weed, and aiming for a more controlled method of temperature can have many benefits.

When most people refer to “decarbing” cannabis what they’re essentially discussing is taking your cannabis and toasting it in an oven for a set length of time at a set temperature. Once your weed has been baked (pun fully intended) the THCA inside has been mostly converted into THC, and at a much more efficient rate than simply burning it.

Decarbing vs Burning

There is a fine line between “converting THCA into THC” and “converting THCA into carbon atoms” (IE: completely burned, wasted and inert), and applying direct heat in the form of fire gives the end user very little control over this line – Direct flame is more than enough to burn away and ultimately destroy the THCA molecules inside your cannabis, and what we’re usually smoking when we light up a bowl or a joint isn’t the bud that’s been directly touched by fire, it’s the bud that’s directly beside that burned bud that reaches the proper temperature for decarboxylation.

If using an oven or some other form of temperature-controlled environment you can aim for a specific, targeted temperature, meaning you can avoid reaching a heat high enough to burn or waste away your THC/THCA. There are benefits and detriments to this method as well:

Decarbing Pros:

  • More efficient
  • More versatile
  • Greater potency (if eaten)
  • Smell is diminished after decarbing is done

Decarbing Cons:

  • Takes time & know-how
  • If not smoked decarbed weed can take longer to kick in

We say that decarbed weed is more versatile because, unlike raw cannabis, it can now be eaten outright. Assuming you’ve decarbed properly (not a problem if you’ve read our article on how to decarb) the THCA within has been converted into THC, meaning it’s completely ready to use as-is. If you want to eat your cannabis straight you certainly can (though we don’t recommend it), or otherwise it’s now ready to be used in an infusion for making marijuana edibles or other concentrated cannabis products such as hashish.

thc diamonds up close

Does THCA Have Any Benefits?

Despite not being shaped properly to fit inside our cannabinoid receptors THCA can still have potent medical effects. Though scientific research and lab testing is still somewhat lacking on the subject reports claiming therapeutic benefits of THCA are numerous, showing strong anti-inflammatory properties, alongside alleviating a wide array of neurodegenerative diseases. Comparisons to CBD have been common-place, and ingested THCA may offer significant medical benefits similar to THC while not providing the psychoactive effects.

And, while you certainly can take THCA in it’s natural state by eating it, most THCA products, such as THCA diamonds, are meant to be smoked (more likely vaporized). As mentioned earlier applying heat to THCA turns it into THC, meaning a vaporized/dabbed THCA diamond is essentially the same as smoking a crystal of pure THC – This is why THCA diamonds are typically combined with a solution of terpenes and other cannabinoids, to help “round out” the pure THC high.

Wrapping Up

When it comes to THCA vs THC, if you’re looking to get high there’s only one winner – The classic Tetrahydrocannabinol, hands down. But that doesn’t make THCA without it’s potential virtues, and, much like CBD before it, research and testing results are slowly becoming available, with THCA-focused products hitting store shelves (in legalized areas) en masse.

If you’re interested in learning more about THCA make sure to check out our companion article “What is THCA?”, where we talk about the process of refining THCA from raw cannabis, it’s potential therapeutic properties, and how it can be smoked to deliver a custom-tailored cannabis experience. We hope to see you there – Otherwise, happy smoking!

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