What is the Difference Between THCA and THC?

The differences between Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) go far beyond a single letter. A common misconception surrounding weed is that, in all its forms, it can get you high. 

The truth is, chowing down on the leaves of freshly picked cannabis leaves isn’t going to do much for you. This is because raw cannabis does not contain tetrahydrocannabinol, otherwise known as THC.

Instead, it contains varying levels of tetrahydrocannabinol acid (THCA). Until the acid element of THCA is removed via exposure to heat, there’s no possible high. 

Some specific strains of cannabis are grown with THC production firmly in mind, but in its raw state, you aren’t going to feel the effects. This is because THC is the element responsible for the high achieved following cannabis use. 

But how does THCA become THC, and what are the differences between the two? Read on to find out. 

What is THCA?

All of the major cannabinoids found in cannabis come from cannabigerolic acid (CBGA).

As the cannabis plant reaches maturity, enzymes that are unique to each cannabis strain convert cannabigerolic acid CBGA into a combination of these three major cannabinoid precursor compounds, tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), and cannabichromenic acid (CBCA).

It is the precursor to the THC compound. In order for the cannabis plant to produce THC, the plant material needs to be exposed to some form of heat or another 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 ate some freshly harvested raw cannabis.

THCA vs THC: The Differences

Effectively, THCA is the precursor to THC. It can be easily thought of as inactivated THC, which is why the consumption of it won’t make you high. The process of producing THC involves direct exposure to heat. 

This breaks down the acidic carbonyl that separates THCA from THC. This is why cannabis consumption through smoking, baking into edibles, or vaporization can create such an intoxicating effect.

What Does THCA Do? 

This isn’t to say that THCA is entirely without use. There are multiple benefits to consuming it in its raw state without the need to convert it into THC. Benefits include:

  • Relaxation
  • Neuroprotective properties for the treatment neurodegenerative diseases
  • Anti-inflammatory properties

We’ll explore some benefits of THCA in more detail further down. The key takeaway is the presence of a cannabis high

From a scientific standpoint, the reason THCA doesn’t provide a high is because of the size of their molecules. Its molecules are simply too large to fit into human cannabinoid receptors. THC, on the other hand, can fit. 

This then produces the high sensation associated with cannabis products. While all cannabis plants contain varying levels of THCA, THC is only produced following decarboxylation. 

How Does Decarboxylation Turn THCA into THC?

There are some differences between THCA and THC when it comes to the process of decarboxylation, though the end result is often the same. There are varying methods used that can have an effect on the potency of the THC total produced. 

Though it may sound complicated, essentially decarboxylation is just a process of exposing THCA to heat and light in high intensities. The intensity is the key part here. 

If heat and light were all that was required, then raw cannabis plants could get you high from exposure to the sun. They don’t. This is because the sun doesn’t heat plants above 105 degrees Celsius. If it did, we’d all have a problem.

Smoking is a Form of Decarboxylation

When you smoke cannabis, however, that heat is applied to the plant and THCA becomes THC. The chemical structure of THC allows it to freely enter the human endocannabinoid system and affect the central nervous system. Following this interaction is the high sensation so commonly associated with cannabis. 

Besides smoking it, some other common ways cannabis smokers may bring about decarboxylation include:

Vaporizing

Your standard vape will usually possess a heat source that will then vaporize flavored liquid to provide you with a hit. 

The exact same method applies to cannabis, except instead of vape juice, you’re vaporizing cannabis. This method is effective because it allows for great control over how much THC you’re inhaling. Just make sure you’re investing in a reliable vape pen. 

Be sure to read reviews and compare user experiences. The last thing you need is an exploding weed pen.

Oven Baking

  • The last thing you imagined your oven was capable of was decarboxylation, but apparently the kitchen is full of surprises. The process of decarboxylating cannabis in the oven is how edibles are made. It’s a slower process than vaporization or smoking, but it’s preferable to many.
  • Just be aware of how much you’re eating. It’s easy to go overboard with edibles and ultimately regret it. Regardless of how you decarboxylate your cannabis, the end result is the same. The THCA that was once present has now become THC, meaning that you can now use it to get high.

THCA in its natural state does not create a high sensation as it cannot enter our endocannabinoid system. This is why many cannabis products (such as CBD oil, for instance) do not provide a high.

They can, however, provide unique benefits entirely of their own. This is why cannabis products are so popular and have faced frequent innovations. There are multiple ways that it can be consumed and the market is quickly becoming swamped by new ways to indulge. 

Benefits of THCA

While THC is mostly safe, THCA poses a far reduced risk to the body as it’s entirely non-intoxicating. As it can’t get you high, many dismiss it before ever looking into the many ways it can benefit the body. This is a mistake, as there are plenty of positives that THCA poses for both body and mind. Some identified benefits include:

  • Relieved loss of appetite
  • Reduced nausea
  • Anti-inflammatory properties, especially relating to conditions such as lupus and arthritis
  • Insomnia relief
  • Treatment of muscle spasms
  • Pain relief

It’s important to recognize that due to the relatively new status of THCA in public consumption, there’s yet to be extensive studies done into these benefits. 

Still, countless testimonies speak to the efficiency of taking THCA in its many forms in addition to the few studies already published. CBD oil is by far one of the most popular ways to consume THCA, but raw cannabis plant juicing is also highly popular. 

Superfoods infused with THCA are also on the rise, which claim to offer a myriad of benefits. In fact, in many ways, raw cannabis is a super food in itself. It’s tremendously high in vitamins, antioxidants, and beneficial minerals. It’s also high in fiber, vitamins C and K, iron, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids. 

THCA and Potency

Despite being non-intoxicating itself, many cannabis growers will monitor the levels of THCA present in a strain as it directly correlates with the THC produced. 

As we’ve already discussed, THCA becomes THC following decarboxylation, so when purchasing your own strains it’s important to pay attention to this.

It’s not an exact science, however. Around 30-70% of a strain’s total THCA will become THC through the decarboxylation process. A larger THCA count does generally transfer into a more potent high, but these results aren’t guaranteed. 

Final Thoughts

The primary takeaway of THCA vs THC is their place on the cannabinoid chain and the effects they have on the body. THC gets you high, THCA doesn’t. They both have their unique benefits. 

If you are presently on medication it’s strongly advised you discuss with your doctor before experimenting with cannabis products. This goes for both THCA and THC. Neither’s particularly dangerous, but complications are possible. 

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