What Is THCA (Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid)?

THCA 101 Guide: The difference between THC and THCA, as well as THCA's effects and medical benefits.
Last Modified: February 07, 2019

In its raw form, marijuana actually contains very little psychoactive THC. Instead, it contains tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, or THCA. In recent years, scientists have discovered that THCA offers all of the THC benefits with none of the high.


What Is THCA?

THCA is a cannabinoid, which means it’s one of the ingredients that causes marijuana’s effects. Marijuana contains dozens of cannabinoids, and each one interacts with different receptors in the brain and body in order to do things such as ease anxiety, create dry mouth, stimulate hunger, or cause drowsiness.

When people first begin learning about cannabinoids, one of their top queries is “Does THCA get you high?” THCA does not create a euphoric high; unlike THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), it’s totally non-psychoactive. This is because THCA is the precursor to THC – just one of the steps along the process of its transformation into its final form.


How Is THCA Produced?

Like several of the primary cannabinoids in marijuana, THCA begins its life as CBGA. As a cannabis plant matures, an enzymatic process takes place within its trichomes that cause a large portion of the CBGA to turn into THCA, CBDA, and CBCA. These are the acidic versions of the better-known cannabinoids THC, CBD, and CBC.

This transformation process has earned CBGA the nickname “the mother of all cannabinoids.” Some of the CBGA will remain (later to become CBG). However, most of it will synthesize into the other cannabinoids – especially THCA and CBDA, which are found in higher percentages than their cannabinoid counterparts.

The difference between these cannabinoid acids and their later versions is that they aren’t considered pharmacologically active in their acidic forms.


THCA vs THC

The easiest way to understand the difference between THCA and THC is to know that THCA is not considered pharmacologically active. This means that some of its effects aren’t activated, either.

The most noticeable indication of this is the fact that THCA does not have the psychoactive effects of THC. In order to activate THCA and turn it into THC, it has to be cured or decarboxylated.

THCA Becomes THC Through Decarboxylation

“Decarboxylation” means removing the carboxylic acid from a compound. When this happens to THCA, it becomes THC. Decarboxylation of THC occurs pretty rapidly when it’s exposed to heat; it typically starts happening at around 230 degrees Fahrenheit. The easiest way to decarboxylate the THC in marijuana is to light it aflame (which makes smoking it a combination decarboxylation/ingestion method).

Many people also decarboxylate their cannabis by spreading the flower evenly on a baking sheet and putting it in a 230-degree oven, stirring it occasionally for about 40 minutes (or until the material has become medium brown in color). This is an excellent way to fully activate the THC before using marijuana in edibles.

Curing cannabis causes some decarboxylation to occur, however the THC levels in cured marijuana will still be incredibly low. For the highest levels of THC, fully decarboxylating marijuana and its extracts is necessary. Meanwhile, maximum levels of THCA will be found in fresh, uncured marijuana leaves and flowers.


THCA Benefits

What are the benefits of THCA if it’s not pharmacologically active? While it was long assumed that the lack of a psychotropic high meant that THCA had no effects or benefits at all, studies are now proving otherwise. Researchers are investigating THCA’s use for the following conditions, among others:

Inflammation

Scientists have found that THCA, as well as other cannabinoids, mimics the effects of the body’s natural endocannabinoids that help calm inflammatory processes. This means that with further study, potential THCA benefits could include its use as an anti-inflammatory medication.

Anticonvulsant

In 2017, researchers published a peer-reviewed article in the journal Epilepsy and Behavior that described how THCA may be used in combination with CBD for patients with epilepsy. In the patients that found relief with the THCA combination, doctors found that small doses were most effective. They also found that smaller doses of THCA were needed to get the same effects as larger doses of THC.

Neuroprotective

Research is also ongoing to better understand THCA’s neuroprotective properties. In a study on brain cell degeneration and Parkinson’s disease, THCA, THC, and CBD all demonstrated the ability to increase cell counts and protect neurons. Another study pointed out that THCA’s benefits include “potent neuroprotective activity” and suggested that it be considered in treatment for Huntington’s disease, as well as other neuroinflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases.

Anti-emetic

THC has long been used as an anti-nausea medication for people undergoing chemotherapy, but studies are revealing that THCA may be an even better choice. Not only is THCA more effective at treating nausea and vomiting, it can do so without the psychoactive effects caused by THC.


How to Consume THCA

With the benefits of THCA becoming more clear, this leaves many people wondering how to consume it. Some people ingest marijuana by smoking or vaporizing it, but because this decarboxylates the THCA, turning it to THC, this isn’t the best way to take advantage of beneficial THCA effects. The most common way to use THCA is to consume it through extracts, topicals, and orally.

THCA Isolate

When cannabinoids like THCA are researched in laboratory settings, scientists use extracts that allow them to isolate and study the individual compounds in marijuana. Dispensaries also sell THCA extracts. Known as THCA crystalline, some run as high as 99% THCA and are valued as the purest and most potent extract on the market. These extracts can be eaten without decarboxylating them, delivering all of the effects of THCA with no psychoactive high. If they’re consumed via vaping or dabbing, THCA extracts deliver a powerful and immediate high. THCA crystalline is especially helpful for medical users who need large doses of THC to treat their symptoms.

THCA Topicals

Many people also take advantage of THCA benefits by using topicals made with the cannabinoid. Creams and balms infused with THCA are useful for calming pain and inflammation via the CB2 receptors located throughout the body. Although THCA does not bind well with CB2 receptors, it acts on other non-cannabinoid receptors that reduce pain. It also helps increase the level of pain-suppressing chemicals such as anandamide.

Edible THCA

Because curing marijuana turns a small amount of its THCA into THC, the best way to get the maximum amount of tetrahydrocannabinolic acid is from fresh, uncured marijuana leaves and flowers. Because it can be hard to find uncured marijuana bud from legal dispensaries, many people like to do this by growing their own plants. Growing one’s own is also preferred by people who dislike the idea of pesticides being used on their cannabis.

Once flowers and leaves are trimmed from a plant, they can be ingested just like any other leafy green. Fresh marijuana should be stored in the refrigerator, preferably in the crisper with other vegetables.

People use fresh cannabis by:
  • Juicing it (often mixed with fruit juice to cut any bitterness)
  • Steaming and eating the leaves
  • Tossing the leaves in with a fresh salad
  • Chopping up the material and mixing it into salad dressings and sauces
  • Treating it as a food garnish

THCA FAQ

Because THCA sounds so similar to THC and the two cannabinoids are so closely related, this can generate quite a bit of confusion. Here are some of the questions people often have about THCA.

What is THCA?

THCA is a cannabinoid, which means it’s one of the active ingredients responsible for marijuana’s effects. THCA is the chemical precursor to THC. All of the THC in marijuana plants starts out as THCA; it becomes THC when it’s decarboxylated by being heated.

What is the difference between THC and THCA?

THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol, while THCA stands for tetrahydrocannabinolic acid. THCA has a carboxyl acid attached that it loses in the heating process (known as decarboxylation). This makes the THC pharmacologically active and gives it its psychoactive effects.

Does THCA get you high?

No; THCA can’t cause a high until it’s decarboxylated. The most effective way for this to happen is to heat the plant material – either by smoking/vaping it or by heating it in the oven. Curing cannabis also decarboxylates and activates small amounts of THC.

What are THCA’s effects?

Because it causes no high, THCA effects aren’t particularly noticeable. However, scientific studies are causing increased discussion about potential THCA benefits for medical conditions. It’s shown promise as a treatment against pain and inflammation, nausea and vomiting, epilepsy, brain cell degeneration, and more.


What Secrets Does THCA Hold?

For a long time, recreational users and the medical community alike believed that THCA was only useful once it was decarboxylated and turned into THC. Due to this, other cannabinoids received most of the attention in terms of scientific research.

In recent years, the scientific community has begun arriving at the same conclusion that health-conscious cannabis consumers reached years ago: tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) in its raw form has numerous uses and a wealth of medical potential. Studies show that it has promise when used alone, but it’s also effective at boosting the power of its fellow cannabinoids.

What this means for medical treatments in the future remains to be seen. In the meantime, it’s a big validation for proponents of using cannabis for natural health remedies. The findings have also generated curiosity from those who wish to know more about the secrets within this incredibly powerful plant.


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