THCA vs THC: The Complete Consumer Guide

Liquid THC
By Andrew Ward Updated March 8th

Medically reviewed by Dr. Brian Kessler, MD

There's no debate; THC is by far the most popular cannabinoid. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise. But what does come as a surprise to some is how THC occurs in cannabis. THC starts as the cannabinoid THCA, and only converts into the psychoactive compound users known and love after the cannabis flower is heated, or decarboxylated. 

So, then what is THCA? Like THC, THCA possesses a wealth of information we're just beginning to understand better. In this article, we’ll dive into THCA, how it differs from THC and some of the common effects each cannabinoid has on consumers.

First, What is THC?

THC distillate

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is a chemical compound found in the cannabis plant. The effects of THC are commonly felt in the body and mind when consumed at various dosages. THC's effects are produced via the cannabinoid's interaction and attachment with the CB1 and CB2 receptors found throughout the body. 

Once latched onto receptors, THC can produce diverse effects depending on the plant's compound profile. We often experience beneficial results when consuming THC. However, some drawbacks can occur, including short-term memory lapses. This is due to a believed effect THC has on the brain's hippocampus and how information is processed. 

THC's popularity as a medical and adult use item fueled the cannabis movement, leading us to where we are today. While smoking raw cannabis flower is still the most popular way to ingest THC, consumers also enjoy vape cartridges, edibles, topicals and many other form factors.

What is THCA?

Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) is the precursor to THC, and studies are beginning to show its potential benefits as well. Found in the trichomes of cannabis, THCA is an inactive, non-intoxicating compound. Meaning that you won't feel "high" if you consume it as you would THC. 

To create those psychoactive effects most often associated with cannabis, we must heat, or decarboxylate, raw cannabis. When decarbed, THCA loses its extra carboxylic acid group, converting THCA into the more commercially desirable THC. THCA can also be converted by exposing the flower to sunlight or increasing room temperatures (though the process is much slower).

THCA can be consumed in several ways. Those seeking the highest potency THCA typically ground raw flower (that has not been decarboxylated), adding it into meals, drinks or eating on its own. Extracted THCA oil is another popular method, with a few companies producing vape carts as well. 

What are the Effects of THCA?

Being a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, THCA's effects may not be as pronounced as THC. Rather than feeling "high," consumers are more likely to experience bodily relief similar to they would after consuming cannabidiol (CBD).

What are the Potential Benefits of THCA?

benefits of THCA

While consumers almost always focus on THC, the precursor cannabinoid THCA has its own reported benefits. Additional research is required, but early indications suggest that THCA has the potential to help address various medical conditions affecting the brain or body. 

In a 2013 study, rats that consumed THCA saw a reduction in nausea-induced behavior and vomiting, leading researchers to conclude that THCA could be a better option than THC in fighting nausea. A 2017 study of cells and mice concluded that THCA showed promise as a neuroprotective compound. This study also noted that THCA may help treat neurodegenerative and neuroinflammatory conditions like Huntington's Disease. 

The debate around THCA and its effects will continue for some time. With select studies concluding THCA had little efficacy on CB1 and CB2 receptors, counter conclusions can lead one to believe that THCA has no substantial benefit on consumers. 

With minimal lab studies to rely on, and a majority of research being in the early stages and focusing on animal studies, there is no consensus on the potential benefits of THCA. Like so many cannabinoids, it's been left to the consumer to make sure they are educated about THCA before consuming it. 

Whenever possible, consult with a physician before starting any new drugs or introducing cannabinoids into a treatment regimen.

THCA vs THC: How are they Different?

THCA vs THC differences

When understanding what is the difference between THCA vs. THC, you have to start with their order of appearance in the plant. THCA serves as the precursor. THC is found in surprisingly small quantities in raw cannabis. As a result, without THCA, we cannot enjoy THC. 

Conversion, or decarboxylation, is the key to unlocking the psychoactive potential of cannabis. THCA has one additional carboxyl group and does not convert into THC until the extra group is removed via heat. The conversion doesn't stop with THCA to THC, either. If left unconsumed for a prolonged period (typically around one year) THC can degrade into the cannabinoid CBN, a less psychoactive compound known for its sedative effects. 

When it comes down to THCA vs. THC, the most glaring comparison is psychoactivity. THC is beloved for its ability to make people feel high, creating an obvious effect on the mind and body. THCA is more subtle, taking effect in the body and less on the mind, similar to popular cannabinoids like CBD. 

It is believed that one reason THCA isn't psychoactive is its weaker binding abilities to CB1 and CB2 receptors, with its larger size and shape playing a potential factor. 

THCA and the Law

THCA and the law

The law can be complicated regarding THCA. While frustrating as that may sound, it's not surprising, seeing as how plant prohibition has been upside down for decades. That said, promising signs of reform have been occurring for years now. 

The rise of cannabis reform brought up the legality of various cannabinoids, notably Delta-8 THC, a naturally producing isomer of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. With laws targeting THC, cannabinoids like Delta 8 and THCA are finding their legality in question. While rulings may change, it appears that the federal government is giving the green light. These rulings come because, unlike THC, these other cannabinoids are not included as banned substances by the U.S. government. 

In May 2022, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a lower court decision that found Delta 8 was legalized via the Farm Bill of 2018. What, if any, effect that has on THCA's legal status as we advance remains unclear. Meanwhile, states are doing their part to fight the federal ruling. In states like Ohio, regulators have explored options to close cannabinoid loopholes and regulate THCA, Delta 8 and other popular options.  

The information in this article and any included images or charts are for educational purposes only. This information is neither a substitute for, nor does it replace, professional legal advice or medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about laws, regulations, or your health, you should always consult with an attorney, physician or other licensed professional.

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