Want to get the most out of marijuana's psychoactive effects or potential benefits? This all lies on two major cannabinoids: tetrahydrocannabinolic acid and tetrahydrocannabinol, or THCA and THC. After all, THCA is the precursor to THC. Raw cannabis is rich in THCA. However, this cannabinoid doesn't promote the intoxicating effects associated with smoking marijuana. THC in cannabis needs to be activated from THCA through a process known as decarboxylation. Without activating THC, cannabis edibles, extracts, and other products wouldn't pack their potent punch. So, how does THCA become THC? We'll explain all of this and more!
- Raw cannabis has high levels of TCHA and low levels of THC.
- THCA becomes THC through a process called decarboxylation, which can be done through several methods with varying levels of risk.
- THCA doesn't have the potency or promote the intoxicating effects of THC but may have other potential benefits
THCA vs. THC: A Better Understanding of 2 Different Cannabinoids
[IMAGE w/ caption: A cannabis plant rich in cannabinoids, including THCA]
THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) are two different cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. THCA is the acid form of THC. However, research indicates that THCA is non-intoxicating. That means this molecule doesn’t produce the “high” associated with cannabis use.
On the other hand, THC, the primary psychoactive component, is responsible for the mind-altering effects of cannabis. Both are naturally occurring cannabinoids but they are both abundant at two different stages in a cannabis plant's life. Let's get to know THCA and THC better before going into the complete conversion of the former to the latter.
Tetrahydrocannabinol: The Psychoactive Compound
THC and THCA are two of over 100 naturally occurring cannabinoids identified in cannabis. Research indicates that cannabinoids influence our bodies by how they interact with our endocannabinoid system, our internal communication system. This system is influenced by two primary receptors - CB1 receptors, typically found in the central nervous system, and CB2 receptors, predominantly found in the immune and digestive systems.
THC is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, responsible for the high experienced by users. It typically binds to CB1 receptors in the brain, producing a range of effects such as altered perception of time, increased relaxation, heightened sensory experiences, and increased brain activity.
In addition to its psychoactive effects, THC may have potential wellness benefits. Those who use marijuana for health reasons may find support by using THC to support comfort, appetite, and overall mood.
THC must be activated for users to feel its effects. This happens when raw cannabis is exposed to oxygen, light, and warm temperatures. The heat reacts with oxygen on acts as a catalyst where THCA converts into THC. Let's explain THCA a little further!
Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid: The Non-Psychoactive Precursor
THC is derived from THCA. THCA is one of the cannabinoid acids found in raw cannabis plants. It is non-intoxicating but may have potential benefits.
In the fascinating world of cannabis, trichomes play a vital role. These tiny, hair-like structures on the plant's surface are much more than meets the eye. They serve as miniature factories, diligently producing key compounds such as THCA, CBD, and other elements that contribute to the unique aroma, flavor, and therapeutic effects of cannabis.
One compound of particular interest is THCA, short for Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid. Contrary to popular belief, THCA in its raw form doesn't cause the 'high' typically associated with cannabis. This non-psychoactive component resides within the trichomes, where a special enzyme called THCA synthase helps convert another compound, CBGA, into THCA and, eventually, THC.
Novel research suggests that THCA doesn't bind strongly to either CB1 or CB2 receptors. While more research needs to be done, experts believe THCA influences our body's own natural endocannabinoid, including anandamide.
Anandamide, also known as the "bliss molecule," is a neurotransmitter that binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body, stimulating a sense of happiness. It's synthesized in areas of the brain responsible for memory, motivation, and movement control. Experts hope that THCA may one day be beneficial for potential brain-supporting properties.
Most notably today, THCA is known as THC's predecessor. Let's explain how plant material rich in non-intoxicating THCA can become abundant with psychoactive THC.
The Decarboxylation Process: Converting THCA to THC
[IMAGE w/ caption: A cannabis plant undergoing decarboxylation process]
The process where THCA converts into THC is called decarboxylation. This involves the removal of a carboxyl group from THCA through heat, oxygen, and light. Decarboxylation is essential for preparing cannabis products like edibles, as it unlocks the potential benefits of cannabinoids by converting THCA to THC.
When plant material undergoes decarboxylation, there is no guarantee of a complete conversion that yields 0% THCA and 100% THC.
The efficiency of the decarboxylation process can be measured using techniques like liquid chromatography and gas chromatography. Results of these tests should be readily available on products so that consumers can make informed and legal decisions.
How Decarboxylation Works
Decarbing cannabis requires adding heat, oxygen, and light to the plant material. When cannabis is heated, it causes a chemical reaction where the heat energy breaks down the carboxyl group in the THCA molecule.
The magic happens when heat enters the equation. When cannabis is exposed to heat, be it through smoking, vaporizing, or baking, a process known as decarboxylation takes place. During this process, THCA transforms into THC, the psychoactive compound renowned for inducing the “high.”
[IMAGE w/ caption: Vaprorizing buds can allow for cannabinoid conversion in a controlled manner]
Eventually, this pressure causes the removal of a carboxylic acid group from THCA. In turn, this process releases carbon dioxide and water. The result is THC, the psychoactive compound that can interact with the body's endocannabinoid system to produce a euphoric mind and body experience for the user.
The Right Temperature to Decarboxylate Marijuana
Heating marijuana at high temperatures can cause THC and other cannabinoids to burn off. Finding the right temperature will ensure the potency of your activated weed.
To decarboxylate the cannabis, you should warm it up to a temperature between 220-250°F (104-118°C) for a duration of about 30 to 45 minutes.
[IMAGE w/ caption: Burning marijuana flowers can deplete its potency]
Keep in mind, everything from elevation to oven can influence the final product. You might need to play with different temperatures to determine the sweet spot for your weed.
Common Methods for Converting THCA to THC
[IMAGE w/ caption: A row of buds lined up on a baking sheet]
Decarbing at home can be done in three ways. Oven, microwave, and sous-vide are all common ways to decarboxylate weed at home, each with varying levels of risk and equipment requirements.
These methods are designed to provide a controlled environment for the decarboxylation process, ensuring the efficient conversion of THCA to THC while preserving the quality and potency of the finished product.
Oven decarboxylation is the most popular method for converting THCA to THC, and it involves heating cannabis in an oven at a specific temperature range, usually between 220-250°F (104-118°C), for a certain amount of time, typically 30-45 minutes. Using an oven requires careful temperature control to preserve the active ingredients in the cannabis, as well as to prevent burning THC.
Using an oven to decarboxylate cannabis doesn't mean that your buds are ready to toss into your next batch of gummies or brownies. Your cannabis edibles will taste like toasted cannabis flowers.
[IMAGE w/ caption A cannabis plant in an oven with golden brown color]
Instead, the decarbed weed must be infused with oil or butter. This process incorporates the active THC molecule and other cannabinoids into dietary fats we use for baking. Once the butter or oil is infused, you can use it to cook or bake your favorite edibles.
Microwave decarboxylation is a faster method and may be able to convert THC in a matter of minutes. Although this method can be more convenient and quicker than using an oven, it comes with several risks, such as difficulty in controlling power and timer settings and potential loss of flavor due to uneven heating.
Despite its convenience and speed, using a microwave isn't recommended when there are other methods available. It's not a viable option for those who are new to decarbing or who have limited experience with cannabis.
Sous-vide decarboxylation is more complex than other methods. This variation involves vacuum-packing cannabis in a heatproof bag and heating it in water at 203°F (95°C)for an hour before carefully removing the bag.
Users will need a sous-vide cooker and a suitable pan or container for heating the water, as well as a vacuum sealer or a method for manually removing air from the heatproof bags. While this method requires more specialized equipment and knowledge than using an oven or microwave, it provides greater control and precision.
A word of warning, research shows that heating a product, such as cannabis, inside a plastic bag in hot water can pose several potential dangers due to the leaching of plastic chemicals.
When heated, the molecular structure of the plastic can break down, causing chemicals like phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and other plasticizers to leach into the water and the product inside the bag.
Smoking, Vaping, and Baking to Decarboxylate Marijuana
There are alternative decarboxylation methods that cater to different preferences and needs, including vaporizing cannabis, smoking cannabis, cooking with cannabis, and commercial decarboxylation methods. Vaporizing and smoking cannabis efficiently decarboxylates THCA, turning it into THC, making it a popular choice for users seeking a convenient way to consume cannabis.
[IMAGE w/ caption: Lighting marijuana flower will convert THCA to THC but may destroy cannabinoids]
Smoking marijuana is one of the most common ways to consume cannabis. When a lighter touches cannabis flowers, it causes THCA to combust, converting this molecule into THC. With that said, when the cannabis is ignited with a lighter, it can cause the bud to burn too quickly, which not only results in a harsher taste but may reduce potency. The flame from a torch lighter can burn up the entire bowl in a matter of seconds, leading to a significant loss of THCA that doesn't get converted. Alternative methods like using a hemp wick can provide a safer option.
Vaporizers contain dry herbs or THC extracts that get heated to a specific temperature that allows for the release of active cannabinoids and terpenes. Unlike traditional smoking methods, which involve combustion, high-quality vape pens gently "bake" the cannabis, creating a vapor that is then inhaled.
Cooking with cannabis causes decarboxylation of THCA by adding heat to the cannabis plant. However, you don't want to throw unactivated marijuana buds into your edibles. Instead, you want to decarb the flowers and then infuse the activated weed to create a butter or oil that is then used for baking.
Commercial decarboxylation is crucial to mass-produce cannabis products. It allows for the activation of cannabinoids like THC and CBD that are used in various extracts, edibles, and topicals.
While home methods might involve an oven or a slow cooker, commercial operations often require more sophisticated and precise equipment to achieve consistent and efficient results.
One common method used in a commercial setting is the use of industrial decarboxylation ovens. These ovens are specifically designed to maintain precise temperatures for a specific duration, ensuring that all the cannabis is uniformly heated.
[IMAGE w/ caption: Expensive equipment is used for mass-producing cannabis products]
The cannabis is typically spread out on trays in a thin layer to encourage even heat distribution. The temperature and time will vary based on the specific strain and desired end product, but generally, the process involves heating the cannabis at around 240-250°F (115-121°C) for approximately 30-60 minutes.
Another method used commercially is the use of high-pressure reactors. In this method, cannabis is placed in a pressurized container and exposed to heat. The pressure helps to speed up the decarboxylation process and can result in a higher yield of active cannabinoids. This method is particularly beneficial when dealing with large volumes of cannabis, as it's faster and more efficient than traditional oven decarboxylation.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why Isn't THCA the Primary Psychoactive Component of Marijuana?
THCA is indeed a major component of cannabis, but it promotes no psychoactive experiences when it enters the body. It's present in raw cannabis and doesn't become psychoactive until THCA gets activated into THC. THC is the primary psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis that promotes intoxicating effects.
What Is the Difference Between THCA and THC?
THCA is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in raw cannabis plants, while THC is the psychoactive compound responsible for the high experienced. THC interacts with CB1 receptors in the endocannabinoid system. While more research needs to be done, it's believed that THCA doesn't bind to receptors but supports the endocannabinoid system by supporting anandamine levels.
What Percentage of THCA Becomes THC?
It's challenging to determine the total amount of THC that comes from THCA in a single decarbing event. On average, about 87.7% of THCA will become THC. This percentage is an average based on weight loss that typically occurs during this process.
How to Determine the THC Content of A Product?
It is important that you research any product before you purchase it, including confirming its cannabinoid content. Only purchase products that have undergone third-party lab testing.
Third-party laboratories use liquid chromatography or gas chromatography to isolate and determine cannabinoids and potential contaminants in the extract or flower. These tests provide reports that verify the cannabinoid concentration and purity of the product you're purchasing.
How to Determine THC Content with THCA Listed on Labels
Many companies will list THCA content instead of how much THC is in the strain. When looking at the THCA content on marijuana packages, it's important to note that this represents the potential amount of THC. The mass of THCA before decarboxylation should equal the mass of THC minus the mass lost as carbon dioxide during the process. This is known as mass balance. To estimate the potential THC content, you can multiply the THCA content by 0.877 (or 87%). This amount accounts for the weight loss that occurs when you decarb weed. For example, if the THCA content is 20%, the potential THC content would be approximately 17.5%.
Does Heating Marijuana Deplete Potency?
Excessive heat can be detrimental to converting acids into cannabinoids. If you don't decarb at the right temperature for the cannabinoids you're trying to produce, you can actually cause a significant loss of terpenes and cannabinoids.
Lighting weed directly with a lighter can potentially destroy THC. When marijuana is lit from a lighter, the temperature of the flame can exceed 1000°F (537°C). These high temperatures can destroy THCA, THC, and other compounds.
At What Temperature Does THC Deplete?
The boiling point of THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, is around 311°F to 320°F (155°C to 160°C). This is the temperature at which THC is released from the cannabis without combusting. When it comes to combustion or burning point, it's generally accepted that cannabis will combust at around 451°F (233°C).
Does the Body Cause THCA to Convert?
THCA is non-psychoactive, but it can be converted to THC when ingested via tinctures or cannabis edibles. as stomach acids present in the stomach can decarboxylate THCA. However, this conversion appears to be very limited.
What is Complete Decarboxylation?
This refers to the process where all the cannabinoid acids in a cannabis sample are converted into their active forms, like THC or CBD. This process is achieved by applying heat for a prolonged period of time under specific conditions. In contrast, regular decarboxylation might not fully convert all the cannabinoid acids, leading to a mixture of both active cannabinoids and their acidic precursors. This is especially true if you decarb at home.
Does Activating THC Prevent Mold Growth?
Mold and bacteria rely on moisture to grow and contaminate your cannabis. Decarbing cannabis removed moisture content from the buds. As a result, the environment within your buds is less attractive to the pathogens that depend on a high moisture content to grow.
Are There Other Types of Cannabinoid Acids?
Cannabinoid acids are special compounds found in the cannabis plant. Think of these acid forms as parents to more commonly known cannabinoids, such as THC and CBD.
When it comes to acid forms, Cannabigerolic Acid (CBGA) is often referred to as the "mother of all cannabinoids." It is the precursor to other cannabinoid acids, such as THCA, CBDA (Cannabidiolic Acid), and CBCA (Cannabichromenic Acid). Once heated, these acid forms become cannabinoids, as THCA converts into THC, CBDA converts into CBD, and CBCA converts into CBC (Cannabichromene).
What Type of Products Have THCA?
THCA can be found in raw cannabis flower. You can produce THC from this flower to make edibles at home by decarbing weed in your microwave or oven first.
Some brands produce products with high levels of THCA in them. THCA is found in everything from extracts to edibles to capsules.
Can You Use THCA with CBD?
Yes! In fact, these naturally occurring cannabinoids work well together. The combination of CBD and THCA might enhance the overall effects each cannabinoid has on the endocannabinoid system. This act of synergy is known as the entourage effect.
This theory suggests that the various compounds in cannabis, including CBD, THCA, other cannabinoids, and terpenes, work synergistically to produce greater benefits than they would individually. Look for extracts promoted as "full spectrum," as they should contain a wide range of cannabinoids, including THCA and CBD.