What is THCA and How Does it Differ from THC? Exploring the Potential of a Lesser-Known Cannabinoid

by Henrik Aulbach07.08.2023Knowledge

Let's admit it, we've all wondered: "What happens when I consume a cannabis flower?". Spoiler alert: You won't experience the same effects as when you heat or vaporize cannabis. That's because THC exists in a biosynthetic precursor form known as THCA within the flower, and it only becomes active and transforms into THC through heat. While THC is renowned for its therapeutic and psychoactive effects, THCA lacks the psychotropic impact and doesn't induce a "high." Nevertheless, increasing research is being conducted on the therapeutic potential of THCA. Let's dive into what has been discovered so far.

Understanding THCA

THCA stands for Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid. As you can see, the appended "-A" stands for "Acid." THCA is the acidic form of THC. Cannabis flowers and trichomes don't produce THC; instead, they contain THCA. Through a process called decarboxylation, THCA loses its acid group and transforms into THC. This decarboxylation is achieved through heat, for example. The term "decarboxylation" refers to the removal of a chemical carboxyl group (acid group) from the cannabinoid.

The enzymes within the cannabis plant can only produce cannabinoids in acidic forms. Thus, trichomes produce CBDA (Cannabidiolic Acid) rather than CBD. These acidic forms are often referred to as biosynthetic precursors. Interestingly, most acidic cannabinoids, like CBDA or THCA, stem from Cannabigerolic Acid (CBGA), which is itself a precursor to CBG.

Enzymes act on CBGA to create other cannabinoids. An enzyme called THCA synthase, for instance, transforms CBGA into THCA. Subsequently, heat or light can break down THCA into THC. It's worth noting that THCA can also oxidize into CBN (Cannabinol).

THCA was long considered inactive. However, there is growing suspicion that THCA may have therapeutic applications without inducing psychotropic effects.

Distinguishing THC from THCA

Structurally, they are nearly identical except for a carboxyl group (acid group). The most significant difference is that THC is psychoactive, unlike THCA. This difference likely stems from THCA's inability to strongly bind to CB1 receptors, which THC can do.

Moreover, THCA is naturally occurring, whereas THC only emerges through the decarboxylation of THCA. Thus, light or heat must trigger decarboxylation. Until then, cannabis plants contain THCA. If you want to consume THCA, you often ingest raw cannabis, which sets it apart from THC in terms of consumption methods. Additionally, THCA is more stable and can be stored longer. If buds contained only THC, their potency would diminish more rapidly.

Exploring THCA's Potential Through Studies

Research on acidic THC is limited, so approach the following findings with skepticism. Insights have been derived from studies involving animal tests or cell experiments. No clinical trials on humans have taken place yet.

THCA gained attention with sensational headlines like "THCA - The Diet Cannabinoid." This is based on a January 2020 study conducted on mice, where THCA administration aided in weight loss and fat reduction.

There are also indications that THCA might assist with joint health. In collagen-induced arthritis, THCA exhibited positive effects by acting on PPARγ and CB1 receptors. Again, these were animal experiments, not human trials.

Some speculate that THCA could alleviate nausea. This is partly based on a January 2020 study that tested a combination of cannabinoids, including THCA, for treating acute nausea in rats.

There are also indications of potential liver health benefits. A 2020 study explored whether THCA could improve liver health in mice. Symptoms of liver fibrosis and inflammation did indeed improve. The disease was induced chemically and through obesity.

The anti-inflammatory properties of cannabinoids like THCA and THC are supported by a 2011 study from Leiden University. The study examined the effects of six cannabinoids, including THCA, on cyclooxygenase enzyme activity, which plays a role in inflammation. These six cannabinoids effectively inhibited cyclooxygenase enzyme activity.

THCA's neuroprotective potential should not be overlooked. A 2012 animal study investigated the effects of THC, CBD, and THCA on the neurotoxin MPP+. THCA and THC were found to protect dopaminergic cells, with THCA even increasing cell count by around 100%.

Interestingly, THCA appears to have minimal side effects.

THCA's Implications for THC Content

For growers, THCA content is a crucial metric. By measuring this value, growers can estimate the amount of THC the plant will yield. Growers typically account for a 30% loss of THCA during decarboxylation. This value can be measured accurately using High-Pressure Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) without inducing decarboxylation.

The Role of THCA in Cannabis Plants

Why do cannabis plants contain THCA in the first place? What purpose does this cannabinoid serve? In fact, it serves numerous functions.

It is increasingly believed that THCA shields leaves from excessive UV-B radiation, preserving delicate leaf structures. Additionally, THCA may counteract necrosis on leaves, helping maintain a healthy plant by promoting the rapid death of damaged cells. THCA thus supports the cannabis plant's immune system by trimming itself and conserving nutrients for essential areas. Moreover, THCA may combat harmful microorganisms targeting the plant.

How Can I Consume Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid?

THCA converts upon heating, so to retain THCA content, avoid smoking cannabis and instead consume raw cannabis. You can incorporate it like herbs in salads or dressings. Many people also make THCA-rich smoothies. To ensure THCA's effects, avoid heating, such as lighting a joint.

Is THCA Legal?

Let's keep it simple: No! Because THCA rapidly converts to THC when smoking a joint, the cannabinoid is not legal. It only needs to be decarboxylated to become a component of psychoactive cannabis. Illegal cannabis flowers mainly contain THCA and very little THC.

Conclusion: Promising Potential of THCA

We now agree that conventional Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) has various therapeutic applications. Similarly, THCA holds promise. Due to its lack of psychotropic effects, this cannabinoid has received limited attention thus far. We eagerly anticipate discovering many more properties and effects of THCA in the future.


Written by Henrik Aulbach

Henrik Aulbach is a published cannabis specialist author with a passion for medicine, chemistry, and cannabinoids. Through Weed!.de, he contributes to breaking stigmas and myths surrounding the green gold and increasing the availability of cannabis medications for patients.


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