While marijuana does indeed have hundreds of different active compounds within its chemical makeup, some people seem to be under the impression that every single one of them has a different purpose in terms of psychoactivity and/or medicinal relief. In reality, though, most of weed’s active chemical compounds work together hand in hand in order to provide the benefits that the plant is so well known for.
That being said, there are a few radical differences between some of the active marijuana components. Namely, this has to do with whether or not they provide a high. In this article, we talk about the difference between THC and THCA, how to most effectively use each one of them, and whether or not one is therapeutically “better” than the other.
What is THCA?
We’ve (hopefully) all heard of THC and are familiar with its effects on the mind and body. If you’re not familiar with it, THC is the molecule that accounts for the stereotypical marijuana high. That is, when we smoke pot and get stoned, THC is the one that’s accountable for the mind-altering effects on our brain.
However, few people know that THC is not actually present in fresh, live marijuana plants. Or at least, it’s not present in high enough quantities to produce any real effects.
Rather, in the live plant and raw flower buds, THC exists as a “precursor” acid called THCA. While THC and THCA are nearly identical in terms of chemical structure, they have a few molecular differences that account for radical changes in the way they affect the brain.
Namely, THCA does not produce any psychoactive, mind-altering effects. This is why you could hypothetically eat a bunch of raw marijuana buds, and hardly get high at all (you would, however, probably start puking from consuming all of the indigestible plant material).
With this in mind, however, THCA is far from inactive in terms of the effect that it has on humans. Instead of producing a mind-altering high, for instance, it possesses dozens of therapeutic health benefits, including analgesic (pain-relieving), anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective properties.
What’s interesting is when THCA gets heated to extreme temperatures (i.e. when you smoke or vaporize it), it “turns into” THC and does, in fact, produce a high. In this way you might think of THC and THCA as the same exact molecules, only with different properties based on whether you’re ingesting/inhaling the “heated” or “unheated” version of them.
There is a more scientifically appropriate way to put this. When THCA undergoes the heat-induced transformation (or chemical “breakdown”) into THC, the process is known as decarboxylation. When the flower buds from a live, fresh marijuana plant are cut off, decarboxylation will take place naturally over time as the flower dries out and eventually becomes cured. Vaporizing or combusting the buds with a lighter, however, is just a way to exponentially speed up the process.
THC vs. THCA: Can You Smoke THCA?
Taking into consideration what we just talked about (that is, how THCA breaks down into psychoactive THC when you heat it up and smoke it), it wouldn’t really make sense to say that you can smoke a “high THCA” marijuana strain. While it is true that THCA is one of the most prominent cannabinoids in uncarboxylated cannabis flowers, as soon as you fire it up, it’s “technically” no longer THCA.
This has of course sparked rather heated discussions in marijuana dispensaries across the country, as a lot of the shops that print out cannabinoid profiles will label the amount of THCA in a strain (which can be upwards of 30%), rather than the amount of THC.
Technically it is more “scientifically accurate” to identify the presence of THCA rather than THC, as most freshly-cut buds will only contain significant quantities of the former rather than the latter. Either way you look at it, if you end up smoking or vaporizing the buds and inhaling them, you’ll be inhaling pure THC — even if the strain is labeled as containing high amounts of THCA.
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Does THCA Get You High?
If you recall, we mentioned earlier that THCA in the raw marijuana plant is non-psychoactive, yet it still contains many of the therapeutic health benefits of whole-plant cannabis. So how do you use THCA and take advantage of its medical capabilities, without smoking it and turning it into THC?
Well, what a lot of people have actually been doing is trimming raw cannabis buds and juicing THCA as a smoothie. The process is actually incredibly easy: simply toss a fresh, decent sized nug (or two) into your blender along with the normal ingredients that you use to make a smoothie, grind it all up, and voila! – you’ve got a potent, super-therapeutic, non-psychoactive cannabis drink at your disposal.
In addition to juicing raw cannabis flower in a blender, other popular methods in terms of how to use THCA include steeping it as a tea (this releases the THCA at a low enough temperature that it doesn’t turn into THC); using it as a garnish for dinner entrees; and/or infusing it into oils to use a salad dressing. (Though keep in mind if you are going to infuse raw cannabis into an oil to try and extract the THCA, try and do so at a low enough temperature (under 250°F) so that it doesn’t break down into THC).
In terms of the potency of consuming raw cannabis vs. actually smoking it, Dr. William Courtney of the Cannabis International group actually suggests that eating fresh, raw marijuana can allow you to absorb over 1,000 times the amount of therapeutic cannabinoid acids (i.e. THCA) than you would if you were to smoke (or vaporize) the dried buds.
Whatever the case is, while there hasn’t been a ton of research done on the medical effects of pure THCA, the anecdotal evidence seems to be very clear that it works as a powerful pain-reliever, sleep promoter, anti-inflammatory, and anxiety-reducer. In other words, it seems to contain all of the medical properties of regular marijuana, without producing any kind of a high.
[CBD oil actually has many of the same non-psychoactive properties of THCA – check out this article to read more about using CBD hemp oil as a sleep aid, pain reliever and anti-anxiety therapy].
Medical and Scientific Studies on THCA
Like we said, there’s been very little dedicated research done on the medical/therapeutic effects of THCA from raw marijuana flower. However, the small amount of research that has been done has actually been extremely intriguing and promising.
One study, for instance, has suggested that THCA actually has a more profound and wider range of therapeutic effects on the body’s endocannabinoid system, than do any other active cannabis compounds. Along with other things, it has been shown to work as an:
- Antiemetic (reduces nausea and vomiting)
- Antispasmodic (reduces muscle spasms and uncontrollable muscle contractions)
- Anti-tumoral (studies have shown THCA to reduce the proliferation of cancer cells in animal models)
- Analgesic (pain-reliever)
Final Thoughts on THC vs. THCA
To summarize, the difference between THC and THCA is largely nominal – molecularly they are almost identical, even if they do produce substantially different effects on the human body and brain (THC is psychoactive, while THCA is not).
What it all comes down to ultimately is heat; once THCA in the raw cannabis flower is heated beyond its melting point of 220°F (this happens of course when you smoke or vape it), it breaks down into THC, at which point it obtains its psychoactive, mind-altering properties.
However, if you learn how to use THCA without using heat (i.e. if you steep it in tea or blend it into a smoothie), you can take full advantage of its medicinal effects, without experiencing any kid of a psychoactive high.