The cannabis and hemp industries have become very creative when navigating the ever-changing regulatory landscape. Limitations of access for natural cannabinoids like CBD and THC have led to a new wave of semi-synthetic cannabis compounds sweeping the market, side-stepping technicalities within the law to increase access for consumers. Each one of these new molecules comes with its own risks and rewards; building excitement for their therapeutic potential.
One of these exciting compounds goes by the name, THC-O Acetate; a compound derived from cannabinoids found in cannabis and hemp plants. THC-O (as it is commonly called), is a synthetic cannabinoid that affects your body similar to THC, but with its own unique twist!
If you’re interested in trying THC-O, here is the full breakdown on everything you need to know about this novel molecule.
Where did THC-O Acetate come from?
Records show that THC-O dates back to a number of isolated incidents around the world, where small batches were produced and then discovered by law enforcement. In 1974 the first literary reference was made to the chemistry behind THC-O synthesis in Cannabis Alchemy: Art of Modern Hashmaking by D. Gold. In this text the author walks through the step by step process of producing THC-O from plant material, as well as a detailed record of the experience of the effects of THC-O after ingesting it.
In more recent history, THC-O has become more widely accessible in the United States due to the new legislative revisions to the 2018 Farm Bill. This regulatory shift has lifted restrictions on hemp cultivation and the product on CBD, a cannabinoid that can be modified to produce THC-O. With both federal and some state laws still restricting access to THC products, especially via interstate commerce, this makes THC-O a much more attractive alternative to consumers in regions that have limited access to cannabis products. Hemp derived CBD products are legal to sell nationally and around most of the world, making it an obvious choice for those looking to experiment with cannabinoids.
The rising popularity of THC-O and other cannabinoid analogues comes with some concerns in the state-licensed cannabis industry. To produce this molecule requires the use of strong acids, which in this case are highly-flammable compounds. This makes it a very technical process that should only be operated by a trained chemist to be done safely. That means using a laboratory space with proper ventilation and safety guards. A clandestine lab, or even licensed industrial kitchen may not be suited for the manufacturing of THC-O.
Even if you may not be suited to produce THC-O yourself, understanding the process can help empower you as a consumer or cannabis professional on how to find THC-O products that are safe to use.
What is THC-O Acetate and how is it made?
THC-O is a cannabinoid, just like THC, CBD, and CBN. These are the active compounds that interact with the cannabinoid receptors in your body’s nervous system. However, THC-O is what we call an analog of THC, or a synthetic compound that is manipulated through a chemical process. It is not a naturally occurring compound, and requires conversion chemistry to be produced.
Chemists can produce THC-O when combining strong acids with purified cannabinoids (or isolates) found in both THC and hemp varieties of the plant. Sulfuric acid, acetic anhydride are combined with delta-8 THC to produce THC-O Acetate. Both delta-8 and THC-O are analogues of delta-9 THC, meaning they are both semi-synthetic compounds that have been made using delta-9 THC as the foundational ingredient.
If synthesized successfully, THC-O commonly appears as a thick, brown liquid, similar to molasses or motor oil. This consistency makes it easy to infuse into all kinds of products: vaporizers, tinctures, and edibles.
This derivative of THC is one of the few analogues of THC to have been distributed as a recreational drug sold and used in a highly pure and smokable form. There are in fact many different analogue compounds derived from THC: delta-8-THC, delta-10-THC, THC-O-phosphate, THC hemisuccinate, and THC morpholinyl butyrate. Many of these are not well studied, but it is likely that each may interact with the body differently offering new applications for medical cannabis treatments in the future.
How it differs from THC
THC-O’s biggest claim to fame is in its potency. According to Michael Starks’ 1977 book Marijuana Potency, it is reported that THC-O can be up to 300% as potent as THC. This can be an extreme contrast, as this level of potency is not inherently necessary and can often leave consumers new to cannabis at risk of an unpleasantly high dose. So, why is it that THC-O hits so differently?
When we think about how cannabinoids interact with our nervous system, it helps to look at each molecule like a puzzle piece, and cannabinoids tend to have a shape that fits perfectly into cannabinoid receptors in our body. Depending on the slight differences in shape, some cannabinoids will bind to a receptor better or worse than another. To understand how the shapes of THC-O and THC interact with our body, we will take a look at the molecular structure of each molecule:
THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) Molecule
THC-O Acetate Molecule
There’s no need to focus on the numbers and letters, but rather the difference in shape tells us a lot about how each molecule works. The largest difference between the two structures is the upper right corner. In the THC molecule, there is an OH, where in the THC-O molecule there is an O and a new set of lines. That new set of lines is the acetate part of the molecule.
This slight variation in shape is why THC-O packs a stronger punch, the acetate creates a higher rate of bioavailability. After binding to the cannabinoid receptor, THC-O will absorb and through this process the acetate functional group (-O) is removed. This leaves you with THC, but at a higher success rate of uptake into the nervous system.
How does it work?
Cannabinoids like THC and CBD are considered lipids, or fatty oils in their natural state. It is common to see many consumable products being oil-based or have constituents that emulsify oil. In your body, the dissolution of fats undergoes a slightly different process than water-soluble substances (like vitamins or fiber). Fats and oils require an extra filtering step before the nutrients can pass into your bloodstream.
When consuming cannabinoids, some of the active ingredients will be lost in this filtration process, meaning less of the cannabinoids will get to your nervous system via your bloodstream. This will affect the strength of a dose, as cannabinoids will only impart an effect if they are able to get through your bloodstream to your nervous system and brain specifically.
What you need to know before taking THC-O Acetate
Based on the biochemistry we covered above, it is clear to see that THC-O when in the body will have similar effects to that of THC, just at a much higher potency. This means many of the physical and psychological effects of THC will occur in greater intensity (up to 3X more than your standard THC dose).
That intensity is why many have described THC-O as the spiritual or more psychedelic cannabinoid, as it offers a more psychoactive experience to the consumer.
Many of the effects one would feel on a high dose of THC would be comparable to a standard dose of THC-O. This may include regulation of your systems that manage pain, mood, memory, and appetite. In cases where a dose is too high, some individuals have experienced paranoia, confusion, nausea, and fatigue. It’s always important when experimenting with psychedelics to prepare a safety plan ahead of time which may involve finding a trusted person to be present to assist you while under the influence of the drug.
In their book, Author D. Gold described their own experience with the analogue compound: “the effect of acetate is more spiritual and psychedelic than that of the ordinary product. The most unique property of this material is that there is a delay of about thirty minutes before its effects are felt.”
This key fact can make all the difference when dosing. It’s important to start with a lower dose, around 5-10mg and work your way up to a desired effect. It will take a considerable amount of time to feel the THC-O, similar to that of an edible which takes anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes to feel the full effects of THC or CBD. It is difficult to overdose on cannabis or hemp products, though there are some health concerns related to habitual high dosing. But you can rest assured knowing that it is physically impossible to take a lethal dose of cannabis.
Health Benefits of THC-O Acetate
There is some promise around THC-O being an extra strength alternative for pain management in medical application. Due to its potency, THC-O would make an excellent option for patients looking for the benefits of a high-dose THC treatment, without the unwanted side effects that come with taking a large dose of THC extract.
For example, patients consuming high quantities of RSO (Rick Simpson Oil) may experience nausea, fatigue, dry eyes, and other undesirable side effects. This is because our bodies are reacting to the high amount of cannabinoids being processed which can sometimes overwhelm a patient already trying to manage symptoms. THC-O would enable a patient to experience the benefits of a high dose of THC, while only having to consume a portion a third of the dose they would normally take. This small difference in dosing and efficiency could be a massive improvement for medical cannabis patients.
Is it safe to consume THC-O?
In its cleanest and most pure form, THC-O is theoretically safe to consume, however we do not live in a vacuum of best practice and there can be some risks involved with product quality when it comes to the source.
When producing THC-O its possible for there to be a wide variety in product quality, as we are still so early in the compound’s commercial emergence. Depending on the purity of the plant extract and the chemicals used to synthesize THC-O, there can be trace amounts of contaminants that could present health risks.
In an interview with Leafly, chemist and cannabis researcher James Stephens explained, “If you’re using low-quality extract material and low-quality reagents you bought online… you’re likely to get way less pure of a product than if you’re using clean [pharmaceutical-grade] reagents and do a lot of downstream purification steps.”
Even beyond the quality of source materials, there also lies risk within the chemistry itself. Not every chemical process is perfect, and each batch of THC-O may not be 100% pure. Cannabis researcher Dr. Ethan Russo was quoted saying;
“When something like this is made, it’s not 100% conversion. There’s always going to be [possible contaminants and byproducts], and that’s a real pitfall, potentially.”
Its possible that some of these byproducts of the synthesis could be harmful to the liver and other organ systems, and it would ultimately take more advanced product testing to verify that these analogue molecules are safe and contaminant-free.
On a side note, high potency products also run the risk of over consumption related health concerns. For individuals who prefer high dose products, THC-O could cause health risks that may end in serious conditions. Some cannabis consumers have developed Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome (CHS) from overconsumption of THC. This illness can cause intense flu-like symptoms that often require medical care, especially to those genetically susceptible to CHS.
There are still limits to the medical information out there about dosing, product safety, and history of human use when it comes to THC-O. It is likely that this will continue until there are more regulations intact to support clinical research of novel cannabinoids.
Is THC-O Acetate legal?
Manufacturers of THC-O products argue that they are protected under the farm bill because the molecule was derived from a chain of custody that began with federally legal hemp. There is still a lot of gray area in legality, it ultimately is up to the state manufacturers are operating out of and how the federal government chooses to react on a case by case basis.
As with any research compound or ‘new drug compound’ there aren’t many regulations to follow for quality control, leaving a lot to question for consumers and regulators. Some brands have begun marketing THC-O and other THC analogues as a ‘legal alternative’ to THC in states that cannabis remains illegal. Despite this, it is likely that THC-O may still appear on standard drug tests and could be treated the same as THC (a Schedule I substance).
THC-O’s trendy cousin, delta-8-THC has now been outlawed in some states and flagged by the DEA, THC-O may become the new star molecule. It could also follow closely behind the other semi-synthetic cannabinoids and be banned until further clinical studies have explored the benefits and risks.
Where can you find THC-O products?
Even with so much uncertainty around the efficacy and legality of THC-O, there are already products on the market available for consumers. Online retailers are also offering THC-O products around the world to countries that allow the sale of the compound.
Some of the most common products you will see are vaporizers and edible products like gummy candies. Both will pack the same punch of the potent THC-O, however the gummy may have slower onset time, as it requires digestion before experiencing the effects. You really can’t go wrong when choosing between the two types of products, it is ultimately about personal preference for an inhalable product vs. an edible non-smoking alternative.
The most critical part of product selection is going to be based on the source of the product and if you can verify that the THC-O was produced safely in a reputable laboratory. There still may be limitations in product testing, but the safest THC-O products are going to be coming from manufacturers who have the proper facilities and chemists involved in the production process.