Tetrahydrocannabinol occurs in many forms in nature, and thanks to modern chemistry it is possible to create many more.
Tetrahydrocannabinol is the most sought after cannabinoid on the cannabis market today. Responsible for the euphoric effects of the herb, this phytocannabinoid is highly controversial and often misunderstood.
However, the hunt for THC potency is the bane of any cannabis connoisseur. Most industry players know and understand that the THC is not the end of cannabis quality. Other compounds and cannabinoids, such as terpenes, flavonoids, and minor cannabinoids, all affect the overall quality of a product.
But in a consumer-oriented market, the demand is greater. With the advent of unregulated hemp cannabinoid production, chemists and growers are finding new ways to take advantage of first-time buyers.
What are the types of THC?
There are many types of cannabinoids and THC products on the market today, including the following:
- THCa – this is the inactivated or “raw” form of THC.
- Delta-9 THC – the most common THC – creates the euphoric high that marijuana is known for.
- THCv – Tetrahydrocannabivarin is a byproduct of the breakdown of THCa.
- Delta-8 – produced in tiny amounts in nature
- Delta-10 – only found in trace amounts in the natural plant.
- THCP – relatively recent discovery in 2019, not much is known about this new cannabinoid.
Many THC analogues, such as Delta-8, Delta-10, and THCP, are only produced in trace amounts in nature. As such, they cannot be commercially extracted like other cannabinoids. These minor analogues of THC are therefore synthesized in the laboratory – and we will come back to this later in this article.
Extraction of THC
The process of extracting THC and other plant cannabinoids varies depending on volume and intended end product. Humans have been making cannabis oil infusions and alcohol-based tinctures for centuries. Hashish and rosin have also been common over time for small batches of cannabis. You certainly don't have to be a genius to extract cannabinoids from cannabis.
But when you're processing tons of hemp or cannabis in a commercial, for-profit industry, the process becomes more complex, requiring solvents, industrial-scale equipment, and state-of-the-art labs. By extracting and isolating cannabinoids, chemists have an unlimited palette to work from.
Distillation of THC
Thanks to molecular distillation, THC can be isolated in the form of pure oil with contents reaching 98% and more. With terpenes and other compounds removed, the distillate is commonly used in the production of edibles due to its lack of taste and odor.
This multi-step process is a complex laboratory procedure that must be performed by trained professionals. According to information from the Precision Extraction website, the distillation of THC takes place in the following steps:
- Extraction – the initial separation of trichomes, or resin glands, from plant material, using solvents such as butane, propane or ethanol.
- Winterizing and filtration – an ethanol-based process that uses sub-zero temperatures to remove unwanted compounds such as fats, chlorophyll and waxes left over from the first extraction.
- A filter press separates the materials, pushing the desirable materials through filter plates.
- Decarburization – the application of heat in a vacuum activates THCa to THC and releases CO2, residual solvents and other volatile substances.
- Distillation – material is heated to specific boiling temperatures to convert it to vapor, then it passes through a cooled condenser to convert back to liquid.
The benefits of THC distillate are dosage consistency and the ability to formulate products. Most of today's edibles use distillate to help disguise the "grassy flavor" that consumer surveys object to. Vape cartridge flavors and specific cannabinoid formulations are also typically made with THC distillate. THC distillate can also be sprayed on the flower to make infused pre-rolls.
Arguments against distillation revolve around the high amount of processing it requires, which removes essential compounds. Like high fructose corn syrup for corn, distilling THC strips out anything healthy or organic in cannabis.
Synthetic analogues of THC
When the Hemp Act was passed in 2018, the market was flooded with farmers looking to cash in on the new cash crop. A record number of fields have been planted with CBD hemp, and few farmers had buyers when harvest time arrived. The CBD market has been flooded, and CBD prices have plummeted.
To recoup their losses, hemp farmers turned to chemists and began producing THC analogues. Using Farm Bill language to fly under the radar, producers targeted their marketing efforts at states where legal cannabis was not available. They advertised their products as “marijuana lite,” claiming a “high with no cerebral side effects, making medical claims about untested and unregulated products. Some products even claim to be negative in screening tests. Here are some lab-made cannabinoids commonly found on the market.
Delta-8 and Delta-10
Research shows that many THC analogues, such as Delta-8 and Delta-10, can have a wide range of benefits and produce a different effect than traditional THC. But in the same way that many question the effectiveness of Marinol, as a synthetic form of marijuana, is it the same when produced in the laboratory and not extracted directly from the plant?
One of the biggest false claims about Delta-8 revolves around its origin. Many Delta-8 websites claim that their Delta-8 products are extracted, all-natural, or derived from hemp. All current Delta-8 products are made by chemists, who use chemicals to convert cannabinoids; they are not extracts from plant matter.
ProVerde CEO Dr. Chris Hudalla did the math and it would cost around $500 million to extract one gram of natural, plant-derived Delta-8. The extraction of Delta-8 is simply impossible from an economic point of view.
So, is Delta-8 synthetic? The answer is that it depends. As it is in the plant, it is a natural substance. But is the manufactured Delta-8 natural?
" Conversion CBD to delta-8-THC involves refluxing CBD in an organic solvent, such as toluene or heptane, with p-toluenesulfonic acid or another acid serving as a catalyst. The reaction usually takes place for 60 to 90 minutes.”
In the same article, Michael Coffin, a producer of Delta-8, argues that it is not the cannabinoid that should be questioned but rather the production processes, stating that “many people do a poor job of cleaning up their reaction products, resulting in “a hell of a soup” of by-products and other unwanted compounds.”
Kyle Boyar of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego, also said: “A lot of the production is irresponsible in the sense that most of these people are getting their information from online forums. line, and many of them are not necessarily qualified chemists.”
Cannabis Tech spoke to Honest Marijuana in 2020 about THC-O acetate. However, THC acetates are anything but new. The military experimented with THC acetate in the 30s in order to use it to neutralize their enemies.
This cannabinoid is made by using acetic anhydride to convert the molecule, then the catalysts and chemicals are removed through a distillation process. Again, in the absence of regulation and oversight, this is a buyer-beware market, as is the case with Delta-8 production. Without the proper steps, consumers can consume more than they realize.
Unlike Delta-8 and Delta-10, THC-O is not found in nature. It can only be produced in a laboratory.
HHC, or Hexahydrocannabinol
Like THC-O, HHC is not found in nature, and it's the rabbit hole of getting around regulations to make a profit. As states move to ban products like Delta-8 and Delta-10, chemists are simply inventing a new lab-made cannabinoid that is not listed in the legal verbiage.
In an article on Leafly, one producer admits: “HHC is one of our fastest growing products…due to regulations that banned Delta-8.”
To create HHC, producers use chemical reactors to add a hydrogen atom to THC. The more the production increases, the more the risk of explosion increases. HHC is often presented as the cannabinoid that does not appear in a drug test, but there is no evidence to confirm this.
Although there are several types of THC, it is important to remember that Delta-9 THC has been the subject of decades of research and human consumption. High doses of THC analogues, especially those discovered in recent years, have no data regarding their long-term use or potential dangers. When purchasing and consuming these products, consumers should act with caution.
With new regulations expected soon from the FDA on the Hemp-derived CBD and product production consumables, one can only speculate on the future of many products available on the market today. At a minimum, growers should expect standardized testing and analysis to verify the safety of the products they sell, whether naturally extracted or lab-produced.