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The Differences Between THC, THCa and CBD

Whether you’ve been using CBD for a while or you’re just beginning your CBD journey, you may be wondering about the differences between THC, THCa and CBD. Understanding the differences can help you make the most informed decision about your wellness program.

If you’ve heard of cannabis, you’ve likely heard of THC, or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. This famous substance is responsible for most of the psychoactive effects when cannabis is smoked, vaporized or turned into an infused butter or a tincture. What’s far less well-known is the fact that in a freshly harvested, raw cannabis plant, there is almost no THC present!

What is present is an abundance of tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, or THCa. This compound is the precursor to THC, appearing in particularly strong concentrations within the plant’s trichomes, the tiny, translucent stalks that cover the buds of a cannabis plant. Although THC and THCa have similar names, researchers are learning that they function very differently in the human body.

CBD, or cannabidiol, is yet another compound that, while believed to be non-intoxicating, has been shown by a variety of medical studies to have a number of potential benefits for consumers, such as the treatment of insomnia, chronic pain, anxiety, appetite and digestion issues. As THCa comes into broader popular awareness, it’s useful to explore the chemical and biological differences between THC and THCa, and to compare THCa with CBD.

What is CBD?

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a non-psychoactive compound found within the cannabis sativa plant. In recent years, it’s become extremely popular with consumers—research indicates that it may positively impact conditions such as pain, acne, anxiety and depression. Studies indicate that CBD could even help people dealing with nausea caused by cancer treatment.

CBD interacts with the human endocannabinoid system, a natural, complex system that cells use to communicate with each other within the body. The system contributes to homeostasis, or the body’s innate process of self-regulation. The endocannabinoid system was discovered in the 1990s by researchers investigating THC.

Research is discovering that CBD, alongside the dozens of other cannabinoid compounds within the plant, can mimic, modulate, amplify or inhibit the function of endocannabinoids in the body. This natural approach, combined with the fact that CBD doesn’t get you high, has made the compound extremely popular with consumers who want to support their wellness, without the significant side effects of more mainstream medications or the intoxicating effects of THC.

CBD is produced using hemp plants, bred to avoid high concentrations of THCa, the precursor to THC. It’s widely available in oils and tinctures, capsules, topical creams and ointments and even vaporizers.

Because CBD is considered a dietary supplement, it is not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug administration; therefore, it’s important for consumers to practice due diligence when choosing a CBD product that is right for them. Consistent dosage, reliably safe handling and products made from pesticide-free plants are priorities for many consumers. Zen Garden Organics offers high-quality, broad-spectrum CBD tinctures, softgels, creams and salves, all made without pesticides.

Bioavailability and Broad-Spectrum CBD

ZGO softgels are made with CBD oil prepared in a proprietary manner to ensure that the oil is maximally “bioavailable”—easily used by the body when it’s consumed. The oil is prepared in a “nanoemulsion,” meaning that tiny particles of CBD oil are suspended in the carrier fluid. The particles in ZGO softgels are 25 nanometers in size, meaning the CBD can be more easily absorbed by the body. Competitors’ hemp oil particles range between 100 and 1,000 nanometers.

What is THC?

THC is the famous compound that is widely understood to produce a euphoric effect or “high” when you smoke or vaporize cannabis or ingest food prepared with cannabis.

It does this because the molecule has a particular shape that can bind with special receptors within the endocannabinoid system called CB1 receptors, which are present in our brains and central nervous systems as well as in organs like our livers and lungs.

THCa turns into THC through a process called thermal decarboxylation. This can occur through heating, such as burning or toasting the plant, and through sunlight. As freshly harvested cannabis buds are dried and cured, much of the THCa in the plant converts to THC. The process of making cannabis butter or an extract to form a concentrate also converts THCa to THC.

THCa is an inherently unstable compound, meaning it naturally transforms into THC over time.

What is THCa?

As the precursor to THC, THCa is important to measure when calculating the potential potency of the intoxicating effects of cannabis. THCa is a poor “agonist” for the CB1 receptors, meaning it does not effectively bind to these parts of the endocannabinoid system, and does not produce the characteristic “high” associated with THC.

There are a number of anecdotal reports about other potential benefits, including treatment of pain, muscle cramping and insomnia. THCa research is just beginning to explore the medical potential of the compound.

Comparing THCa with CBD

CBD and THCa are both generated within the cannabis plant from the same chemical precursor: cannabigerolic acid, or CBDa. Both compounds are significant for people who are interested in exploring the potential health benefits of cannabis without experiencing the intoxicating effect of THC, and both are often used to support wellness by treating similar issues such as pain, inflammation and insomnia.

Commercial products containing THCa are relatively rare compared to CBD products, which are more widely available.      As such, healthcare professionals can be less familiar with THCa as compared to CBD, and they may confuse THCa with the intoxicating THC.

It’s also important to be aware that, because THCa is somewhat unstable, it can turn into THC if allowed to decarboxylate. This means that you can accidentally fall afoul of laws that ban THC. If you’re taking a drug test, there’s a chance you could test positive for THC even though you’ve only ingested the non-intoxicating THCa.

The legal risks of THCa can pose a particular barrier to the most marginalized and criminalized members of our society, particularly Black and Indigenous people of color. Marginalized folks are some of the most likely to be subjected to drug testing and are also extremely likely to suffer from medical conditions exacerbated by poverty and stress, for which they might want to explore natural cannabis-based treatment.

That’s one reason why it’s important to support the full decriminalization of cannabis across the United States. Cannabis is so much more than a drug to use to get high—there are dozens of different cannabinoids, each with subtly different effects. Until cannabis is freed from the stigma and risk of criminalization, we will face barriers to a full understanding of the wide-ranging effects of this important plant.


By: Lior Shapiro