Types of THC Natural and SynthesizedTetrahydrocannabinol comes in many forms naturally, and thanks to modern chemistry, many more can be created.
Tetrahydrocannabinol is the most sought-after cannabinoid in the cannabis market today. Responsible for the euphoric effects of the herb, this phytocannabinoid is highly controversial and often misunderstood.
However, the THC potency chase is the bane of any cannabis connoisseur. Most in the industry know and understand that THC isn’t the end-all-be-all for 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-driven market, demand speaks volumes. With the entrance of unregulated hemp cannabinoid production, chemists and producers are finding new and novel ways to profit from novice buyers.
Types of THC
There are many different types of THC cannabinoids and products found on the market today, including:
- THCa – this is the inactivated or “raw” form of THC.
- Delta-9 THC – the most common THC- creates the euphoric feeling marijuana is known for
- THCv – Tetrahydrocannabivarin is a by-product of THCa degradation. Learn more here.
- Delta-8 – produced in minuscule amounts naturally
- Delta-10 – only found in trace amounts in the natural plant
- THCP – a relatively new discovery in 2019, not much is known about this novel cannabinoid
Many THC analogs, such as Delta-8, Delta-10, and THCP, are only produced in trace amounts in the natural world. As such, they cannot be extracted for commercial use like other cannabinoids. So, these minor THC analogs are being synthesized in a lab – and we’ll get to those in later in this article.
The process of extracting THC and other cannabinoids from the plant varies depending on volume and the intended final product. Humans have been making oil infusions and alcohol-based cannabis tinctures for centuries. Hash and rosin have also been common throughout time for small-batch cannabis. It certainly doesn’t take rocket science to extract cannabinoids from cannabis.
But when you’re processing tons of hemp or cannabis in a for-profit, commercial industry, the process becomes more complex, requiring solvents, industrial-scale equipment, and advanced laboratories. By extracting and isolating cannabinoids, chemists have a limitless palette from which to work.
Here are a few articles we’ve done about extraction processes and methods:
- 3 Popular Cannabis Extraction Methods
- CO2 and Ethanol Extraction
- Solventless Cannabis Extraction
- 3 Cannabis Extraction Methods You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Using molecular distillation, THC can be isolated in pure oil with potencies reaching 98% and above. Because the terpenes and other compounds have been stripped, distillate is commonly used in edible production due to its lack of taste and smell.
The multi-step process is a complex laboratory procedure that must be done by trained professionals. Based on information from Precision Extraction’s website, distilling THC is done through the following steps:
- Extraction – the initial separation of trichomes, or resin glands, from the plant matter, using solvents such as butane, propane, or ethanol.
- Winterization & Filtration – an ethanol-based process that uses below-freezing temperatures to remove unwanted compounds such as fats, chlorophyll, and waxes left behind during the first extraction. A filter press separates the materials, pushing the desirable materials through filter plates.
- Decarbing – applying heat under a vacuum activates the THCa to THC and releases CO2, residual solvents, and other volatiles.
- Distillation – the material is heated to specific boiling temperatures to convert them into a vapor, then they pass through a chilled condenser to convert back to a liquid.
The benefits of THC distillate are dosing consistency and the ability to formulate products. Most edibles today use distillate to help disguise the “weed flavor” their consumer surveys opposed. Vape cartridge flavors and specific cannabinoid formulations are also typically made with THC distillate. THC distillate may also be sprayed on flower to make infused pre-rolls.
Arguments against distillation revolve around the high amount of processing it requires, which strips away essential compounds. Like high-fructose corn syrup is to corn, distilling THC removes everything wholesome or organic about cannabis.
Synthetic THC Analogs
When the Hemp Bill passed in 2018, the market was flooded with farmers looking to cash in the new cash crop. Record numbers of fields were planted with CBD hemp, and few farmers had buyers when harvest time came around. The CBD market flooded, and the bottom fell out of CBD prices.
To recoup their losses, hemp producers turned to chemists and started producing THC analogs. Using the Farm Bill’s own language to skirt under the radar, producers targeted their marketing efforts on states where legal cannabis wasn’t available. Advertising their products as “marijuana lite,” claiming a “high without the mental side effects,” and even making medical claims on untested, unregulated products. Some products even claim they won’t trip a urinalysis.
Here are a few lab-made cannabinoids commonly found on the market.
Delta-8 and Delta-10
Research shows that many analogs of THC, such as Delta-8 and Delta-10, may have a wide range of benefits and may produce a different than traditional THC. But just as many question the efficacy of Marinol, as a synthetic form of marijuana, is it the same when it is produced in a lab versus extracted directly from the plant?
One of the biggest false claims about Delta-8 revolves around its origin. Many Delta-8 websites claim their Delta-8 products are extracted, all-natural, or hemp-derived. All Delta-8 products today are manufactured by chemists, using chemicals to convert cannabinoids; they are not extracted from plant material.
ProVerde’s CEO, Dr. Chris Hudalla, did the math, and it would cost around $500 million to extract a gram of natural, plant-derived Delta-8. It simply isn’t economically feasible to extract Delta-8.
So, is Delta-8 synthetic? The answer is it depends. As it is in the plant, it is a natural substance. But is manufactured Delta-8 natural? Read the process as summarized by c&en,
“The conversion of CBD to delta-8-THC involves refluxing CBD in an organic solvent, such as toluene or heptane, with p-toluenesulfonic acid or another acid that serves as a catalyst. The reaction is typically run for 60–90 min.”
In the same article, Michael Coffin, a Delta-8 producer, says it’s not the cannabinoid that should be in question but rather the production processes, stating, “a lot of people are doing a poor job of cleaning up their reaction products, which results in “quite a soup” of by-products and other unwanted compounds.”
Kyle Boyar, from the University of California San Diego’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, also stated, “A lot of irresponsible production is going on in the sense that most of these people are getting their information from online forums, and many of them aren’t necessarily trained chemists.”
Cannabis Tech spoke with Honest Marijuana back in 2020 regarding THC-O acetate. However, THC acetates are anything but new. The military experimented with THC acetate in the thirties to use it to incapacitate their enemies.
This cannabinoid is made using acetic anhydride to convert the molecule, and then the catalysts and chemicals are removed through a process of distillation. Again, without regulation and oversight, it is a buyer-beware market, as it is with Delta-8 production. Without the proper steps, consumers may be consuming more than they know.
Unlike Delta-8 and Delta-10, THC-O is not found in nature. It can only be produced in a lab.
HHC, or Hexahydrocannabinol
Like THC-O, HHC does not occur naturally, and this is the rabbit hole of skirting regulation to make a profit. Because states are taking steps to ban products like Delta-8 and Delta-10, chemists simply come up with a new lab-made cannabinoid that isn’t written into the legal verbiage.
In an article on Leafly, one producer admits, “HHC is one of our fastest growing products… due to regulations that have banned Delta-8.”
So what is HHC? While it is molecularly similar to THC, it also contains a hydrogen molecule that THC doesn’t. Most consider the effects lighter than Delta-9 THC, and some say it’s even lighter than Delta-8.
To create HHC, producers use chemical reactors to add a hydrogen atom to THC. As production scales, so does the risk of explosion. HHC is often touted as the cannabinoid that doesn’t show up on a drug test, but there’s no evidence to support that claim.
Changes Likely Coming
While there are multiple types of THC, it’s important to remember that Delta-9 THC has had decades of research and human consumption. Large doses of THC analogs, especially those discovered in recent years, have no data regarding long-term use or potential hazards. When buying and consuming these products, consumers should proceed with caution.
With new regulations expected from the FDA soon on hemp-derived CBD and the production of consumable products, one can only speculate on the future of many of the products available on the market today. At a minimum, producers should expect standardized testing and analysis to verify the safety of the products they are selling, whether they are naturally extracted, or lab produced.