A Brief Guide to Understanding Cannabinoids and Commercial Cannabis Labels

What does the “A” in THCA mean, and how is it different from THC?

Byline: Cody Funderburk

As research of cannabis slowly but surely progresses, new compounds and elements within the cannabis plant are being explored for their recreational and medical value. Unfortunately, the science behind getting high can leave new users and the scientifically averse confused when it comes to cannabis labeling. “CBDA” and “THCA” are often labeled beside the more commonly known THC and CBD. So, what does the “A” stand for, and how can it help you as a consumer?

The “A” in THCA stands for “acid.” No, not the kind that will induce pseudo-profound understandings of the universe, but rather a literal acidic coating made of carbon and oxygen that prevents the THC molecule from being active in the body’s endogenous cannabinoid system. However, THCA is used for some medicinal purposes, and the benefits of consuming unheated cannabis are still being explored, but for recreational purposes the acidic coating renders the THC molecule useless. The human body cannot easily metabolize THCA, so it doesn’t affect endocannabinoid receptors in the same way as THC (it doesn’t get you high). In order for THCA to convert to THC it must be heated, or the acidic coating must break down over time. This process is known as decarboxylation, and it can easily be performed by cooking cannabis into food, or by smoking or vaporizing it. Similarly, CBDA is CBD (cannabidiol) coated by an acidic compound of carbon and oxygen. Because of the acidic coating, the CBD is inactive when consumed raw, so it must either be heated by smoking, vaporizing, or by decarboxylating. Therefore, if you’re planning on smoking or vaporizing flower or concentrate, the THCA and CBDA will be converted into THC and CBD upon being burned. If you’re planning on cooking with cannabis, refer to specific instructions for decarboxylating the material.

Decarboxylation

The THCA in cannabis begins to decarboxylate at approximately 220 degrees Fahrenheit after 30-45 minutes of exposure, although full decarboxylation may require more time to occur. Some choose to decarboxylate their cannabis at slightly lower temperatures for a longer period of time to retain the terpene content of the material. Many mono and sesquiterpenes, responsible for giving cannabis its pungent aroma, are highly volatile and will evaporate at higher temperatures, leaving potentially undesirable flavors and aromas behind. The integrity of both cannabinoids and terpenoids are compromised by using temperatures that exceed 300 degrees F, which is why temperatures in the 200’s are recommended.

The cannabinoid lifecycle

The most common cannabinoids, THC and CBD, originate as CBGA (Cannabigerolic acid), nicknamed the “stem cell” cannabinoid since it’s the predecessor to most other cannabinoids. Eventually, all cannabinoids degrade into CBN (cannabinol), which is the final stage of cannabinoids before they decompose entirely. The effects of CBN are particularly sedative, and can be lethargic. Cannabis that is aged properly can express higher levels of CBN, which is enticing to those seeking specific effects from cannabis, such as sleep or relaxation.

THC is the only known psychoactive cannabinoid. Although THCV (tetrahydrocannabivarin) may have some psychoactive properties, it has yet to be fully researched since THCV is not available in significant quantities in commercial recreational cannabis. Since THC is the only known psychoactive cannabinoid, ensuring that the body can metabolize and properly utilize the cannabinoid is vital to maximizing the potential of your edible or vape. Setting the vape temperature too low, or improperly decarboxylating cannabis before making edibles can the limit the effects of your batch. Similarly, those using CBD for medical purposes should be extra careful to ensure that all CBDA has been converted into CBD by either smoking or vaporizing the flower, or by decarboxylating it before consuming it as an edible.

Although the science of cannabis can be murky, and there’s much left to be explored, the bioavailability of THC and CBD is critical to consider when using cannabis medicinally, or even recreationally. Eventually, labelling of cannabis products will include cannabinoids other than THCA/THC and CBDA/CBD, which will help both recreational users and medical users select from products with a more distinct assortment of properties. In the meantime, understanding the lifecycle of cannabinoids and the process of decarboxylation, including how to decarboxylate flowers at home, allows the user to derive the full potential from their material and enjoy maximum benefits from the cannabis plant.

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