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June 6, 20240

HHC vs. CBD: Two Sides of Commercial Hemp

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Hayley Heidelbaugh

As hemp-derived cannabis products evolve, it’s nice to take a step back and think about the basics.

To some, cannabidiol (CBD) and hexahydrocannabinol (HHC) may not feel like the freshest or most exciting cannabinoids on the market. They’re two of the most popular in their respective niches, with HHC falling just short of delta 8 THC among popular intoxicating hemp cannabinoids, and CBD dominating the non-intoxicating hemp market from day one.

CBD products won’t treat you the same as their HHC variants. The effects of your average CBD oil are wildly different from those of an HHC disposable vape, and mistaking one for the other could be problematic.

Here’s what to know if you’re on the fence between an HHC and a CBD vape.

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Is HHC the same as CBD?

These two substances are absolutely not alike. If anything, mixing up HHC and CBD gummies could put you in a tight spot. No one wants to consume a substance that they believe is non-intoxicating, only to wind up high thirty minutes later. It’s even more of a mess if you’re sensitive to psychotropic substances—HHC gummies and vapes definitely aren’t the mildest hemp derivatives.

It isn’t unheard of for products to contain a blend of HHC and CBD. You may get a few bonus cannabinoids sprinkled into the mix, as well. Always check a product’s certificate of analysis (COA) to understand exactly what you’re consuming. Don’t base your decision on marketing alone.

While HHC and CBD are mostly not alike, they do share a few attributes. We’ll get to those soon.

What is HHC?

Hydrogenating THC—or, adding a few additional hydrogen atoms—gets you HHC. Delta 9 THC and HHC are structurally similar analogs (not isomers) with significant psychotropic effects. Delta 9 THC is just a bit stronger. HHC carts still aren’t anything to scoff at, especially as far as hemp is concerned.

Everyone’s body processes cannabinoids differently, but in general, users report that HHC sits between delta 8 THC and delta 9 THC in terms of potency. Hemp-derived delta 8 is around half as strong as delta 9, the primary active cannabinoid in marijuana.

Cannabis users living in areas without legal marijuana may be drawn to HHC (rather than the more common delta 8 THC) for its greater potency. HHC products aren’t too difficult to find anymore, with a number of reputable sellers offering the cannabinoid.

Consumers aren’t the only ones benefiting here. Hydrogenation seems to make THC more chemically stable, boosting the shelf life of products—an advantage for retailers.

Deterioration is a major concern for hemp brands and users alike. THC breaks down and converts into CBN with prolonged exposure to heat or UV rays, leading to a gradual loss of potency over time. Just don’t take this as a suggestion to store your HHC under a sunny window or in a humid bathroom. No cannabinoid is invincible.

What is CBD?

CBD is the primary active cannabinoid in hemp. One strain may test higher than the next, but if your cannabis contains just trace amounts of it, it’s probably marijuana, not hemp—especially if the bud is delta 9 THC-rich.

The word “active” is key here. Young hemp flower is packed mainly with CBDA, CBD’s biosynthetic precursor. CBDA is stripped of its carboxylic acid group as it ages or faces heat and sunlight—and if given enough time, even oxygen can do the trick. This process, which activates the cannabinoids in the flower, is known as decarboxylation.

CBD distillate played a key role in the federal legalization of hemp. Interest in its effects spiked around the late 2010s, and with the 2018 Farm Bill’s passage, consumers could legally access it for the first time in U.S. history. Before the updated bill came along, there was no legal distinction between high-CBD hemp bud and THC-dominant marijuana.

Unlike THC, CBD won’t get you high, no matter how much of it you consume. It isn’t chemically built that way. Instead, CBD’s fame is all thanks to its host of potential therapeutic effects.

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What do HHC and CBD have in common?

HHC doesn’t exist in a separate world from CBD. Overlay between HHC and CBD carts is there if you know where to look, despite their many differences.

Legality

Well, they technically have legality in common. Under the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp-derived CBD and HHC are federally legal to distribute and possess in the United States. Products are just required to contain under the 0.3% delta 9 THC threshold. If we leave it at that, their U.S. legality is perfectly matched. In practice, however, legality is more complicated.

As with marijuana, U.S. states have the final say in which hemp products can be legally sold within their borders. HHC, delta 8 THC, and other intoxicating hemp derivatives have received far greater pushback than CBD. Some states have banned HHC and other intoxicating hemp-derived cannabinoids, or restricted them to sale through state-regulated dispensaries.

It’s unclear how strictly these restrictions are being enforced in every state, but many online hemp sellers are unwilling to ship products to less hemp-friendly areas. Play it safe and stay away from HHC (or CBD) if it’s not permitted where you live, in the U.S. or elsewhere.

Natural origins

CBD and HHC are both phytocannabinoids, meaning they’re found naturally in cannabis flower. However, while CBD is abundant in hemp, HHC is only found in tiny amounts. To produce enough for commercial use, it is converted from CBD in the lab, as we’ll explain later.

For reference, it’s not a given that commercial cannabinoids are natural to hemp. You might have noticed the dramatic rise and fall of THC-O, a cannabinoid now deemed a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States because the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says it is not found naturally in hemp.

Therapeutic potential

We’re focusing on the existence of research here, not its quantity. That's coming later.

HHC and CBD have both shown therapeutic potential. However, researchers have a much firmer grasp on what CBD is capable of, while studies into HHC’s benefits are limited.

CBD’s potential benefits include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Anti-inflammation
  • Seizure disorders
  • Pain relief
  • Neuroprotection
  • Acne reduction
  • Better-quality sleep
  • Nausea relief

CBD might even help manage certain mental health conditions, including anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (in conjunction with medication and therapy).

So far, one of the most impressive applications of CBD’s benefits is in treating epilepsy. A CBD-derived medication, Epidiolex, is used to treat drug-resistant seizures in those with Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndromes.

Preclinical studies on HHC’s benefits also look promising. It may share pharmacological properties with THC, a substance that’s also poorly researched. One study suggests that HHC may be viable as an antitumor treatment. However, more research is needed to draw a conclusion there.

What’s the difference between HHC and CBD?

They’re both cannabinoids, but HHC isn’t a form of CBD. Their effects, natural abundance, and composition are distinct.

Effects

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: HHC will get you high, while CBD won’t. HHC has a notable affinity for CB1 cannabinoid receptors, falling just short of delta 9 THC in its ability to effectively bind with these receptors. Binding with CB1s is what triggers a rapid influx of dopamine—which is what causes a user to get high.

Users with a high tolerance may not get more than a light buzz out of HHC products, but that doesn’t mean they’re not psychotropic. They definitely are.

With CBD, well, not so much. Actually, not only is CBD non-intoxicating, it’s a known CB1 antagonist. It won’t bind to these receptors, and also actually blocks psychotropic cannabinoids like delta 9 or HHC from latching on as effectively. Consuming CBD alongside THC can even reduce the intensity of your high.

Side effects also differ between the two. There’s some overlap, but psychotropic cannabinoids tend to be the riskier bet. HHC can cause anxiety, paranoia, or even hallucinations in certain users. Extreme psychological reactions aren’t a concern when using CBD, CBC, or other non-psychoactive cannabinoids.

Chemical composition

Compositionally, HHC and CBD look very different.

CBD and the delta variants of THC are isomers. Their recreational effects may have little in common, but on a chemical level, there's no hiding the relationship. All the same atomic building blocks are present, leading to a shared chemical formula (C21H30O2) and molecular mass (314.45 g/mol).

Then there’s HHC. It’s not an isomer of either CBD or THC, and comes with a unique formula: C21H32O2. Those additional hydrogen atoms make all the difference. Extra bulk also means that the HHC molecule is heavier (316.485 g/mol).

Extraction

There’s no shortage of CBD in hemp. It’s the most abundant active cannabinoid, making extraction relatively straightforward. Extractors have a whole catalog of techniques to choose from. They can use CO2, butane or propane, or even steam to draw it out of the plant.

Despite HHC’s natural origins, it’s only found in tiny amounts in hemp plants and can’t be extracted directly in quantities large enough to use. Producing it semi-synthetically is the only cost-effective way to manufacture products. First, hemp-derived CBD is distilled and isomerized. One double bond movement turns CBD into delta 8 THC, which can then be hydrogenated and converted into HHC.

Dried and cured hemp is tricky for the same reason. No amount of breeding will produce high-HHC cannabis, so whenever you come across “HHC flower,” what you’re actually getting is hemp sprayed with HHC distillate. It’s still rich in CBD, but with a special HHC bonus.

Research volume

It might come as a surprise, but CBD and HHC were identified around the same time—in 1940 and 1944, respectively.

They’ve both been on the scientific radar for a long time. Awareness doesn’t equate to research, however, and HHC research was practically nonexistent for decades. It wasn’t until the 2018 Farm Bill’s passage the interest in HHC skyrocketed, prompting researchers to take a closer look. But, even now, HHC studies are few and far between.

Metabolization

Cannabinoids don’t pass through your system unchanged. As the body processes these substances, their original forms are converted by the liver into a range of metabolites.

While CBD converts first into 7-OH-CBD and then 7-COOH-CBD, HHC becomes 9R-HHC-COOH, followed by 11-OH-9R-HHC.

At least, those are the major metabolites, according to research published in April 2024. The 9S-HHC stereoisomer of HHC actually converts into 9S-HHC-COOH and 11-OH-9S-HHC. Commercial HHC products feature a mix of both 9R-HHC and 9S-HHC.

Urine tests are designed to detect THC-COOH (THC’s secondary metabolite), but that doesn’t mean HHC will necessarily save you from a positive drug test. We’re just not sure.

On the flip side, CBD’s metabolites alone won’t cause you to fail. You just need to stay away from broad- or full-spectrum extracts containing trace THC. To play it extra safe, avoid all cannabis before a drug test.

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CBD vs. HHC: FAQs

Is HHC stronger than CBD?

It depends on what you mean by “stronger.” If the only goal is to get high, then absolutely, HHC is the stronger option. CBD isn’t psychotropic at all.

Just remember that strength doesn't need to boil down to how intoxicating a cannabinoid is (or isn’t). These substances can do far more in the body than get the user high, making it a challenge to compare their overall potency.

It may be non-intoxicating, but CBD is a potent psychoactive cannabinoid—assuming we’re using the technical definition of “psychoactive,” not the colloquial one. Any substance that alters your brain chemistry is technically psychoactive.

Is CBD healthier than HHC?

This is a tricky one. Again, it depends on exactly what you’re asking.

Neither CBD nor HHC are nutrients, and neither must be consumed to keep your body up and running. From what we can tell, however, it seems that CBD has more therapeutic uses than HHC—but it’s also far more researched. There’s a very real chance that HHC has medicinal properties that we aren’t yet aware of.

HHC is also more likely than CBD to come with serious side effects, especially psychological reactions like anxiety or paranoia. There’s no evidence that CBD causes those sorts of responses.

We could even call CBD “healthier” in that it’s easier to find reputable, third-party safety-tested products. Knock-off or contaminated products are absolutely out there, but so are plenty of high-quality options.

Many HHC products you’ll find online are untested and could contain harmful additives or contaminants. Shop carefully and always review COAs before placing an order.

Which is better: CBD or HHC?

Let’s end it on the big question, and easily the most subjective. It isn’t exactly fair to call CBD “better” than HHC, or vice versa. These are distinct cannabinoids that users take for very different reasons.

You’ll first need to consider the kinds of effects you're after, which may vary from one session to the next. There’s nothing wrong with using whichever cannabinoid suits your needs at that moment.

CBD reigns supreme if you want to soothe the mind and body or even target everyday aches and pains. HHC is an option if you want moderate psychotropic effects.

No matter your cannabinoid of choice, stick to trusted, third-party tested sellers and begin with a small dose. It’s the best way to find your sweet spot.

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Hayley Heidelbaugh

Vaping since: 3 years

Favorite products:

Favorite flavors: White Wedding, Northern Lights, Platinum Valley, OG Kush

Expertise in: Oil carts, cannabis concentrates, cannabis flower

Hayley Heidelbaugh

I'm a Pennsylvania-based cannabis enthusiast and writer. As a part of the Vaping360 team, I'm eager to help cannabis consumers explore vaping and get the most out of their experience. You can also find me @faeberrystudios on Instagram.

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