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THC-O, a Psychedelic Cannabinoid [Update & Warning]

Jim McDonald
December 14, 2022

Dec. 14, 2022 update
Since this article was first posted in April 2022, two studies have been published that raise alarms about vaping or smoking THC-O.

THC-O is created by chemically converting CBD into either delta 9 THC or delta 8 THC, and then converting those cannabinoids into their acetate ester form, which is called THC-O for short. The studies listed below show that when enough heat is applied to THC-O, thermal degradation can cause the formation of a dangerous lung toxicant called ketene.

The same thermal degradation process causes vitamin E acetate to generate ketene---a probable cause of the 2019 vaping lung injuries mistakenly called “EVALI” by the CDC. (Black market cannabis processors used vitamin E acetate to dilute THC oil in order to save money.)

The danger is not caused by cannabis itself, or vaping itself, but by the interaction of heat with the acetate form of various chemicals, including THC. In fact, any acetate ester subjected to heat could produce ketene.

It’s not certain if the amount of ketene produced by a vape cart is enough to create an immediate danger to the user, but it’s possible. It is also possible that lung damage could be caused by repeated small exposures.

Based on this research, we urge cannabis users to avoid vaping or smoking THC-O or any acetate form of any cannabinoid.

THC-O gummies and tinctures are not a risk. The danger created by heating THC-O is not present in edible forms. Since there are lots of non-inhaled options available, THC-O fans should seek those instead.

SOURCES
Benowitz, N.L., Havel, C., Jacob, P. et al. Vaping THC-O Acetate: Potential for Another EVALI Epidemic. J. Med. Toxicol. (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13181-022-00921-3

Kaelas R. Munger, Robert P. Jensen, and Robert M. Strongin. Chemical Research in Toxicology 2022 35 (7), 1202-1205 DOI: 10.1021/acs.chemrestox.2c00170

Following passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp cultivation, we’ve seen a wave of products made from the legal plant. Aside from non-intoxicating CBD, which is found organically in hemp plants and can be easily extracted, there is a growing list of cannabinoids that have been manufactured by subjecting CBD to various chemical processes.

THC-O is one of the latest of those cannabinoids. It follows in the commercial footsteps of delta 8 THC and other “new” cannabinoids. Some of these compounds occur naturally in cannabis plants in very small quantities; some don’t. But all of them have found a presence in the legal (or semi-legal) marketplace because manufacturers have discovered how to produce them in large quantities by processing them from legal hemp plants.

What is THC-O?

THC-O is the acetate ester form of THC, sometimes called THC acetate ester, or O-acetyl-Δ9-THC. It’s usually known as THC-O acetate (or ATHC or THC-Oa) among experts, but has been shortened by almost everyone to THC-O. Sometimes people drop the hyphen and call it THCO or THC O. However you decide to spell it, it’s pronounced “THC-oh”—that’s the letter O, not a zero.

Like delta 10 THC and the other hemp-derived cannabinoids on the market, THC-O is chemically almost identical to delta 9 THC, the intoxicating compound that dominates marijuana plants. And its effects are very similar to delta 9, but because it binds more tightly to the body’s cannabinoid receptors than the other THC forms, THC-O is more intoxicating than delta 8, delta 10 or HHC—and is even stronger than delta 9 THC (more on that below).

THC-O is available in all the usual cannabis styles: vapes, oils, edibles and flower. THC-O vape carts and disposable vapes are sold with either unflavored distillate or with added terpenes for flavor. THC-O is also mixed with edible oils like MCT to make tinctures for oral use. There are THC-O edibles available too, including gummies and chocolates. Finally there is “THC-O flower,” which is simply hemp flower infused with THC-O.

WARNING
For the reasons noted at the beginning of this article, we recommend NOT using any inhaled form of THC-O---including vape carts or smoked flower. The heat applied in creating vapor or smoke could cause formation of ketene, a dangerous lung toxicant.

thc-o vs thc molecule infographic

What are the effects of THC-O?

As with the other hemp-derived THC variations, the big question about this one is, does THC-O get you high? The answer is a resounding yes. In fact, THC-O is purported to be 2-3 times more powerful than the delta 9 THC found in marijuana.

Measuring the effects of THC-O versus delta 8 THC, delta 10 THC or HHC is subjective, of course. But by most accounts, THC-O gets you higher than delta 8—and is a much more intense experience than all other forms of THC.

Not only is THC-O stronger than other forms of THC, but the psychoactive effects are much different. Many users describe THC-O as producing an almost psychedelic high, with borderline hallucinogenic effects. Both drug experts and sellers advise new users to go very slowly when trying this powerful cannabinoid.

There’s another reason to go slow: the effects of THC-O are always delayed. It’s a so-called “prodrug,” which means that the THC-O you swallow or inhale isn’t pre-activated by heat like most THC (the process called decarboxylation). Instead, the effects of THC-O aren’t felt until it’s been fully processed through the body—just like THC edibles.

So, whether you’re eating THC-O gummies or vaping a THC-O cart, you won’t feel any effects for 20-60 minutes. Since it’s so strong, it’s important to use a small amount first, then wait and see how you react before ingesting more.

TRĒ House D8/HHC/THC-O Gummies

TRĒ House D8/HHC/THC-O Gummies

The D8/HHC/THCO TRĒ House gummies offer a balanced cannabinoid combination for an energetic high. Infused with a refreshing mango flavor, each gummy contains 20 mg of D8, 10 mg of HHC, 3 mg full-spectrum CBD, and 2 mg of THC-O. The gummies come in packs of 20 for a 700 mg total cannabinoid content.

Will THC-O show up in a drug test?

There is practically no research on how the body processes THC-O. But as the acetate ester form of THC, it seems almost certain that drug tests will pick up THC metabolites in the blood, urine, or hair of a THC-O user. There is no information on how long THC-O remains in the body, but it’s safe to assume that it can be detected for at least as long as delta 9 THC—possibly for weeks or months.

The same warning applies to THC-O as delta 8, delta 10, and HHC: if your employer tests for marijuana use, it’s best to avoid THC-O.

Is THC-O safe?

THC-O is created by chemically converting CBD into either delta 9 THC or delta 8 THC, and then converting those cannabinoids into their acetate ester form, which is called THC-O for short. The studies listed below show that when enough heat is applied to THC-O, thermal degradation can cause the formation of a dangerous lung toxicant called ketene.

The same thermal degradation process causes vitamin E acetate to generate ketene—a probable cause of the 2019 vaping lung injuries mistakenly called “EVALI” by the CDC. (Black market cannabis processors used vitamin E acetate to dilute THC oil in order to save money.)

The danger is not caused by cannabis itself, or vaping itself, but by the interaction of heat with the acetate form of various chemicals, including THC. In fact, any acetate ester subjected to heat could produce ketene.

It’s not certain if the amount of ketene produced by a vape cart is enough to create an immediate danger to the user, but it’s possible. It is also possible that lung damage could be caused by repeated small exposures.

Based on this research, we urge cannabis users to avoid vaping or smoking THC-O or any acetate form of any cannabinoid.

THC-O gummies and tinctures are not a risk. The danger created by heating THC-O is not present in edible forms. Since there are lots of non-inhaled options available, THC-O fans should seek those instead.

Producing THC-O is definitely dangerous. Acetic anhydride is flammable, and using it creates a risk of fire and explosion. As with butane hash oil (BHO), it can only be made in properly equipped labs by people very familiar with the process. And even with experienced processors, there remains the chance that traces of the chemicals used to create THC-O could remain in the final product.

In the 2018 Farm Bill, Congress legalized hemp and all of its compounds and derivatives, as long as they contain less than 0.3 percent delta 9 THC. In May 2022, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that delta 8 THC met the Farm Bill definition of a federally legal hemp product. Some attorneys warn that other federal courts may reach different conclusions, but as of now the decision offers some cover to hemp-derived cannabinoid manufacturers and sellers. The ruling apparently applies to other hemp-derived cannabinoids too, including THC-O.

However, some state legislatures have begun to restrict hemp-derived products by passing bans, or only allowing sales in state-controlled dispensaries.

In the case of delta 8—the first widely available intoxicating hemp-derived cannabinoid—a lot of states have stepped in to ban sales. That hasn’t happened yet with THC-O, but if it gains a large commercial foothold, states are likely to pass restrictions.

THC-O products are sold online by many of the same retailers that sell CBD (and delta 8, delta 10, HHC, and THCP). THC-O can also be found in convenience stores, head shops, gas stations, and some vape shops.

Smokers created vaping without help from the tobacco industry or anti-smoking crusaders, and I believe vapers have the right to continue innovating to help themselves. My goal is to provide clear, honest information about the challenges vaping faces from lawmakers, regulators, and brokers of disinformation. I’m a member of the CASAA board, but my opinions aren’t necessarily CASAA’s, and vice versa. You can find me on Twitter @whycherrywhy
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Most high
Most high
6 months ago

Being a long time cannabis smoker since a young age
Not willing to pay for medical marijuana card I acquired the THC o
And to tell you the truth it takes a little bit more to get the same effect of marijuana but it’s legal for me to buy and I love it

Jaime Carmody
Jaime Carmody
4 months ago
Reply to  Most high

Yes I agree .feels like I can blaze a huge Jay and need to smoke it to my head, compaired to my THC-O VAPE.2 TO 3 PUFFALUFFS AND YOU ARE HIGH.