In recent months, a synthetic compound derived from hemp called THC-O acetate—often referred to simply as THC-O (pronounced “THC oh”)—has quickly gained popularity among Americans who don’t have access to legal cannabis.
THC-O’s appeal lies in its potency and its legal status. Research has found that it’s roughly three times stronger than conventional THC. It has been called “the psychedelic cannabinoid” for its borderline hallucinatory effects. Because it’s derived from federally legal hemp, THC-O products are becoming increasingly popular in the states where consumers don’t have access to legal, state-licensed delta-9 THC products.
While THC-O products like vape carts and tinctures are available for purchase online, both their legal status and their safety remain unproven.
Read on to learn more about the history of THC-O acetate, its potential benefits, and the risks you should be aware of before trying it yourself.
What is THC-O?
Although many of us only recently heard about THC-O, the US military began studying its effects as long ago as the 1940s; they observed it eroded dogs’ muscle coordination twice as much as conventional delta-9 THC. Typically, acetic anhydride is added to delta-8 THC to produce delta-O acetate.
THC-O didn’t appear on the DEA’s radar until nearly 30 years later. In 1978, DEA agents discovered a clandestine lab in Jacksonville, Florida, had combined a cannabis extract with acetic anhydride. But over the following 10 years, THC-O did not enter the illicit market. Since it didn’t seem to be a growing problem, the federal drug agency declined further investigation into the unusual compound.
Today the production of THC-O acetate is raising concern among some in the state-licensed cannabis industry. To generate the molecule, a highly-flammable compound called acetic anhydride is added to THC molecules. The process involves a series of extractions that begin with hemp, the low-THC cannabis plant that was made federally legal by Congress in the 2018 farm bill. First, CBD is extracted from raw hemp. Then delta-8 THC is extracted from the CBD. Finally, acetic anhydride is added to the delta-8 THC molecules to make THC-O acetate.
Experts say this process should only be done under controlled laboratory conditions, due to the health risks involved.
Is THC-O safe to consume?
A lack of research and a profound lack of regulation based on actual data means that mysteries about THC-O acetate are prevalent.
James Stephens is a cannabis researcher and chemist. He’s investigated the effects of THC-O as part of his work for Iron Light, a cannabis product and brand consultancy based in Missoula, Montana. Stephens cautions that there are wide variations in product quality right now, early in the compound’s commercial emergence.
“If you’re using low-quality extract material and low-quality reagents you bought online from Alibaba or whatever, you’re likely to get way less pure of a product than if you’re using clean [and pharmaceutical-grade] reagents and do a lot of downstream purification steps,” Stephens told Leafly.
Consumers don’t call THC-O the “spiritual cannabinoid” for nothing. Since the human body can absorb THC-O acetate at higher levels than conventional THC—in other words, it has a higher bioavailability—it delivers a more potent experience.
Anecdotally, Leafly reports that THC-O induces similar effects to a small dose of a psychedelic drug like LSD: It makes the consumer feel euphoric and drastically increases sensory perception.
It’s potent, so go slow
Stephens is likewise worried that adverse reactions to THC-O acetate could have larger repercussions for the legalization movement writ large. “My biggest fear,” he said, “is it just takes that first overdose to cause the equivalent of a satanic panic or whatever you want to call it.”
Is THC-O actually legal?
Well, it depends who you ask.
Producers of THC-O acetate products say they’re protected under the farm bill passed by Congress in 2018, because the molecule was derived from a chain of custody that began with federally legal hemp plants. But even they seem unsure. As Binoid, a top seller of the compound, as well as other derivatives like delta 10-THC and HHC, admits on the company’s own website, “That’s actually hard to say.”
As for their competitor Bearly Legal Hemp Company, their name says it all.
Some experts, however, believe the compound is not legal. They cite the 1986 Federal Analogue Act, which states that any substance analogous to a Schedule I drug—in this case, conventional THC—would itself qualify as a Schedule I drug.
But that argument could be similarly used to argue against the legality of delta-8 THC, or perhaps even CBD. It all depends on where the line between “analogous” and “non-analogous” is drawn.
Will THC-O show up on a drug test?
Yes, THC-O acetate will probably show up on a drug test. binoid, a company that sells THC-O products, points out that it may be even easier to detect because of its potency.
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