THCa vs THC - What is the difference?

Written by: Alec Tremaine



Time to read 11 min

If you are a cannabis enthusiast or a hobbyist, you have likely heard of THC, but you may be less familiar with THCa. This is the raw acid compound of THC and offers different health benefits. Here, we explore the differences between THC and THCa and explain how you can read product labels to find what works for your needs.

What is THC?

THC stands for delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol. It is the main psychoactive compound found in marijuana and other cannabinoid products. THC is also responsible for helping manage nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients, and it stimulates the appetite.*

THC is only one of over 100 cannabinoids on the cannabis plant, but it is the main one responsible for producing a high. When we smoke THC or ingest gummies or other products with THC, the compound attaches to the brain’s endocannabinoid receptors which control thinking, memory, pleasure, coordination, and movement.*

What is THCa?

THCa is an abbreviated term for tetrahydrocannabinolic acid. Although THCa is eventually synthesized into THC by heating it or cooking it, THCa itself is not psychoactive. If you’re consuming products with THCa that hasn’t been decarboxylated, it won’t bind with your brain’s CB1 and CB2 endocannabinoid receptors.

Decarboxylation refers to a chemical reaction that removes a carboxyl group from THCa and turns it into THC. We achieve this chemical reaction by heating THCa when smoking, vaping, or cooking raw cannabis.

THCa has been shown to have  anti-inflammatory properties .* Medical researchers are also studying how THCa can potentially protect brain cells and slow disease progression in patients with  Alzheimer’s disease .*

THCA and THC Molecular Structure and differences

Key Differences Between THC and THCa

The main difference between THC and THCa is the fact that one produces a high, while the other doesn’t. Here are some other key differences:

  • THCa is found in raw cannabis and can be consumed by eating freshly harvested plant.

  • THC is classified as a controlled substance, while THCa is currently legal in most locations.

Because THCa converts to THC, its legality is somewhat of a gray area. In most states, you can buy THCa products online if they come from help with 0.3% THC or less. Be aware when buying these products online, as this industry is still widely unregulated. If you’re not buying from a reputable dispensary, you run the risk of buying contaminated products or products with higher potency than you wanted.

In states with tighter cannabis regulations, you may have a harder time finding products with THCa even though they are not psychoactive.

Difference Between THCA and THC, uses and structure

How to Convert THCa into THC

Live cannabis plants don’t produce THC, they only produce THCa. If you leave a plant in a hot room or expose it to sunlight over time, it could naturally decarboxylate. But it won’t produce a high unless we decarb the plant.

When we heat THCa, it loses one of its carboxyl groups, which changes the chemical structure and makes THC. Different strains and products contain various levels of THCa, so heating a plant or a product with THCa won’t automatically produce a high-THC level.

You can start by checking the label to see how much THCa is in your plant. Say you have a plant with 10% THCa. Multiply the percentage by 10 to convert it to milligrams. For example, our 10% THCa product would have 100 mg of THCa per gram.

Use the decarb conversion factor of 0.877 to determine how much THC you will get by decarbing your plant. Our plant would have 87.7 mg of THC per gram.

Knowing how much THCa is in your plants allows you to make informed decisions about what to buy. You might be interested in a product that helps you with nausea and helps you sleep without wanting to experience a high. In this case, you could look for a product with less potency.

How to Consume THC vs. THCa

We can introduce THC and THCa into the bloodstream in multiple ways.

1. Smoking or Vaping

Most people consume THC by smoking or vaping it. This is one of the quickest ways to deliver THC into the blood stream, although it can be harsh for people who have respiratory issues. It’s also hard on the lungs if you do it a lot.

You can smoke THCa, but as soon as you heat it, you put start the decarb process. If you’re not interested in getting high, smoking might not be for you.

2. Edibles

If you’re not into smoking, you can take THC and THCa through edibles such as baked goods, gummies, and tinctures. Since edibles have to be digested before entering your bloodstream, it takes longer to feel their effects. For more information on THC gummies, read our review on the Best THC Gummies.

You might be tempted to pop more if you don’t feel anything right away, but the effects usually take about 30 minutes and can last longer. Resist the urge to up your dosage until you know how your THC and THCa products will impact you. Also, remember that if you heat up gummies or edibles, your THCa will turn into THC.

3. Topical and Sublingual Products

Topical products in the form of balm, lotion, or cream are popular for localized THCa. Because THCa has anti-inflammatory properties, you might use this to treat muscle aches and pains at the source.

Sublinguals are oil-based products you place in your mouth under your tongue. Because you don’t risk heating your THCa using this method of ingestion, it’s great for people who want the benefits of THCa without the high.

Potential Health Benefits of THC

Although cannabis was classified as a Schedule I drug in the 1970s, medical professionals have been studying its potential health benefits for years. In the 19 th century, Dr. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy  published research showing how it could help relax muscles and work as an anticonvulsant.*

In the 1990s, more medical researchers started researching how THC and other cannabidiols could help manage symptoms in cancer patients and others with chronic illnesses. To date, the FDA has approved lab-created THC products to treat multiple symptoms.

Controls Vomiting

People undergoing chemotherapy often have trouble keeping food down. Doctors have noted that  medical marijuana helps control nausea and prevent vomiting in these patients and have approved two forms of THC for this purpose.*

Relieves Pain

Research has shown that THC can help  relieve pain in patients with cancer, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.* THC activates brain and nerve receptors that regulate pain. Most research shows that pain relief from THC is moderate, but it can help people with chronic pain manage it.*

Reduces Muscle Spasms

The brain and nerve receptors impacted by THC also regulate muscle movement. For this reason, THC can help relieve muscle soreness and  reduce muscle spasms .* In the past 20 years, medical researchers have started  testing THC and its use in treating muscle spasms for multiple conditions, including multiple sclerosis.

Reduces Anxiety

In small doses, THC has been  shown to decrease anxiety .* With more states decriminalizing marijuana for medical and recreational purposes, it is more widely available to people with mental disorders such as social anxiety. This widespread use has allowed scientists to evaluate how effectively THC works on people with these disorders.

After observing multiple patients, scientists have noted that THC doses of  7.5 mg or lower help to  reduce anxiety by modulating stress and reward reactions in the brain and the nervous system.* At higher doses, THC can actually increase anxiety and stress.

Health Benefits of THCa

When it comes to THCa vs. THC, both offer potential health benefits for different reasons. As we have discussed, THC offers benefits by impacting nerve and brain receptors. Since THCa molecules can't bind with these receptors, you would think they don’t offer health benefits, but research shows that THCa can be as beneficial as THC.

Protect the Brain From Neurodegeneration

Scientists studying how THCa works in patients with  Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases have discovered that it can help protect the brain from degeneration.* In one study, scientists found that patients with dementia had higher concentrations of calcium in their nerve cells, which contributed to degeneration. In these patients, THCa inhibited calcium buildup which helped protect their brains from further deterioration.

Although research hasn’t shown that THCa can prevent neurodegenerative diseases, it could potentially help slow their progression.*

Relieves Inflammation

THCa’s anti-inflammatory properties also help people with a  variety of conditions including asthma and atopic dermatitis. Inflammation is a natural part of your body’s immune response, but chronic inflammation can impact your health.  Chronic inflammation has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other conditions.

THCa vs. THC: Which is Stronger?

Because THCa doesn’t have psychoactive properties, you may not consider it to be strong. However, heating up THCa and decarbing it converts it into THC, which varies in strength depending on its concentration level.

If you have a cannabis plant or products with higher levels of THCa and you decarb them, they could potentially become more potent than other THC products you are currently using. We usually find higher levels of THCa in freshly harvested plants.

We also see higher levels of THCa in certain cannabis strains. If you’re looking for more potent products, make sure you check your label for THCa concentration and calculate the THC levels using the formula we discussed above.

Potential Side Effects of THC

For all the health benefits, THC does come with the risk of potential side effects. Although rare, the most common are:

  • Coughing fits

  • Anxiety

  • Paranoia

Some people also experience hallucinations or pass out. You can reduce your risk of adverse side effects by sticking with smaller doses or using THCa or other non-psychoactive cannabinoids.

One study showed that people who are more sensitive to anxiety are more likely to experience negative side effects. Additionally, people who are more agreeable in nature are also more likely to experience these side effects.

How to Manage Side Effects of THC

You can reduce your risk of negative side effects by researching products before you buy them. Check out the labels to see the THC content and choose products with lower levels, particularly if you’re not used to it and you don’t know how it will impact you.

We like to label products as high potency to help our customers make an informed decisions and purchase the right products for them.

Consider using a product that has CBD along with THC or THCa. Researchers have shown that CBD helps reduce adverse effects associated with THC. CBD can also make THC and THCa more effective at managing pain and controlling nausea.*

Potential Side Effects of THCa

THCa side effects haven’t been studied as widely as those of THC. As with any natural substance, you could have an allergy, so start small if you’ve never used anything with THCa in it before. Since THCa is the precursor to THC, you risk failing a drug test if you’re using these products even though they don’t produce a high.

Because THCa converts to THC by heating, you could experience the adverse effects associated with THC if you smoke or vape a product with THCa. If you’re not interested in getting high, stick with tinctures or specially formulated edibles that haven’t been decarbed.

How to Choose the Right THC vs. THCa Product

Before you start looking through THCa and THC products, decide what you want to get out of them. Be aware that anything with THC will likely produce a high, and you could accidentally decarb your THCa if you’re not careful.

First, check out the strain. THCa flowers come in a lot of different varieties. Each has a separate potency level, and they might have different flavor profiles. Read up on each strain to see which one would work best for you.

Next, look at the THCa content in your product. Like THC, it’s best to start at a lower dose when you’re trying THCa. Look for flowers that are “THCa dominant” meaning they have a higher level of THCa than THC.

Look at the terpene profile. Terpenes are compounds that impact the smell and flavor profile of cannabis, and they can help THC and THCa function better.  Adding terpenes to THC can help you feel more relaxed while adding it to THCa can help boost its pain relieving properties.*

Compare and contrast quality or stick with a vendor known to produce high-quality products. Finally, decide how you want to take it. If you’re not interested in the psychoactive properties of THC, consider a THCa flower or tincture you don’t have to heat or inhale. Make sure you store it in a cool, dry location, as sun exposure and high room temperatures can cause THCa to decarb.

The Difference Between THCa and Other Forms of THC

THCa and THC are not the only variations on the chemical structure of THCa. While researching products, you might see THCV, THCP, and others. THCV is a byproduct of the decarboxylation process, and it’s more common in sativa plants.

THCV only binds with CB1 receptors, and it doesn’t produce a high in small doses. THCV suppresses the appetite and helps boost energy.* Medical researchers are  studying its potential to help people with Type 2 Diabetes manage blood sugar.*

THCP is short for tetrahydrocannabiphorol and it’s  more potent than THC . Since scientists didn’t discover THCP until 2019, it’s not classified as a controlled substance yet, but it is still an analog of THC and could be regulated by the  Federal Analogue Act . If you’re interested in THCa for its health benefits and are inexperienced with THC products, steer clear of THCP.

Additionally, research regulations in your state before you pick up any products with THCP.

Final Thoughts: What is THCa vs. THC?

Medical professionals have been treating various ailments with cannabis and medical marijuana for centuries. As research has evolved in the past few decades, we have begun learning more about cannabis strains and their potential health benefits.

Cannabis enthusiasts have long been aware of THC and its psychoactive properties. It works by binding with receptors in your brain and changing how your body regulates mood, pain, and motor functions.

THCa is the precursor to THC. It is a substance that occurs naturally in cannabis plants. In its original form, THCa does not bind with CB1 and CB2 receptors in the brain. Structurally, THCa doesn’t fit these receptors and can’t bind with them. However, THCa on its own has potential health benefits. It reduces inflammation and can help protect your brain from neurodegeneration. THCa can also control muscle spasms.

THC offers other potential health benefits. It has been shown to control nausea and vomiting in cancer patients. In low doses, it can help reduce anxiety and even help us sleep better. If you’re interested in using THCa because you don’t want to experience a high, be careful not to accidentally decarb your THCa. Once you heat it, THCa turns into THC and has the potential to produce a high.

For best results for your needs, choose a trusted brand for your THC and THCa products. Slumber offers THC tinctures and THC gummies that can help you sleep better or relax for the afternoon. Our products are formulated to help you sleep better and improve your health and wellness.  Find out how we can help you.

Ethan Carr headshot slumber

Ethan Carr

Director of Operations, Cannabis Expert