Meet THC-O, a hemp-derived compound three times stronger than THC

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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 products are increasingly popular in states where consumers 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. 

And now that delta-8 THC, its trendy cousin, has been outlawed in some states across the country and flagged by the DEA, THC-O’s star may rise even faster. 

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 1949; 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. 

Don’t make THC-O at home

“The process of making THC-O acetate is inherently dangerous,” the renowned cannabis researcher Dr. Ethan Russo recently told Hemp Grower. “This is something that’s got to be done in a technical lab with a vacuum hood [and] no exposure to humans.”

If you want to use delta-O, always buy, never DIY.

Some THC-O retailers have echoed Russo’s warnings on their own websites. “Please don’t try to make THC-O on your own,” cautions the Honest Marijuana Co., an online seller of THC-O products. “The process requires special equipment and advanced training to get right. And volatile, flammable, and explosive chemicals are necessary. It’s not worth your life (or your home or your eyebrows) to do something that a lab can do better and safer. If you want to use THC-O, always buy, never DIY.” 

If produced successfully, THC-O acetate resembles a thick brown liquid, similar to motor oil. As such, it can be consumed in vape cartridges, tinctures, and edibles.

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.

Beyond its potency, researchers have concluded that THC-O acetate is a “prodrug,” meaning that the compound is not activated until it has been metabolized. It takes about 20 to 30 minutes to kick in.

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.

Related

Is delta-8 THC safe? Here’s what the experts say

What’s in these products?

Stephens regularly reaches out to THC-O acetate producers online. When they send him testing results, he is alarmed by the lack of specificity. “It’s 10-15% unknowns in there. I ask, ‘What’s the rest of the stuff?’, and they say, ‘We don’t know’…That’s what usually shuts down the conversation.” 

With any vape cartridge sold outside a state-licensed cannabis system, there’s always a concern about potentially toxic additives mixed into the cannabis oil. These thinning agents have caused serious health problems in the past, and there’s nothing to prevent unregulated companies from adding them without informing consumers. 

Furthermore, Stephens noted that smoking the molecule in a vape cartridge invites another host of questions, since combustion can activate other chemical processes. “We just don’t know [what happens], but you can’t run around saying any of this stuff is safe,” he told Leafly.

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.” 

Overconsumption of traditional cannabis has never directly caused a death in humans. With a compound three times as potent as delta-9 THC, however, there’s a risk of consumers imbibing too much THC-O and suffering through some unpleasant effects. Of course, high-potency cannabis concentrates like dabbing oil, wax, and shatter have been legally sold for many years—so the risk of a bad trip with THC-O is all relative. 

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. 

State laws and regulations scrambling to catch up

As with products containing delta-8 THC and delta-10 THC, products with THC-O exist in the marginal legal space between hemp (which is legal nationwide) and cannabis (which is not). State regulators and legislators are currently playing whack-a-mole with the growing number of hemp-derived compounds, banning novel compounds only to see new derivatives take their place. 

In legal adult-use states, cannabis regulators are by and large ignoring these hemp-derived compounds because they don’t fall under their strict regulatory purview. Local police and health authorities have more pressing matters, like violent crime and the coronavirus pandemic. 

In the meantime, some state-licensed companies in legal states are becoming more concerned about unlicensed hemp-derived THC products undercutting their market and tarnishing the reputation of the cannabis sector with potentially unhealthy products. 

Until THC-O and other hemp derivatives come under a state-regulated system, consumers will need to weigh the risks and benefits of these compounds for themselves. 

Max Savage Levenson's Bio Image

Max Savage Levenson

Max Savage Levenson likely has the lowest cannabis tolerance of any writer on the cannabis beat. He also writes about music for Pitchfork, Bandcamp and other bespectacled folk. He co-hosts The Hash podcast. His dream interview is Tyler the Creator.

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