THCA is one of the over 100 cannabinoids found in both the “hemp plant” and “marijuana plant” cultivars. THC and THCA are fascinating in the sense that they’re so closely connected yet so different in their application and effects.
However, both cannabis plant compounds have a lot of potential medical applications and benefits. Although the research isn’t conclusive, knowing the difference between THC and THCA could open up new therapeutic avenues.
So how can you consume THC and THCA? What are their fundamental similarities and differences?
What are Cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids are lipid-based compounds found inside the body (endocannabinoids) or exclusively in the plant species known as cannabis sativa L (phytocannabinoids). High-THC “marijuana” plants and low-THC “hemp” varieties are cultivars – not species – within this umbrella.
Endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters that bind to special receptors. The two major cannabinoid receptors are known as “CB1” and “CB2,” located throughout the central and peripheral systems.
Although researchers believe more exist, the endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-AG are the two main players, along with specific enzymes that break them down.
The three components form the endocannabinoid system, which maintains a physical and chemical balance in the body called “homeostasis.”
Thanks to the ECS, our bodies can self-regulate critical functions like mood, appetite, sleep, digestion, and even immune system responses.
THC and THCA are examples of phytocannabinoids. These are are fat-soluble compounds that only exist in cannabis plants. Although some phytocannabinoids like THC bind directly with our ECS receptors, others (such as CBD) have little affinity for these pathways.
As of the writing of this article, there are 113 known natural cannabinoids, with THC and CBD currently stealing the spotlight.
When inhaled or ingested, phytocannabinoids bind directly to the endocannabinoid receptors or – unlike THC – work through unrelated signaling pathways, such as serotonin, GABA, or TRPV1.
THC (specifically delta-9) is the only cannabinoid with a strong enough affinity for the CB1 receptors in the brain and spinal cord. Consequently, delta-9 THC can produce intoxicating effects.
What are Examples of Cannabinoids?
We mentioned CBD and THC, but many other cannabinoids are gaining traction among cannabis consumers.
Some examples include:
- CBC (cannabichromene): known to provide a relaxing, “hazy” experience.
- CBN (cannabinol): a natural product caused by the breakdown of THC through natural decarboxylation. It may also trigger strong sedation.
- THCV (tetrahydrocannabivarin): some sources claim this cannabinoid muffles the sedating effects of THC and may also offer potential therapeutic benefits as an appetite suppressant.
- CBG (cannabigerol): “stem cell cannabinoid” from which all other cannabinoids develop. It may also be more effective than CBD for some therapeutic uses.
- Delta-8 THC: a cannabinoid that the cannabis plant produces in trace amounts. Less psychotropic than delta-9 THC. Cannabinoid is natural, but its retail products are synthesized from CBD.
- THC-O (O-acetyl-THC): a synthetic chemical ester of THC. It is believed to be up to three times more potent than delta-9.
What is THCA or Tetrahydrocannabinol Acid?
THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) is one of many cannabinoid acids found in raw cannabis plants. Unlike its psychotropic counterpart, THCA doesn’t bind with the CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors.
THCA is an inert acidic form of THC. A chemical process called “decarboxylation” is necessary to convert THCA into active THC.
However, this dynamic isn’t exclusive to THC. Most cannabinoids, such as CBC, CBD, and CBG, have acidic precursors activated through heat. We’ll look at this process later.
Research on THCA is sparse, but this cannabinoid acid may offer some therapeutic benefits.
THCA consumption may be linked to better weight and blood sugar control. According to a 2020 study by Hidalgo et al., “Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the most common liver disease in the Western world, and it is closely associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and dyslipidemia. Medicinal cannabis and some neutral cannabinoids have been suggested as a potential therapy for liver diseases.” 
Researchers triggered liver fibrosis in mice (either chemically or with a high-fat diet) and then administered THCA to the rodent subjects.
Not only did they find it reduced fibrosis, but THCA also helped control obesity in the mice, balancing blood glucose through insulin regulation.
These findings could indicate potential health benefits for obesity-related diseases like diabetes and fatty liver disease.
Some evidence suggests that THCA may have anti-inflammatory properties. When it comes to cannabinoid medicine, many compounds are believed to help alleviate inflammation. THCA is no exception.
One 2017 publication in Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research explored THCA’s potential role in helping with IBS and other related diseases.
The authors tested THCA’s anti-inflammatory effects on colon cells. They noticed that the non-psychotropic cannabinoid interacted with specific receptors that modulate inflammation.
These results suggest that cannabis consumers with irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease might benefit from THCA.
It’s possible that the anti-inflammatory properties off THCA could extend to other forms of inflammation, but further research is needed. 
THCA may have a long list of therapeutic uses. However, this cannabis compound offers no intoxicating effects. Recreational users or cannabis consumers who rely on THC’s cognitive impairment for relief won’t find THCA very effective.
THCA Side Effects
The side effects of THCA aren’t documented. However, some individuals report drowsiness, while others claim it triggers hyperactivity.
What is THC or Tetrahydrocannabinol?
THC – or tetrahydrocannabinol – is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, mostly known for its strong psychotropic effects. Individuals consume the product for recreational and medical reasons.
THC is a complicated cannabinoid. While it offers some medicinal benefits, it may also trigger more problems than it solves.
Extracts from cannabis flowers and raw cannabis leaves have been used as a painkiller for thousands of years, the first recorded use dating back to 2727 B.C.E. in ancient China. Today, various cannabis strains have been investigated for potential benefits in treating different types of pain.
But is it effective?
Although most of the public agrees that THC helps in this regard, the pain-relieving effects of THC aren’t fully established. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there’s “limited evidence” that THC can help control pain. 
However, they do acknowledge some promising evidence suggesting THC could help alleviate neuropathic pain.
Regardless, the analgesic effects of cannabis remain in dispute.
The “munchies” have become a comedic trope, as they are common (but not universal) effects associated with “marijuana” consumption.
However, THC could be life-changing for some individuals who need help with their desire to eat. Cancer patients, for instance, may have issues with appetite or nausea. THC reportedly helps induce the desire to consume food.
A 2020 study in Translational Psychiatry discovered how THC may help induce hunger – effectively unlocking the secret of the munchies.
Researchers conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled study on 20 male participants. Following THC consumption through ingestion, vaping, or combustion, experts tested the levels of certain hormones in the subject’s bodies.
The tests showed an increase in hormones that induce hunger and regulate metabolism. 
Regardless, most cannabis consumers will report experiencing increased hunger after ingesting or smoking THC.
As we’ve seen, THC has several possible uses and is available in thousands of cannabis strains. This variety leads to plants with different effects.
Some cannabis reportedly triggers an energizing effect, while other cultivars yield opposite results. Some variants can be a mixed bag or a balance between stimulation and sedation.
This diversity makes THC ideal for both recreational and medical use, although consumers should be cautious of side effects.
THC Side Effects
High-THC cannabis can be enjoyable or therapeutic, but there are risks of side effects. Some include:
- Increased heart rate
- Low blood pressure
- Auditory or visual hallucinations
What is THCA vs. THC Difference and Overview
Comparing THC and THCA is a proverbial “apples and oranges” situation. Both offer similar potential benefits, but their mechanism of action and resulting effects are clearly not the same.
To understand what fully differentiates the two chemical compounds, we have to look at the THCA molecule and how it relates to its psychotropic counterpart.
THCA and THC differ in chemical composition – but only to a small extent. However, this tiny difference greatly impacts the type of psychoactive effect or effects cannabis consumers experience.
In the case of delta-9 THCA molecules, a carbon atom double-bonded with oxygen is located between the ninth and tenth levels of its carbon chain.
How is THCA Converted Into THC?
A chemical and molecular change is needed to convert THCA into THC. This occurs through a process called “decarboxylation.”
What is Decarboxylation?
If you compare THCA to a parked car, decarboxylation is the ignition. Heat exposure converts THCA into THC, allowing cannabis consumers to experience the psychotropic and psychoactive effects of this cannabinoid.
Decarboxylation is a chemical reaction that happens in two ways. It’s best known for occurring quickly through vaporization or combustion with direct heat. However, decarbing can also happen over a more extended period, leaving trace amounts of active THC in freshly harvested cannabis.
Warmth, light, and air exposure triggers cannabinoid degradation. Consequently, even freshly harvested cannabis will contain some active THC from exposure to the elements during its growth.
What Happens During Decarboxylation?
Remember what we covered about the endocannabinoid system and its receptor pathways? There’s a reason some cannabinoids bind to one, both, or none of the CB1 or CB2 receptors.
Molecular structure dictates a cannabinoid’s interaction with the ECS. The form of THC depends on where a certain molecular double bond exists on its chain of carbon atoms.
Once heated to a temperature of around 329F (165C), the THCA molecules lose the carboxyl group, leaving active THC molecules in their place.
What Does THCA Feel Like (Psychoactive Effects)?
The effects of THCA are mainly anecdotal. One thing we do know is that THCA doesn’t trigger intoxication. However, this doesn’t mean it isn’t psychoactive by definition.
Psychoactive vs. Psychotropic
Before we continue, cannabis consumers need to understand psychoactive vs. non-psychoactive cannabinoid compounds. Although most people believe “psychoactive” refers to the intoxicating effects of THC, it’s not an accurate label.
“Psychoactive” simply implies that the substance crosses the blood-brain barrier, impacting things like appetite, sleep, and mood (for better or worse). In other words, any substance that alters the brain’s chemistry or function is psychoactive.
Instead, experts prefer the term “psychotropic” to define intoxicating properties. Unlike psychoactive substances, psychotropic ones alter a person’s cognitive state in a way that specifically impairs mental function, cognition, or motor control.
In short, every psychotropic substance is psychoactive, but a psychoactive compound isn’t necessarily psychotropic.
Is THCA Legal?
THCA is derived from the hemp cannabis cultivar, making it federally legal. However, some states disagree. Since THCA can create THC, legal regulators deemed it a controlled substance. As of the writing of this article, THCA is illegal in the following locations:
- Rhode Island
How to Consume THCA and THC?
There are many methods we can enjoy the benefits of THCA and THC. However, unlike THC – which is already decarboxylated through an oven, flame, or atomizer – THCA can’t be exposed to heat. We’ll get to that conundrum in a second, as it seriously impacts how some THCA products will affect individuals.
Edibles cover a broad range of products. The method of delivery is one thing they all have in common. Whether they’re raw cannabis plant compounds or heat-activated cannabinoids, edibles are some of the most popular options to enjoy fresh cannabis or decarboxylated cannabinoid products.
Some common options include:
- CBD Gummies
- Baked goods
Regardless of the product, the mechanism of action involves breakdown and digestion. Consequently, cognitive or physical changes can take hours to be noticeable. The advantage is that edibles offer the longest-lasting effects.
Although not as popular as edibles, drinks and drink mixes are gaining traction among cannabis consumers.
Drinks are excellent delivery methods for two notable reasons. First, they’re versatile. THCA, CBD, THC, CBG, and CBN products are available in seltzers, sodas, sports drinks, liquid shots, and even coffee.
Second, drinks are water-soluble, meaning they’re absorbed through pathways in the mouth and stomach. As a result, the effects can happen in as little as 15 minutes, offering more bioavailability with the same long-lasting effects as conventional edibles.
CBD Oils are arguably the most popular way of consuming THCA. Cannabis plant compounds are partially absorbed through the mouth, while the rest are processed through digestion.
Manufacturers can infuse carrier oils with THCA or active THC.
Vapes involve a liquid extract heated in an atomizer with a cotton wick coil. Rather than using combustion, vape cartridges and e-liquids heat to the evaporation points of cannabinoids, turning them into inhalable vapors.
Vapes are a point where the THC vs THCA line is blurred. THCA is simply the inert, acidic form of THC, containing an extra carboxylic acid group. However, once exposed to heat, the THCA undergoes decarboxylation, losing the carboxyl group to become active THC.
In short, a vape containing THCA will ultimately deliver THC. Therefore, calling these products “THCA” vapes is a misnomer.
Nonetheless, they function well as THC delivery devices. Individuals enjoy the psychotropic and psychoactive properties of tetrahydrocannabinolic acid.
Frequently Asked Questions About THCA
Is THCA as Strong as THC?
THCA has no psychotropic properties, while THC does. It’s impossible to compare the strength of THC vs THCA using that benchmark.
Considering the former triggers no intoxication while the latter does, it goes without saying that THC would be “stronger” in that regard.
Is THCA Better than THC?
Whether THCA is better than THC depends on your personal needs. What sets them apart is their psychotropic effects – or lack thereof.
People who want to enjoy the benefits of THCA without cognitive impairment can do so with specially formulated edibles, drinks, and oils.
What is THCA Flower?
THCA flower is essentially raw cannabis or cannabis plant matter that hasn’t been heated.
Does THCA Have THC In it?
THCA is the same as THC. However, that doesn’t mean raw cannabis doesn’t contain some THCA.
Again, some THCA will naturally decarboxylate through light, heat, and air exposure.
Will THCA Show on a Drug Test?
Yes, THCA can show up on a drug test. However, only urine can detect these metabolites from the breakdown of THCA in the liver. Hair and blood drug tests
THCA vs. THCO
THCA is an abundant, naturally occurring cannabinoid found in cannabis flower. It’s inert, with no psychotropic properties.
THCO is a chemical esther of delta-8 THC. Completely synthetic, this product is believed to be three times more intoxicating than delta-9.
THCA vs. THCV
THCA is the inert acidic form of THC. Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) is non-intoxicating, like THCA. However, THCV reportedly helps reduce the cognitive effects of THC and may also possess appetite-suppressing properties.
These claims are yet to receive serious investigation but are backed by tremendous anecdotal evidence.
THCA vs. Delta-8
Although delta-8 and delta-9 share much in common, decarboxylation doesn’t create delta-8 THC. Delta-8 is active and present in cannabis, but in such trace amounts that its effects are unnoticeable.