Although his Higher Life dispensary is located in the midwestern U.S. state of Indiana, where adult-use cannabis is still illegal, owner Brandon Howard has added one new product after another over the past few months.
Earlier this year, all the rage was over hemp-derived Delta-8 THC products: federally legal under the 2018 Farm Bill, and psychoactive enough to produce a high similar enough to regular old (and banned) plant-derived THC to move markets. But with the federal government and the states cracking down on Delta-8, Howard started offering edibles and vaporizer cartridges featuring yet another “new” cannabinoid (or new to consumers, at least): THC-O, or THC-O acetate.
What is THC-O?
First discovered by chemists decades ago (and first observed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 1978) THC-O is an analogue of “regular” plant-derived Delta-9 THC, meaning its chemical structure is similar. More specifically, THC-O is a “prodrug,” meaning after the body metabolizes THC-O, it becomes THC.
THC-O can be derived from Delta-8 THC, which is obtained from CBD—which in turn comes from hemp, which is legal to cultivate, sell, and tinker with. In April, the U.S. Patent and Trade Office issued Nextleaf Solutions, what they believe is the first patent for a THC-O extraction process. This is why THC-O is important to Howard—as well as any other business or entrepreneur eager to participate in the greater cannabis industry, while staying outside of regulated adult-use markets—because it means he can sell it in Indiana.
So far, the reception is encouraging, he told Cannabis Now recently.
“I’ve had customers tell me it helps with their appetite,” he said. Others say using THC-O is like eating “way too many gummies,” he added, describing the effect in turn as “a slight feeling of being on psychedelics” and “an indica and a sativa feeling.”
One thing THC-O is not, he said, is weak.
‘Three Times Stronger’ Than THC
THC-O is supposedly up to three times stronger than “normal” Delta-9 THC, something close to “weed on steroids,” as Westword put it in a December 2019 article. “It hits you in waves,” Howard said. “Just when you think you’re coming down, it hits you again.”
It’s safe, he said, but “I highly suggest starting with a low dose.”
Not everyone agrees.
THC-O’s critics include prominent cannabis researchers as well as some businesses and entrepreneurs. In their analysis, THC-O is merely the latest synthetic substitute for what customers really want—regular old cannabis.
“Industry businesses are constantly looking for the next value proposition to stick on their product box so they can stand out in a highly saturated and competitive Delta 8 market,” said Ashley Dellinger, the owner of The Hemp Collect, a Texas-based CBD wholesaler that deals with Delta-8 THC—but not THC-O. “I don’t see a lot of people deep diving into the repercussions of consumption of these compounds insomuch as they are obsessed with not missing out on another potentially large revenue opportunity.”
Exactly what a concentrated, semi-synthetic product like THC-O will do to the human brain and body is still unclear, but more menacing are the methods with which THC-O is extracted from its source material.
How is THC-O Extracted?
In an August interview with Hempgrower.com, Dr. Ethan Russo, one of the most respected experts and researchers in cannabis science, suggested that the THC-O extraction process might not be entirely legal. Under a 1986 law passed by Congress called the Federal Analogue Act, any compound that’s an analogue of a banned compound is subject to the same bans. For now, Delta-8 THC, named because it has one less carbon bond than Delta-9 THC, may escape this snare.
But the body doesn’t care about the law. What the body does care about are adulterants and other potentially dangerous additives. Though there’s not one standardized THC-O extraction process, Russo believes most THC-O makers use a reagent called acetic anhydride to convert their source material to THC-O. And acetic anhydride is highly flammable and very dangerous to humans. On top of the dangerous process, Russo added, there’s the potential of an unwelcome reaction in the human body. Most people don’t need huge amounts of THC—and, in fact, getting too high is one of the most common complaints from new (and old!) cannabis users.
“So, between the inherent danger of the process to make it, the potential toxicity of the product, and its illegality, I’ve got to recommend that people forget about it,” Russo said in his interview. “It’s just not something that people should be trying.”
Howard says he is convinced that THC-O is safe. Anyone who doubts him can use their phone to scan his products’ QR code and see the process for themselves. At the least, someone purchasing from Higher Life CBD knows where the product came from; someone buying online or at a gas station or smoke shop might not have that same level of accountability.
Other entrepreneurs like Dellinger aren’t convinced and want more data. “We are working with the appropriate people to understand the safety of this compound before moving forward and urge other to do their due diligence,” she said. For now, product makers should “[m]aintain the plant’s range of phytochemistry as much as you can in your extractions and formulations,” she added.