Since former U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Farm Bill in 2018 legalizing hemp at the federal level, the cannabis industry has released loads of new products containing new minor cannabinoids.
Although most of them have no psychoactive effects, a new series of cannabinoids contain a similar molecular structure to THC, the most popular cannabis compound with psychoactive effects, which is still illegal at the federal level.
However, the Farm Bill has indirectly and inadvertently allowed the industry to produce and sell cannabis products containing cannabinoids with psychoactive effects.
One of these new compounds is THC-O acetate (or ATHC), a non-natural cannabinoid that is getting the interest of many cannabis consumers but also several concerns regarding its legality and health safety.
In the last few years, several brands have commercialized products containing THC-O, a synthetic cannabis compound derived from hemp. Unlike other cannabinoids extracted from hemp like CBD, CBG, or CBN, THC-O cannot be found naturally in the hemp plant, but it has psychoactive effects and seems apparently legal.
Although it is still not a mainstream cannabinoid, THC-O is becoming increasingly popular among cannabis consumers. In particular, these kind of cannabinoids are getting the interest of those consumers who live in U.S. states where recreational cannabis is still illegal.
THC-O is an ester of THC. It can be synthesized through a chemical process using acetic anhydride, a high-inflammable and colorless liquid used to make fibers, plastics, pharmaceuticals, dyes, and explosives.
The production of this compound requires specialized equipment as it involves using volatile and flammable chemicals.
The process to synthesize THC-O consists of extracting delta-8 THC from CBD extracted from the hemp plant. Finally, acetic anhydride is added to the delta-8 THC molecules to produce THC-O acetate.
There is no confirmed data on how potent THC-O is. Several news publications report that THC-O is more potent than more popular THC as it is reported to be three times as powerful as THC.
Consumers report THC-O as being more psychedelic THC as it offers a more spiritual or psychedelic psychoactivity than other cannabinoids.
Like what happens when consuming cannabis edibles, THC-O takes time to metabolize in the body before its effects are activated. THC-O-A is most commonly available in vape cartridges, tinctures, and gummies.
The U.S. military scientists started to study this compound in 1949. In the 1970s, the DEA discovered an illegal lab in Florida that combined cannabis extracts with acetic anhydride. However, THC-O gained the interest of consumers only in recent years. By analyzing Google Trends, interest overtime on this topic peaked in mid-2021.
However, there is still little peer-reviewed scientific research on THC-O. More research is needed to understand the health effects of these compound products. The psychoactive effects of THC-O are only known via anecdotal reports from consumers, and its potency may be magnified by companies selling their products.
Like delta-8 THC and other minor cannabinoids, THC-O exists in a grey area of legality. However, according to the Federal Analog Act, some experts say it should be illegal. This section of the Controlled Substances Act enacted in 1986 treats any chemical “substantially similar” (also known as designer drugs) to a controlled substance, but only if intended for human consumption.
In an interview on Hemp Grower, neurologist Dr. Ethan Russo, an expert in studying the medicinal aspects of cannabis and the endocannabinoid system, stressed that there are no data that guarantee that it isn’t potentially toxic. “If it is twice or three times more potent than THC, it’s an immediate recipe for potential serious side effects,” he said.
Although the THC-O market seems to be still in its embryonic stage, the lack of regulation on minor cannabinoids might lead to health and legal issues that could harm the entire cannabis industry in terms of the reputation of quality products.
At the same time, the continuation of prohibition policies against cannabis creates an environment where the products developed following the Farm Bill’s provisions may not be legal due to different interpretations of the laws.