Even as an increasing number of Americans have come to accept the use of cannabis, one thing that hasn’t budged much is how accessible it is. Sure, more states are legalizing the stuff every year, but even where weed is legal, you can’t just walk into the corner store and buy it alongside some toilet paper and a bottle of wine—with the exception, in many states, of CBD and delta-8 THC products.
Loopholes in the 2018 Farm Bill freed up the production of hemp-derived products at the federal level, which resulted in an explosion in the market for CDB oils and other CBD-based products. And CBD’s skyrocketing popularity and sorta-legal nature led to a surplus of the stuff, and old techniques used to derive intoxicating THC alternatives like delta-8 THC from hemp in a lab setting suddenly gained new commercial applications. Thanks to its hemp-derived origins, delta-8-THC became federally legal, and enjoys the same juicy loophole status as CBD in some not-so-cannabis-friendly areas of the country. Delta-8 THC products, from gummies to vapes, are now shipped and sold all over, even where weed remains illegal.
But delta-8 THC is not the only other intoxicating form of “original” THC—aka delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. As weed is studied more and past research is revisited, more different types of THC are being developed in labs and discovered in cultivars. You can now also order products containing THC-O and THC-V, for example—but how are these substances different from one another, and how can you make sure they are safe to use?
What even is THC?
While weed has been smoked or eaten for thousands of years, names for their individual compounds came along much later. According to Weedmaps, THC was genetically mapped in 1964 by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, after he identifed CBD in 1963. These are just two out of hundreds of cannabinoids, which can be either synthetic, plant-derived, or made by the body.
The cannabinoids we are aware of are able to modulate the body’s endocannabinoid system. THC is a phytocannabinoid, or a plant-developed cannabinoid; our bodies also make their own cannabinoids, like anandamide, known to kick in when you’re doing a rigorous workout. Synthetic cannabinoids have also been lab-developed using scientific processes to convert chemicals into cannabinoids, or one cannabinoid into another.
There are countless endocannabinoid receptors all over the body, and it’s wild that even after years of study, we don’t have a full picture of the human endocannabinoid system. But we do know that cannabinoids can influence appetite, body temperature, sleep patterns, and more.
The OG THCd: THC-A and Delta 9 THC
The THC made popular by the original methods of cannabis consumption (smoking, eating) is produced in the living plant as THC-A, or Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid, which needs to be decarboxylated by either drying, time, or heat (smoking!) to convert into psychoactive delta-9 THC. This occurs naturally in the curing process, or is engineered by the creation of edibles, extraction, or the vaping/combustion process.
A rare, sought after cannabinoid from the THC family is THC-V, which only occurs in very specific cultivars like Durban Poison. Nate Ferguson, Chief Product Officer at Jetty Extracts, keeps an eye on the minor cannabinoid space as part of his expertise in cannabis extraction.
As Ferguson told us via email, “the effects of THC-V are very different from that of delta-9 THC, [which is] the most common cannabinoid that we all know and love. The effects are energizing and uplifting. There are also some potential medical benefits that are being researched including, appetite suppressing properties, or as a stimulant replacement.”
Legitimate medical research could be exploring these phytocannabinoids for their potential, but THC carries the stigma of all weed, and with it, federal illegality (despite state legalization), and all of those associated barriers to study.
Ferguson thinks that unique cannabinoids are of interest due to their potential for meeting health needs. “Most consumers searching out these rare cannabinoids are looking for medicinal benefits or a pointed effect,” he notes. And, sure, some people just want to get high. What’s wrong with that?
As noted above, delta-8 THC is another child of the Farm Bill, yet it’s not exactly new on the scene. According to Chemical and Engineering News, a trade publication for chemists and entrepreneurs, “using simple chemistry reported in the 1960s, the industry…started experimenting with ways to convert CBD into delta-8-THC. The resulting products target consumers who are looking to relieve stress and anxiety, especially those who don’t want to use traditional cannabis products or those who live in places where cannabis products are not legally available.”
Essentially, patchwork legality and market forces have created an alt-weed space where, as long as the extracts or synthesized cannabinoids come from CBD first extracted from low-THC hemp (as opposed to high-THC cannabis), they exist in the same grey area as CBD does. Cannabis plants do produce delta-8-THC, but in small numbers that would waste too much biomass to obtain; by synthesizing delta-8 THC from CBD, brands are actually widening THC access, not to mention mainstream cannabis acceptability. And delta-8 isn’t the only alternative around.
THC-O, aka THC-o-acetate, like delta-8-THC, occurs naturally, but is more commonly synthesized from cannabinoids derived from low-THC hemp. We asked Phiton Nguyen, president of Qwin, a company that makes a variety of hemp-compliant cannabis products, including delta-8 and THC-O taffy, syrups, and other alt-weed products, to explain precisely what THC-O is, what it does, and why customers are interested in it.
“What we see on the mass market are isolated forms of these cannabinoids. THC-O is also one of the many cannabinoids found in cannabis, short for THC-O-acetate, which has a milder and very different effect than delta-9,” he says. “From our experience, it produces a psychedelic experience giving users mild visuals and enhanced vision.“
Of course, your own experience may vary, as with the use of any drug, legal or not. Qwin products are created in a facility in Long Beach, California, a “regular” cannabis hub, though their SKUs don’t end up at the same dispensaries as their neighbors’. Nguyen says the family-owned business was created after cancer caused them to consider cannabis as an alternative treatment method.
“We’re huge advocates for plant-based medicine,” Nguyen says. “We want to give people access to cannabis who need it but [who] don’t have a local dispensary or don’t want to buy it on the black market where they can’t verify the quality of the product.”
While traditional cannabis advocates tend to be against these “alt” forms of THC or hemp derived solutions, preferring to pursue national legalization, the demand for them is there for a reason.
Safety is on you
People want access to cannabis so badly that they are succumbing to subpar products made with potentially hazardous byproducts, according to the FDA. All of these cannabinoids, both synthetic and naturally occurring, have been studied by the military industrial complex for almost a century, but wider research needs to take place to not only deem safe quantities and processes, but to eradicate a taboo that creates chaos—and the potential for unsavory characters to put K2 synthetic marijuana in a gummy and call it wellness.
While many of these alt-weed products are available across the country or can be ordered online, all commercial cannabis products, whether sold online, in dispensaries, or as general merchandise, should always be made in safe settings, and quality ensured via testing—practices that are only common among reputable brands.
When exploring these products, always look into who made them—and via what methods and what what safeguards—before ingesting them in the hopes of achieving a particular outcome, even if it is just getting high. It’s never a bad idea to research the latest cannabis and hemp rules in your state, too: while delta-8-THC is regularly added to dispensary offerings in states like California, New York is cracking down on the stuff, and recently passed a law that made its sale illegal, despite the state’s legalization of recreational cannabis. Cannabis prohibition is still very real in some places and you don’t want to face legal troubles over a THC-infused confection if you can avoid it.