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What is THCO and why does it have a reputation as a psychedelic cannabinoid? Production, research, legality and safety

What is THCO and how is it produced?

THCO or tetrahydrocannabinol acetate, also THC-O, THC-O-acetate, ATHC and THCOA, is a derivative of the psychoactive cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, delta-9-THC), it is the acetate form of the THC ester. This ester is usually formed from delta-8/delta-9-THC and is much more potent than THC itself, and therefore probably exerts a strong psychoactive effect. Other examples of acetate variants of cannabinoids include THCPO and HHCPO.

And what is an ester? This term is used to describe a chemical compound that is formed by a reaction between an acid and an alcohol. Esters are ubiquitous in the environment, either as ingredients in perfumes or as a natural part of fruits and plants.

THCO is produced synthetically from CBD (cannabidiol), which is then converted into delta-8 or delta-9-THC molecules. In the final stage, acetic anhydride is added to these compounds to produce THCO acetate, a (semi)synthetic cannabinoid.

As for acetic anhydride, it is an extremely flammable and potentially explosive substance that is used in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, fibres, dyes, plastics and explosives. Working with it requires professional handling, THCO is produced in a technical laboratory with a vacuum fume hood.

Both experts and some vendors stress: never try it at home! Honest Marijuana Co. warns, "THCO can only be produced in a laboratory environment. You can't grab a few tools at the hardware store and cook up a batch in your kitchen. The result would be disastrous (meaning fiery death)."

 

Development lab: an Asian-born scientist uses a microscope to analyze a sample.

History: who came up with the idea that THCO is a psychedelic cannabinoid?

Between 1949 and 1974, the U.S. Army conducted experiments with THCO at Edgewood Arsenal. During this time, there were also references to its recreational use. If you are wondering why the military initiated these experiments, you may be disappointed, as the reasons, as well as the results themselves, remain classified.

THCO's reputation as a psychedelic cannabinoid probably began to take shape between 1975 and 1977. In 1975, chemist David Gold described in his publication that acetate has more spiritual and psychedelic effects than other substances and also mentioned that there is a delay of approximately thirty minutes before it takes effect. Two years later, in 1977, Michael Starks also elaborated on the properties and potency of the substance in his book Marijuana Chemistry: Genetics, Processing, Potency.

In High Times magazine, which has been covering cannabis since 1974, they described THCO as a psychedelic cannabinoid that is three times more potent than regular THC. This claim of three times the potency has been made in a number of online articles, but there is no study or research to substantiate this information. Presumably this information is based on the aforementioned book by Michael Starks.

Does THCO have psychedelic effects?

Although it has been suggested that the effects of THCO may slightly resemble those of low dose psychedelic drugs such as mushrooms (psilocybin) or LSD, recent research has found that the compound does not have a significant psychedelic effect on users.

In 2023, researchers at the University of Buffalo, led by Daniel J. Kruger, conducted a survey to determine whether THCO is a psychedelic cannabinoid. The survey involved 300 THCO users who completed the Mystical Experiences Questionnaire (MEQ) and also shared their experiences with other psychedelics such as LSD or psilocybin mushrooms. The results showed that 79% of respondents experienced no or only mild psychedelic effects, suggesting that THCO is unlikely to provide any psychedelic experiences for most users.

User experience suggests that THCO has similar effects to delta-8 or delta-9-THC, but probably three times more intense effects than delta-9-THC and about six times more intense effects than delta-8-THC.

For now, only the Content Analysis of Social Media Discussions on THCO, released in July 2023, addresses the effects and other experiences with THCO. This analysis reveals that:

  • Users most often compare THCO to delta-9-THC and delta-8-THC.
  • Experiences vary, with some describing typical THC effects and others reporting only weak or no psychedelic effects.
  • It is often repeated that THCO has a slow onset and long duration of effects.
  • There are concerns about the quality, composition and safety of the products.
  • Some users express health concerns, particularly about possible ketene formation.
  • Adverse experiences in the form of physical manifestations (coughing) and psychological negative effects (anxiety) have been reported.

THCO, like other psychoactive cannabinoids such as THCJD, HHCH, THCB, THCH, can affect perception, induce strong feelings of euphoria and relaxation, relieve pain symptoms and help with sleep problems, as some consumers report that it has significant sedative effects.

There is currently a lack of research investigating the effects of THCO and its action in the human body. It is generally accepted that most of the known effects of cannabinoids are related to their interaction with the endocannabinoid system.

Daniele Piomelli (Professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology and Director of the Center for the Study of Cannabis at the University of California, Irvine) noted that the chemical modification of THCO prevents it from binding to receptors in the brain, but allows it to penetrate the brain and cells more easily. Upon entering the brain, the acetate evaporates and the remaining THC begins to bind to the appropriate receptors.

THCO has a 'prodrug' label , which means that it is activated only after it has been metabolised in the liver, delaying the onset of effects.

When THCO is vaped, or smoked from joints or pre-rolls, the effects usually occur within twenty minutes. The oil form takes approximately thirty minutes to take effect, whereas edible forms such as gummies can take one to two hours to take effect.

Side effects and other pitfalls

Similar to other cannabinoids with psychoactive properties, some users may experience side effects such as:

  • dry mouth
  • red eyes
  • changes in colour and brightness perception
  • increased heart rate
  • drowsiness
  • low blood pressure
  • dizziness
  • disorientation
  • negative psychological effects (panic, paranoia, anxiety and hallucinations)

Whether and to what extent side effects occur depends on several factors. It depends on the specific product, the dose, the method of consumption, but also on the age, gender, metabolism or sensitivity of the user.

The biggest risk of similar compounds is that they are (semi-)synthetically produced and may be contaminated with undesirable substances such as heavy metals or solvents. Daniel Kruger (author of the aforementioned THCO research) said, "It's possible that some of the extreme effects are due to some kind of contamination, and that's one of the real dangers of these products if you don't know what's in them."

Use caution when using these substances and watch out for any unexpected reactions. Since the effects of THCO come on later, it is important to wait before taking another dose to avoid intoxication, overdose and a possible unpleasant "bad trip" experience.

What is the THCO product range?

Although THCO products are available on the market, there is still a lack of research to clarify how they work in the body. Until there are even clear regulatory guidelines for THCO and other cannabis derivatives, it remains up to users to evaluate the potential risks and benefits of these substances.

The following forms of THCO are most commonly found in the cannabis market:

  • Oils: THCO extract with carrier oil
  • Vapes: vape pens can be started using immediately, sold either as disposables or refillable devices with liquid or replaceable cartridges
  • Dabs: concentrated forms of cannabis or concentrates such as wax, shatter, crumble, butter, honeycomb, sugar or crystals that are inhaled through a vaporizer or dab rig.
  • Edibles: for example, snacks and gummies infused with THCO
  • THCO flowers: technical cannabis flowers infused with THCO distillate

THCO products are only suitable for experienced users, if you are a beginner in the world of cannabis, choose products with CBD, CBG, CBN, or CBDP or H4CBD if you already have experience with CBD.

Never get behind the wheel or operate any machinery after using substances with psychoactive properties!

 

Daby - a highly concentrated form of golden resin wax and dry green hemp bud

Is THCO legal and safe?

As for the legality of THCO in the US, it is generally stated that it depends on who you ask. For example, on the legal status, the US website Leafly wrote that THCO products are in the marginal legal space between cannabis that is legal across the country and that which is not.

Some argue that THCO is legal under the 2018 Farm Bill because it is extracted from cannabis plants, but the situation is more complicated. Although THCO comes from the naturally occurring cannabis compound (CBD), it contains synthetic elements. The Farm Bill states that synthetically derived tetrahydrocannabinol is to remain a Schedule 1 substance (Schedule I is the category of addictive substances defined under the Controlled Substances Act). The legality of THC acetate may also be subject to the federal analogue law of 1986, which is part of the Controlled Substances Act, which is chemically similar to controlled substances.

There are currently no laws at European level, treaties at international level such as the 1961 Single Convention and European drug laws do not yet regulate these categories of compounds as they are new substances. Each country has a different approach to this issue, where THCO can be in a legal grey area and is an illegal substance, for example in Bulgaria, France, Sweden and the UK.

As far as safety is concerned, precisely because of the lack of research, we cannot yet say with certainty that THCO use is without risks. Cannabis researcher and chemist James Stephens has pointed out that vaping the compound in a vape cartridge raises a number of safety issues, as combustion can activate other chemical reactions. He told Leafly, "We just don't know [what will happen], but you can't run around saying any of this is safe."

Experts also agree that the molecule, which is estimated to be three times more potent than delta-9 THC, puts consumers at a higher risk of getting "high" and experiencing negative psychological effects or other unpleasant manifestations.

If you are tempted by new compounds, shop at e-stores with which you have a good track record and choose retailers that have their products tested by an independent laboratory.

 

Author: Buds for Buddies

 

   

Photo: Shutterstock

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