Most people over the age of 21 are familiar with the acronym “THC,” but chances are, not many of them can tell you what it means or how it works. THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol – it’s the compound in the cannabis plant that gives you that typical cannabinoid high.
The hemp plant also produces THCA, which is short for tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, in the arrangement known as delta-9 THCA. However, THCA and THC molecules can be forced into other arrangements called isomers. Delta-9 THC, delta-8 THC, and delta-10 THC are all examples of these isomers. A slight shift in the atoms means that the molecules all interact with the endocannabinoid system differently, producing different mental and physical effects.
Delta-9 THC is mostly known for its euphoric and intoxicating qualities that lead to a classic cannabis high. Anecdotal reports clearly indicate that Delta-9 THC provides consumers with a stronger and longer lasting effect than its Delta-8 and Delta-10 isomers. Delta-8 has been reported to produce a slight short-lived relaxing high and Delta-10 is said to create a slight intoxication, but mainly to help increase energy. But there are potential risks associated with all three delta isomers.
Increasingly, brands across the United States are highlighting the various THC isomers found in their hemp-based products, giving way to increased press and following questions from consumers. Since the passage of the Farm Act in 2018, CBD and hemp-based products have grown significantly within the country’s markets. Touting the myriad benefits of hemp and CBD, these products can be found anywhere from Saks Fifth Avenue to your local gas station. The increased media attention stems from the appearance of these unfamiliar isomers in cannabis products – particularly delta-8 THC. Until now, only hemp products contained cannabinoids (CBD), so the presence of THC isomers in hemp products has been extraordinarily controversial.
This brings us to the most logical question: How do these companies produce the THC isomers of hemp?
Delta-9 THC is a non-polar fat, derived from the hemp plant via delta-9-THCA. THC isomers can be found naturally in the cannabis plant; However, hemp is genetically bred to produce delta-9-thcca. This means that in order to reach high concentrations of the THC isomers (as seen in many products entering the cannabis market), the delta-9 THC or CBD molecule must undergo a compound conversion process from delta-9 THC or CBD to delta-9 THC or CBD. -8-THC or delta-10-THC.
Basic chemistry, using chemical composition or temperature and pressure, can be applied to these molecules to manipulate one into the other. Chemical synthesis can produce much higher concentrations of these isomers at a much higher efficiency rate than naturally produced by a plant. Therefore, hemp and CBD manufacturers are turning to chemical synthesis using various solvents and acids to synthesize the production of these isomers for their products.
As media coverage sheds light on these processes, industry members, consumers, and government agencies are becoming increasingly concerned. Their collective lack of understanding as to whether operators are equipped to properly handle these solvents and acids is at the root of all the isomers around hullabaloo.
Delta-9 THC, delta-8 THC, and delta-10 THC are all examples of isomers. A slight shift in the atoms means that the molecules all interact with the endocannabinoid system differently, producing different mental and physical effects.
An important step in the production of consumer products is ensuring that there are no harmful chemicals in the final product before the product is released to the market. Can these manufacturers properly remove all residual solvents from the formulated product? Are there harmful by-products produced that remain in the final product? Are these operators equipped to test for hazardous chemicals and by-products?
Without regulation in the hemp and CBD market, no one requires manufacturers to test these residual solvents. Consumer safety is of paramount importance, and everyone certainly agrees, yet customers are left unaware of the potential risks involved with these unregulated products.
the potential risks
Products with moderately high concentrations of solvents can be inhaled, ingested, or applied topically can irritate the lungs or skin. These risks are compounded by the fact that this chemical synthesis process has jeopardized the success of the domestic and legal markets for cannabis.
Investigations are ongoing as licensed manufacturers in regulated markets have stopped sourcing locally grown THC cannabis biomass and are instead purchasing hemp CBD extract from out-of-state or international sources and converting hemp CBD into delta-9 THC. Not only are consumers at risk, but the local regulated cannabis industry is also at risk. Because of this shift in purchasing, small business owners are losing customers, as they are unable to compete with cannabis prices. In addition, the tax dollars that would have been collected from local suppliers will not go to the states they should be collecting.
Harnessing the power of chemistry, companies like Heylo, a licensed cannabis processor in Seattle, are creating products that highlight the positive effects of THC isomers without the use of solvents. Heylo’s hemp oil, The New Workout Plan, contains more than 20% delta-10 THC, which is produced from the dominant hemp plant delta-9 THC, extracted through carbon dioxide extraction, and converted to delta-10 THC.
Some countries and legal markets have taken swift action to ensure that Delta 9 THC products are produced from legal and regulated sources. This will support the health of the legal medical and recreational markets, but only time will tell how the distribution of CBD and THC isomer products will be affected. Consumer safety is of paramount importance as this industry is built. I encourage everyone to be an informed member of the industry and consumer, and to find products that you can trust.
Lo Friesen is an environmental chemist, product developer, and thought leader in plant extracts. She is the founder/CEO of Heylo, a licensed cannabis processing company in Washington state.
This story was originally published on printed edition of hemp now.