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Cannabis Chemistry – THC
Nathanael Horton
Feb 9, 2011

Having a basic understanding of THC chemistry will allow you to make informed decisions when it comes to marijuana use and preparation. I decided to research tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) on my own and explain the difference between THC and THC acid, including where you might find examples of each. Specifically, THC is a phytocannabinoid of which there are 8 main classes including CBD. The fragrant aroma of the trichomes, where resin is secreted containing the vast majority of the plant’s THC production, is actually from terpenes in the resin. THC itself is practically odorless, for example, when using a vaporizer.

Let’s review some high school chemistry. The chemically active parts of an atom are the positive proton nucleus and the negative electron cloud surrounding it. Think of atoms as magnetic billiard balls of different sizes and power of attraction and repulsion. Water, H2O, is a molecule of one oxygen atom with two hydrogen atoms. Oxygen has 8 protons while hydrogen has only 1. This means oxygen has a high electron affinity and pulls electrons towards it much more strongly than hydrogen. This is called a polar-covalent bond, where the electron cloud is unevenly distributed between the oxygen and hydrogen atoms in the molecule. The polarity of the water molecule creates all the unique properties of water like surface tension, freezing point, and solubility. Click to read more about the chemical properties of H2O.

Cannabis Chemistry - Polar Covalent BondCannabis Chemistry - Delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol

THC is not soluble in water because it is an aromatic terpenoid. It’s structure has carbon rings (on the left) and a hydrocarbon tail characteristic of fat molecules (on the right). Organic carbon fat molecules like THC has much lower polarity because electrons are shared more evenly among the carbon atoms. That is why THC gets absorbed by fatty tissue in the body or why cannabutter is so effective at dissolving THC. In chemistry, “like dissolves like”. Fluid compounds with similar composition, structure and/or polarity will dissolve one into the other. Since water is polar, it doesn’t dissolve THC. Just remember that THC is hydrophobic (water-fearing) and use safe solvents like alcohol or mechanical methods of THC extraction.

THC acid (THCA) or 11-nor-9-Carboxy-THC is a psychotropically inactive compound that the cannabis plant secretes. To chemically convert THCA to THC, THC is heated to about 106 degrees Celsius, or about 222 degrees Fahrenheit. This is achieved when we heat cannabis in joints, bongs and vaporizers. The heat will decarboxylate the THCA to produce carbon dioxide, water vapor and psychoactive THC.

When burning cannabis leaf, you will also get smoke from the plant material containing stuff that makes you cough. Cannabis smoke contains known carcinogens, but it also has cancer fighting molecules like cannabidiol. That is why studies have shown that even heavy cannabis users are not at higher risk for lung cancer. For more, read Cannabis smoking. Because of obvious legal restrictions, cannabis medical research has been suppressed, but exciting discoveries are being made. Next time I will focus on the CBD, another phytocannabinoid that has gotten a lot of attention recently.
Cannabis Chemistry - Decarboxlyation of the THC

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