What Is THC-O? Understanding the Implications of a Synthetic Cannabinoid

Written by

Mell Green

Mell is a cannabis connoisseur who has been published in nearly 50 online publications surrounding cannabis, including Cannabis Industry Association, Analytical Cannabis, Terpenes and Testing Magazine, Plant People, Byrdie, and...

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Medically reviewed byTanja Bagar, PhD

Medically reviewed by

Tanja Bagar, PhD

Tanja Bagar, PhD, is the co-founder, CEO and Chairman of the Expert Council of the ICANNA International Institute for Cannabinoids. She lectures in microbiology, biochemistry and topics on ecology at...

CBD Oracle's Editorial Process

How Is This Page Medically Reviewed?

CBD Oracle’s primary mission is to provide accurate, evidence-based information, and our medical reviewers hold us accountable to this goal. The “medically reviewed” tag on our health and wellness articles means that an experienced medical professional or a researcher who specializes in cannabis has reviewed the content, evaluated the references, and confirmed that the information contained within reflects current scientific knowledge.

 

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THC-O acetate illustration
Illustration: Layla Selestrini / CBD Oracle
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Key Takeaways:

  • Potency and effects: THC-O is significantly more potent and psychedelic than THC, capable of creating a more intense high and stronger visual and sensory experience.
  • Side effects: Due to its strong effects, THC-O can also have more pronounced side effects compared to other cannabinoids, including confusion, anxiety, and paranoia, especially at higher doses. It’s important to be cautious and start with lower doses.
  • Legality issues: THC-O exists in a legal grey area. Because it is a synthetic compound, it could be considered illegal under federal analog laws, and its status can vary by state.


The cannabis industry is expanding to include synthetic cannabinoids like THC-O Acetate, which despite being a controlled substance, is gaining popularity.

As research on THC-O’s effects and safety continues, concerns about its risks are emerging. It’s important to further examine THC-O’s production process and evaluate if its benefits justify the growing interest.

Looking Into THC-O’s Efficacy and Safety

With the THC-O cannabinoid, you are likely to experience powerful creative, and slightly otherworldly effects.

D. Gold, the author of Cannabis Alchemy, describes (page 24) the cannabinoid as being “spiritual” and “psychedelic,” suggesting it’s only ideal for those seeking incredibly strong experiences. 

THC-O is considered a “pro-drug,” and this means that the cannabinoid must first break down in the liver, into its active form, before it starts to work.

Thus, you’re going to have to be patient when waiting for the psychoactive results to hit you. This delayed onset of time has to do with the acetylation process and the fact that your body actually has to deacetylate the cannabinoid before it begins to show effects. 

Does THC-O Get You High? Absolutely. 

Many consumers’ interests are immediately piqued when they hear that THC-O is more potent than THC.

However, the effects of THC-O are extremely powerful, potentially more powerful than most consumers need or want.

Ethan Russo, M.D. is a board-certified neurologist and psychopharmacology researcher that’s been looking into the medicinal effects of cannabis for quite some time. 

My advice to consumers is: Don’t go there!

Ethan Russo, M.D.

The MD warns that “THC is a weak partial agonist at the CB1 receptor, but even then, too high a dose will produce anxiety, even hallucinations, and/or orthostatic hypotension (drop in blood pressure leading to faints and falls).

Any of the synthetic cannabinoids are likely going to be full agonists at the receptor and even much stronger in their effects and resulting adverse events. Many have off target effects that can be toxic to the heart and kidneys. My advice to consumers is: Don’t go there!”

Essentially, Russo is saying that the potency of THC-O is simply much higher than the average body requires to experience effects. Even if you have a very high cannabis tolerance, the body doesn’t react well to doses that are this powerful. Russo believes that approaching cannabis consumption is better as a “gentle nudge, not a violent push,” and THC-O may be too aggressive for most. 

With this in mind, no matter how experienced you are with cannabis or love the plant, make sure you proceed with caution and keep in mind the potential THC-O effects and high potency. 

To Dose or Not to Dose? That, Is the Question

Because THC-O is much more potent than regular THC, you want to start with an even lower dose than you may be used to starting with when it comes to your cannabis products. 

However, with how powerful THC-O is, you have to consume it with extreme caution.

When asked about proper dosing, Tanja Bagar, Ph.D., CEO and Chairman of the Expert Council of the International Institute for Cannabinoids and a CBD Oracle Medical Advisory Board member, explains that “doses as small as 0.05 mg per kilo body weight of synthetic cannabinoids already have adverse effects on the vascular system, changing the patterns of neurotransmitter release, significantly increasing neurotransmitters such as GABA and glutamate.”

She goes on to explain that since glutamate is the excitatory neurotransmitter, its higher concentrations can lead to agitation. In worse cases, this can even cause neurological complications like seizures. Thus, it is absolutely essential to try only minuscule doses of THC-O – if you’re going to try it at all.

If you’ve never had THC-O before, many brands suggest starting with a very low dose and going from there. Remember that you have to wait at least 30 minutes for the effects of your THC-O dosage to kick in, even if you’re vaping, and even longer if using edibles.

Why You Should Avoid Vaping THC-O 

One of the biggest concerns surrounding THC-O is the risk of vaping acetate. Erik Paulson, Organometallic Chemistry Ph.D. and Lab Manager at InfiniteCAL, gives further detail as to why this is such a big concern: “The main problem with vaping products infused with THC-O is the chance of degradation of the acetate group to produce ketene, a toxic reactive gas that can cause irreversible damage to the lungs.” 

However, when it comes to THC-O edibles, he explains, “The decomposition of THCO into ketene occurs at elevated temperatures, so it is unlikely that this ketene byproduct is present in edible samples.” Thus, Paulson suggests avoiding vaping THC-O. But, if you were to try any THC-O product, edibles may be a safer choice, as the Lab Manager notes that the lungs are much more fragile than the digestive system. 

Neal Benowitz, M.D., researcher and publisher of a comprehensive study on THC-O, agrees with Paulson in terms of the risks behind vaping the cannabinoid and consuming edible forms. He told us that “heating is required to convert THC-O to ketene, which we think is responsible for lung injury.” 

As the industry learns more about this unique semi-synthetic cannabinoid, it may be best to listen to the experts, err on the side of caution, and avoid any THC-O vape products. 

Is THC-O Natural or Synthetic? 

The way that THC-O is made is integral to its properties and the way it works in the body. This is because THC-O is not a natural cannabinoid. 

Erik Paulson explains: “The common way of producing delta-8 and delta-9 THC-O is by starting with delta-8 or delta-9 THC and transforming it through a chemical reaction called acetylation.” 

Acetylation is essentially a chemical reaction that occurs when an acetyl group is added to a compound, such as the cannabinoids in cannabis. The reaction creates acetates, and in this particular instance, with THC, it creates THC-O — otherwise known as THC-O acetate. 

Paulson goes on further to explain, “Delta-8 and delta-9 THC can themselves either be naturally extracted from cannabis or chemically converted from CBD (in delta-8’s case, most likely converted).” 

This acetylation process is what makes THC-O a semi-synthetic cannabinoid: it requires chemical processes for curation. 

Paulson mentions that when their labs test natural cannabis extract, the levels sometimes come back looking consistent with those of very low THC-O levels. But, they cannot say for sure whether or not THC-O is naturally present in the plant. 

THC-O’s Discovery and Background 

The first person to discover the THC-O cannabinoid is up for debate, as research here is a little muddy. However, we do know that the compound was around in the 40s, as studies done by the United States Army showed them utilizing the cannabinoid on dogs. It is believed that this was done for potential weaponry purposes, but we cannot say for sure. 

The results found that the THC-O cannabinoid affected the dogs twice as much as regular THC did. These studies were conducted from the late 40s up until the mid-70s. After that, THC-O studies, consumption, and possession were practically non-existent. 

It wasn’t for a few more decades that THC-O was introduced to the mainstream cannabis industry. In fact, Google searches for THC-O only started picking up in June of 2021 — but it has grown exponentially since. 

Recently, the Drug Enforcement Administration came out to say that THC-O is not hemp and is, therefore, not legal under the 2018 Farm Bill. As of February 13, 2023, the cannabinoid is considered an illegal controlled substance in the US.   

RELATED: The DEA Says Delta-8 THC-O and Delta-9 THC-O Are Illegal

Because THC-O is synthetic and doesn’t occur organically within the plant, it doesn’t fall under the guidelines that the Farm Bill presents, and this is the regulation that makes cannabinoids like CBD federally legal. So, companies can no longer sell THC-O under the guise that it follows these guidelines; it has now been explicitly stated that this is not the case. 

Given some recently discovered health concerns about THCO, I think it is a compound that will harm, rather than help, the hemp industry.

Rod Kight

Attorney Rod Kight commented to us, “unlike delta-8 THC, for which I created the argument supporting its legal status, THCO is not a compound that the cannabis (hemp) plant naturally produces. Given that the plant does not produce this compound, my concern has always been that the DEA would consider it to be synthetic THC, rather than a lawful form of “hemp”, which is the reason I reached out to the DEA. This is not to say that I always agree with the DEA. I have been in front of enough courts on various issues to know that a court is most likely to side with the DEA on this issue. Additionally, given some recently discovered health concerns about THCO, I think it is a compound that will harm, rather than help, the hemp industry.”

While you may still come across THC-O products online or at your local smoke shop, this doesn’t mean that the cannabinoid is legal or allowed in your area. The decision that THC-O is a controlled substance happened in early 2023, so industry leaders still aren’t entirely sure how this classification is going to affect the market itself — especially at the state level. 

Will THC-O Show Up on a Drug Test? 

Unfortunately, THC-O will cause you to fail a drug test. 

Drug tests themselves aren’t looking for specific cannabinoids; instead, they are looking for the presence of certain metabolites. When you consume THC, your body transforms the cannabinoid into a metabolite called THC-COOH, and this is what lingers in the system for days — sometimes weeks — on end. 

As a variant of THC, THC-O also transforms into this metabolite after consumption. This means that a drug test will pick this up, and you will fail for cannabis consumption. 

If you’re wondering how long it takes to get THC-O out of your system, you’ll have to be patient. If you’re a frequent THC consumer, the cannabinoid can stick around for weeks. However, if you just had THC-O the one time, it should be out of your body after just a few days. It simply depends on your frequency of consumption. 

Shopping for THC-O? Proceed With Caution 

As an illegal product made with potentially risky processes, we highly urge consumers to stay away from THC-O products. There are safer options for high-potency cannabis products, especially options that are naturally derived from the plant itself. 

However, if you’re dead set on buying THC-O products, you have to do so with serious caution.

Choose brands that offer comprehensive lab reports. These types of lab reports will not only show you how potent your product is, but they will also demonstrate that it’s been tested for impurities like heavy metals, pesticides, residual solvents, and more. In the case of THC-O, traces of chemicals, like acetic anhydride, used in the making of THC-O are also of concern. 

WARNING: Consumers that are taking any medications, especially drugs that are metabolized in the liver, should avoid THC-O or consume it with extreme precautions.

Staying Safe With Cannabis Consumption

Whether you’re interested in THC-O for the potency or you’re simply looking to have a new cannabis experience, it’s important to proceed with caution and keep in mind just how potent this semi-synthetic cannabinoid is.

Don’t forget: THC-O isn’t for beginners. Special precautions should be taken by individuals with any pre-existing liver dysfunction or condition as this could lead to THC-O not being metabolized properly and potentially accumulating in the body.

Also due to THC-O’s strong action on the nervous system, and elevation of excitatory neurotransmitters after consumption of THC-O, individuals with a history of neurological conditions and/or seizures should be very careful. 

We understand that the idea of a strong cannabinoid like THC-O can be appealing, but there are too many red flags for cannabis experts to suggest trying this one out. Instead, it’s best to stick with natural cannabinoids that can be properly regulated and tested, so you can enjoy them with confidence.

Last medically reviewed on April 6, 2023

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