by Dan Ketchum
You’re a craft cannabis connoisseur, and you know your delta-9s and your cannabidiols inside and out — but it’s hard not to notice all these new buzzwords that seem to be riffing on everyone’s favorite psychoactive cannabinoid, THC. So what is HHC, or THC-O? Is there any substance behind all the buzz?
To be straight, THC-O and HHC aren’t like the nature-born cannabinoids you know. This “psychedelic weed” is a synthesized cannabis, and it hits different in a whole lot of ways. And while much of the appeal behind the hype is clear, it’s a new frontier that should be approached with a healthy dose of educated caution.
The Synthetic Boom
This rise of THC-O, HHC, K2, delta-8, delta-10, and the like is all part of a boom in the hemp market, driven by the emergence of synthetic cannabinoids in the mid-2000s and new legislation in recent years. First brewed up to help study authentic cannabinoids (and to avoid drug-testing detection), synthetic cannabinoids interact with your body’s built-in endocannabinoid system much like natural cannabinoids do, and they can have many of the same effects.
But unlike natural cannabinoids, synthetic cannabinoids are born in a lab. Basically, synthetic cannabinoids are chemical analogs to the real thing that bind to the same receptors to produce similar effects. Often created overseas (read: far away from stateside regulations), synthetic cannabinoids are typically made by spraying human-made psychoactive chemicals on dried or shredded plant material, using the plants as hosts, and then extracting the cannabinoid analogs from the host plants with alcohol or acetone solvents.
The Farm Bill Blow Up
In 2018, the United States Farm Bill legalized hemp at the federal level. This led to the industry-wide proliferation of all sorts of new products containing minor, non-THC cannabinoids. While the bill aims to facilitate the production of non-psychoactive hemp, its legal loopholes inadvertently allow the production and sale of cannabinoids that explicitly aren’t THC, but that have a similar molecular structure. Enter, THC-O and its ilk.
THC-O: Effects and Beyond
THC-O, also called THC-O acetate, is a cannabinoid synthesized from hemp products. THC-O starts its life as CBD (cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid) and is then converted into a product that resembles delta-9 THC by adding acetic anhydride to its chemical structure. Produced and sold as a concentrate, THC-O can be found in oils, vape carts, and dabs.
This synthetic cannabinoid is made to mimic delta-9 THC, the most abundant form of psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol found in natural cannabis, for a reason. THC is what makes you feel high; THC-O hones in on that to produce a mind high that can often go beyond feelings of euphoria and into ethereal or dissociative experiences, according to user reports. Some THC-O users even report experiencing hallucinations at high doses, leading to its reputation as a low-key psychedelic.
THC-O’s effects are said to be about 300% stronger than delta-9 THC, or three times as potent. In general, synthetic cannabinoids can be 2 to 100 times stronger than THC. Those effects, as we’ll explore, may come with some serious caveats.
What Is HHC?
Compared to THC-O, HHC is a bit different. HHC is a hydrogenated form of THC, meaning it is THC charged or combined with hydrogen. Quite unlike the more potent THC-O’s effects, this is done to create a milder alternative to THC, one with about 80% of the potency. It also leads to a longer shelf life compared to the real thing — up to two years, in fact.
Likewise, HHC’s potential effects can be viewed as a bit of an inverse of the THC-O experience. In addition to its reduced potency, HHC accommodates more of a body high that aims to reduce feelings of anxiety. It’s also, in theory, free from the potentially hallucinogenic or psychedelic effects of THC-O.
Because HHC’s psychoactive cannabinoids are not fully synthesized, like those of THC-O, it’s often labeled as a “natural” product. However, like other synthesized cannabinoids, it may not be subject to regulatory measures or standardized certification processes.
Are They Worth It?
The appeal of synthetic cannabinoids like THC-O and HHC is clear. Synthetic cannabinoids often dodge urine analysis tests, they can be made and sold cheaply, and — this is a big one — they often fall into regulatory and legal gray areas. This makes them particularly lucrative in states that haven’t yet legalized traditional cannabis. On the other side of that coin, the lack of regulation that allows these products to show up in head shops also opens the way for some frankly shady origins and, in turn, potentially real issues.
When synthesized psychoactives are sprayed onto host plants, improperly mixed solutions, or uneven coatings can lead to dangerously potent chemical “hot spots” with serious side effects. And that’s to say nothing of other production errors, or the lack of regulation to certify that the product is actually what it says on the tin. This begs the question, is THC-O safe?
For synthetic cannabinoids, that looming question is answered with damning data.
According to a broad review of studies published in Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, “synthetic cannabinoids are associated with a wide range adverse effects, including cardiovascular and respiratory complications, hemodynamic embarrassment, renal injury, and [strokes]. There have been numerous reports of severe morbidity and mortality from synthetic cannabinoids.” (Quick note: hemodynamic embarrassment is a medical term that basically means reduced cardiac output. Use that piece of vocab to impress your doctor friends at your next dinner party.)
Leafly adds that synthetics can “induce severe side effects like vomiting, chest pain, increased heart rate, vision blackouts, headaches, kidney damage, agitation, high blood pressure, and psychosis,” as well as symptoms of withdrawal. Unlike natural — and thoroughly vetted — cannabis, these are the risks inherent in products that often find themselves unregulated, with production processes ranging from murky to unknown.
Take It Back to Nature
The bottom line is because synthetic cannabinoids are non-natural, consumers should proceed with caution. When you’ve got a product like THC-O that’s made with acetic anhydride, you’re dealing with the same chemicals used to make plastic, dyes, and explosives. And without regulation, the seller isn’t likely to tell you that on the package before you put it into your body.
On the flip side, the Mistifi experience is proudly, and exactingly, au naturale. Our Hi-Phi extraction technology painstakingly maintains the naturally occurring balance of cannabinoids, just as earth intended. It does so using precise measures of low heat and high pressure, without additives, flavors, diluents, thickening agents, synthetic chemicals, or the other unknowns you might find in synthetic cannabinoids.
The result? Craft cannabis that preserves Mother Nature’s golden ratio sans dangerous chemicals, no matter which pen you choose.
That’s the wondrous power of nature. And we think it’s worth celebrating a whole lot more than the power of plastic.
Dan Ketchum splits his time between Dallas and LA as a freelance lifestyle, fashion, health, and food writer with more than a decade of experience. In cannabis, been fortunate enough to collaborate with Cannabis & Tech Today, FOCL, Vitagenne, Reign Together, Tough Mama, and more.