The story of THC-O sounds like something out of Seth Rogen’s “Pineapple Express.”
Military scientists once investigated the synthetic, cannabis-like compound as a potential nonlethal incapacitating agent while conducting secret experiments on the effects of marijuana and its byproducts.
Decades later, a hemp-derived version of the substance is touted as being three times more potent than even the strongest weed, providing a potentially psychedelic experience.
But THC-O — also known as THC-O-acetate — is no Hollywood creation. You can buy the alternative cannabinoid at stores all over Chicago that specialize in selling quasi-legal products that don’t face the same stiff regulations as products sold at licensed weed shops.
The emergence of THC-O was made possible by Congress. Its passage of the federal Farm Bill of 2018 made the distribution and sale of hemp and its derivatives legal.
The law banned products containing more than a minuscule amount of Delta-9-THC, the main component in marijuana that gets users high. But it didn’t account for the galaxy of psychoactive compounds that can be extracted or produced from hemp.
Best known among these is Delta-8-THC, another hemp derivative known commonly as “diet weed” that has attracted long lines at some Chicago businesses. Some restaurants and coffee shops have even begun incorporating it into their menus even as the Chicago City Council’s efforts to establish rules for the public consumption of legal marijuana have stalled.
But THC-O is far more potent than Delta-8, which has been pitched as a lighter alternative to traditional cannabis products.
That’s gotten attention in Springfield, where a bill has been introduced to create testing standards for such cannabinoids in line with those imposed on the legal marijuana industry.
“These ‘trendy cannabinoids’ aren’t a new issue and definitely need to be regulated in a way to keep people safe,” says state Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, a co-sponsor of the bill.
For some people, it would be hard to tell the difference between legal cannabis and the hemp byproducts that have grown increasingly popular.
Stores in the Chicago area — some calling themselves dispensaries — are now selling THC-O in pre-rolled joints, vape cartridges, edibles and other forms. Some are even more user-friendly than regulated cannabis dispensaries and leave bins of hemp flower out in the open for customers to inspect — something strictly forbidden at licensed weed dispensaries.
Since they’re unregulated, the products don’t come with the high taxes of legal weed, which can add up to more than 25% of the total bill.
Sonja Villalba, training and development manager for CBD Kratom, which has 14 stores in Chicago and the suburbs, says sales have been steady since the multi-state company began carrying THC-O products about a month ago. Another chain, Smokepost, announced in October that its five Chicago stores now carried THC-O.
“A lot of our customers were very excited about it prior to us releasing it because they did see it becoming available in other places,” Villalba says. “It definitely is a game-changer.”
Villalba acknowledges that THC-O has been compared to a “mild psychedelic” but says users say it merely “puts you in a different head space.”
Because THC-O has to be metabolized, it takes up to 30 minutes to kick in even if inhaled.
Charles Wu, whose company Prescribd grows hemp at a Bridgeview greenhouse, says he has sampled THC-O, which his firm produces and he notes can create a “slightly euphoric” experience that “can be pretty intense.”
Dangerous to make
Converting non-psychoactive, hemp-based CBD into THC-O is complicated and potentially dangerous, which means it’s less widely available than other alternative cannabinoids made from hemp.
Villalba says the products CBD Kratom sells are made using an extraction process that converts the CBD into Delta-9, which is then turned into Delta-8. That’s combined with a pair of corrosive chemicals, one of which is flammable and “highly explosive.”
“It’s something not a lot of companies are doing,” she says. “The market is not saturated with THC-O because it’s a very complex and very dangerous thing that has to be done in a lab setting.”
Yet the products don’t have to meet any health or safety standards. Last year, a licensed cannabis testing lab screened Delta-8 products and found high levels of residual solvents and heavy metals in one brand of vape cartridges. It also found that many Delta-8 products contained illegal levels of Delta-9.
Pamela Althoff, executive director of the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois, says she’s been lobbying for more oversight of such products for more than a year.
John Kagia, chief knowledge officer for New Frontier Data, a cannabis research company, says THC-O was identified as early as the 1940s and researched by U.S. military scientists with other cannabinoids and drugs like LSD and psilocybin, the psychedelic ingredient in magic mushrooms.
A 1984 report from the U.S. National Academies Press, which publishes the work of government researchers, found that THC acetate had twice the capacity to impair muscle function in dogs as natural THC from cannabidiol, or CBD. The testing was conducted at the Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, where the Army Chemical Corps conducted classified medical studies from 1955 to 1975, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Kagia says the compound has reemerged for the same reasons Delta-8 and other alternative cannabinoids have gained popularity.
Because federal regulators never issued clear guidance about infusing food products with CBD following the passage of the Farm Bill, Kagia says major consumer packaged-goods companies have hesitated to use the trendy substance. That left hemp farmers with unused crops and processors with unsold CBD. Their efforts to get some return on their investment led to a drop in prices that stimulated the market for Delta-8 and now THC-O, according to Kagia.
He says alternative cannabinoids also gained traction because they exist in a legal “gray area,” able to be sold at places where marijuana is still illegal.
“This is the perfect example of where the innovation is moving much, much faster than the science,” he says. “There clearly needs to be more contemporary research done to help us understand what the physiological and the psychological effects would be on consumers.”
Challenging for regulators
If the market proves to be lucrative, Kagia says more companies will look to cash in on the potentially dangerous process of producing THC-O. It’s happened before, he says, pointing to reports in recent years of “exploding basements” in Colorado, where butane hash oil was being produced.
“This is a good illustration of the challenges that regulators are going to have playing whack-a-mole with these derivatives compounds that fall within the gray space of the federal and state law,” he says. “THC-O is not going to be the end of this story.”
Wu says his company hasn’t had any problems making THC-O or other hemp-based products like Delta-8. He says it mixes the substances in edible products to try to ensure the delayed effects of THC-O don’t “overwhelm” consumers.
His cultivation site already adheres to the state’s rules for testing and packaging cannabis products.
His company — which qualifies for social equity status — won a state license to transport legal recreational weed but fell short of approval in the initial dispensary and cultivation licensing rounds. It now has another shot to win one of the 60 new cultivation permits that are being held up by a court order, Wu says.
Althoff says devising legislation has been complicated by the licensing problems that have slowed efforts to diversify the white-dominated cannabis industry. She says legislators don’t want to create another roadblock for companies like Wu’s Prescribd.
“The issue that they’re trying to address is that many social equity individuals who tried to gain access to the cannabis industry that has now been continually delayed and delayed and delayed have somewhat veered into the hemp industry,” she says.
Althoff says legislators are trying to find a “middle ground” that wouldn’t “negatively impact those new social equity entrepreneurs and yet ensure that there is a consumer safety requirement.”
Some states have banned Delta-8.
But in Illinois, legislation that would require products containing unchecked cannabinoids like THC-O to be tested and labeled stalled after passing the House last April. Now, a Senate group is drafting language that would include all similar compounds — even those that haven’t made it to market yet.
“There have been lots of conversations already on ways to do this, and there will be plenty more to come as we work with stakeholders to find a legislative solution,” Sen. Castro says. “Although regulating these is a priority, it’s equally important that we take the time to get it right.”