Cal NORML Warns of Potential THC-O Acetate Risk

A study shows both THC-O and vitamin E acetate may convert into a dangerous lung toxin when they are heated in a vape pen.
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New data shows a potential problem with vaping THC-O acetate, and the reasons are worthy of concern. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) branch in California, Cal NORML, issued a warning on Jan. 9 about a study that shows a significant risk for people who vape products containing THC-O acetate.

First published in the Journal of Medical Toxicology on Dec. 12, 2022, a team of researchers led by Neal L. Benowitz discovered a link between THC-O acetate and significant danger to the lungs. THC-O acetate shares structural similarities with vitamin-E acetate—an additive that becomes dangerous to the lungs when converted by heat.

According to the California Department of Public Health, the 2019-20 outbreak of EVALI lung disease sickened and hospitalized 249 Californians—five of them fatally. On Nov. 15, 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed that vitamin E acetate is the likely culprit for EVALI. Vitamin E acetate also produces carcinogens such as alkenes and benzene when heated.

When heated in a vape pen, both substances—vitamin E acetate and THC-O Acetate—produce ketene, a “highly potent lung toxicant.”  

“We put out the press release specifically because of a study showing that vaporizing vitamin E acetate was similar to THC-O acetate,” Cal NORML Director Dale Gieringer told High Times.

 “Apparently when heated up, it produces a serious lung toxin called ketene.”

As cannabis consumers, we often have to filter through anti-cannabis hysteria, but certain risks hold weight when products aren’t regulated properly. Usually vaping dangers arise when random thickeners and unvetted compounds are added.

Gieringer added, “We have a lot of concerns about some of these other new cannabinoids that are being synthesized from hemp, which are brand new and never been tested in human subjects before. Some of them are advertised as being way more potent than THC. THC-O acetate is being advertised as three times more potent than delta-9. THCP is being advertised as having 30 times the binding power to receptors as THC. That kind of reaction sets off a lot of concerns with us. 

“These compounds have never been found in nature before—being made by fairly amateurish underground hemp chemists—raise a lot of concern.”

Gieringer added that delta-8 THC isn’t his primary concern, given there is slightly more known about the compound, but it’s contaminants and other new cannabinoids he’s most worried about, mostly due to the unknowns: THCP, THCjd. THC-H, THC-B, HHC, and Delta-10 THC. 

Cal NORML reports that the sale of psychoactive hemp derivatives was recently deemed legal under federal law by a Ninth Circuit Court decision (AK Futures v. Boyd Street Distro). That’s up for debate though, given that synthetic cannabinoids can be considered illegal under the Federal Analogue Act. 

Under the 2018 federal Farm Bill, cannabis with less that 0.3% THC is legal to grow, and its products can be sold nationally, but the THC often exceeds the limit regardless.

California’s industrial hemp law, which is overseen by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), currently disallows the sale of hemp products with active cannabinoids other than CBD.

THC-O acetate begins as hemp-derived CBD and goes through a chemical process. Going beyond how cannabinoids like delta-8 THC are processed from CBD, acetic anhydride is added to the mixture, making it an acetate.

THC-O is believed to be three times as potent as delta-9 THC—the naturally occurring cannabinoid most of us are used to.

“Cal NORML strongly advises consumers to avoid hemp products with psychoactive cannabinoids, especially novel ones stronger than THC, whose safety is particularly suspect. CBD products may be safely obtained from state-registered industrial hemp product manufacturers, whose products must be tested for safety and cannabinoid content,” the release reads. “Under state law, hemp products should have a batch number and a label, website, QR code or barcode linking to the laboratory test results that state the levels of cannabinoids, total THC, and presence of contaminants, as well as the address and phone number of the manufacturer. Violations can be reported to CDPH.

Cal NORML adds that the less common cannabinoids that are deemed safe for human use are CBN, CBG, CBC, THCV, THC-A, CBD-A, and Delta-8 THC.

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