Cannabis Chemistry – What is HHC?

by | Feb 9, 2022

Detroiter Karhlyle Fletcher is the host of High Lit, a cannabis research and classic literature podcast featuring leading voices and independent music. In addition to years in written and video cannabis journalism, he is also a traditional author.

Another trendy way to capitalize on the hazy regulations regarding hemp cannabinoids, Hexahydrocannabinol, or HHC, has taken over the conversation. While HHC may be a fun way to access cannabinoids in dry markets, consumers need to know if it is safe and how to source it safely.

Where Did HHC First Appear? Who Made it?

Surprisingly, HHC was first reported in 1940s Chicago. Professor Roger Adam's laboratory found that HHC is a potential byproduct of the conversion of THC to CBN. CBN results from THCa, the acidic form of THC, aging into CBNa. Thirty years later, Raphael Mechoulam got involved. His contribution to the conversation was finding that there were two forms of HHC, an alpha and a beta version. The beta was found to be more potent, which he hypothesized was due to its 3D shape.

The acidic cannabinoids are the precursor of their complete form. As HHC appears during THCa denigration, it does occur as part of the natural life cycle of cannabis. However, like many phytocannabinoids, it exists in trace amounts in unmanipulated cannabis plants.

In the commercial market, producers employ chemists to synthesize the compound through hydrogenation, a process used to break crude oil into diesel, gasoline, and jet fuel in the petrol industry. To create HHC, hydrogenation machines add hydrogen atoms to THC isomers, the most famous being delta-9-THC. Here is the greatest danger of HHC, as large-scale production poses a risk of explosion. Safe practices ensure that such an event does not occur, such as grounding machinery, so that sparks do not escape into the material.

Why the Explosive Popularity of the Compound?

The most prominent reason is marketing. These lab-produced cannabinoids made from CBD promise a “legal high” in states where regulated cannabis isn't available. In a non-scientific, social media poll, the most common answer to why people consume these products is simply because it's legal. By default, most consumers believe that these legal products are safe and thoroughly tested. 

In other words, by taking advantage of the consumer's lack of education regarding these products, companies are capitalizing on America's demand to get high in places where the cannabis plant isn't yet legal. Additionally, many of these products continue to proliferate false narratives and misinformation by marketing these products as “All-Natural” and “Hemp-Derived,” although they are anything but.

As CBD falls in price, cultivators need something to do with their legal hemp stores. Originally, the most popular option was to convert their CBD-rich flower into Delta-8-THC extract as the compound was in demand and debatably legal. Now that many markets are cracking down on that compound, HHC is another way to turn rotting hemp into valuable material. While this gives many farmers a lucky break, a legal backlash is looming. Chemists will continue to create alternative cannabinoids that bypass legislative efforts to ban them.

HHC is psychoactive but considered weaker than delta-8-THC, a compound considered about half as potent as delta-9-THC. There have been no conclusive studies to prove any medical efficacy. With proper regulation, HHC products would be produced by reputable labs, with mandated testing requirements and available at dispensaries. As we've seen with other lab-made cannabinoids, potency testing and labeling are rarely trustworthy, and many products are testing hot for carcinogens and toxins.

Farmers should have alternative options to sell their hemp as CBD wanes in popularity and price. However, unregulated markets are mostly, if not entirely hostile to the industry. Without oversight, producers can sell anything to the public, thus causing health issues and risking the government targeting the entire cannabis industry as a result. A few bad reports regarding Vitamin E Acetate in vape carts brought cannabis into the mainstream, and with little to no positive coverage to gain from it. Irresponsible HHC production poses the same risk to the industry.

Should Consumers Trust HHC Products?

As with many other crazes in the cannabis world, the consumer must practice discretion when purchasing HHC. Delta 9 THC may be federally illegal, but in the legal markets, it is incredibly regulated. State legislation ensures cultivation standards, production regulations, and testing mandates that protect the buyer from potential hazards.

Delta 8, Delta 10, HHC, and even CBD products, are unregulated. Without oversight, there's no promise these products are reputable or legitimate.

Labs results can be bought or even altered, making it incredibly difficult to know the actual quality, potency, or contaminant levels. That's not to say there are no trustworthy producers, but it may be challenging to sort the good from the bad.

Also, the most significant risk of HHC is the chance of explosion with high production volume. Proper safety measures, such as grounding the equipment to ensure no risk of static discharge, also protect producers from that risk. Of course, enforcing these safety measures only comes with greater regulation and oversight.

Will HHC eclipse the traditional cannabis market? Doubtful. But it is entirely plausible that it will compete with delta 8 THC. As with other designer cannabinoids, HHC will likely face legislation that will cripple its development as a commercial product. While it's creating a stir in many dry states, the question becomes, as access to legal cannabis continues to expand, will HHC and other lab-made synthetics have a market?

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