By / November 27, 2023

Why You Should Not Smoke/Vape Cannabinoid Acetates (THCo, HHCo, HHCPo, THCPo…)

Recent studies have highlighted the health risks associated with cannabinoid acetates, used in some “CBD products.” Despite claims of increased psychoactive effects compared to CBD alone, cannabinoid acetates, identified by these molecule names ending in -O, could trigger an epidemic of lung injuries reminiscent of EVALI (e-cigarette or vaping use-associated lung injury) in 2019 or promote the development of cancers.

A widely cited study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2019, focused on the epidemic of lung injuries related to vaping. The study revealed that a significant number of cases were linked to the use of vaping products containing THC, especially those obtained from illegal sources. The presence of acetates, such as vitamin E acetate, was identified in many tested samples, raising concerns about the role of these additives in lung injuries.

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What Are Cannabinoid Acetates?

Cannabinoids are compounds found in the Cannabis plant, the most well-known being THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). These compounds interact with the human body’s endocannabinoid system and influence various physiological processes. While the use of cannabinoids for medical and recreational purposes is not new, new synthetic cannabinoids have emerged due to a lack of regulation or the prohibition of natural cannabinoids.

Cannabinoid acetates are synthetic derivatives of cannabinoids, often created for use in vaping or smoking products. These acetate forms are designed to improve the solubility and stability of cannabinoids, offering a more convenient and effective method of consumption. However, it is the very nature of these chemical modifications that has become a source of concern for the scientific community and raises health risk concerns.

THC acetate, or THCo, for example, is one of many cannabinoid acetates. It undergoes a complex chemical process involving acetic anhydride. This process, known for its complexity and the use of flammable chemicals, transforms hemp-derived CBD into delta-8-THC, which is then combined with acetic anhydride to produce THC acetate. The resulting product has been touted for its supposed potent effects, including psychedelic experiences, although scientific research on this compound remains limited.

Carcinogenic and Aggressive Molecules for the Lungs

The combustion/vaporization of cannabinoid acetates generates various risks, the most serious being the formation of ketenes, a toxic gas known to amplify cancer risks and tumor development.

Research conducted by the American Chemical Society in 2020 highlighted the potential dangers of heating and inhaling synthetic cannabinoids. The study showed that the thermal decomposition of certain cannabinoid acetates produced harmful compounds, including formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, known respiratory irritants. These results underscore the importance of understanding the chemical transformations that occur during the vaping process.

The study also linked the formation of ketene with cannabinoid acetates. Ketene is a reactive compound that can be produced when certain substances, including cannabinoid acetates, are heated. These compounds are known respiratory irritants and have been associated with lung injuries. The formation of ketenes adds a new layer of complexity to the risks associated with vaping, underscoring the need for a comprehensive understanding of the involved chemical processes.

Study Links Cannabinoid Acetates to Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome

A study published in the Journal of Medical Toxicology established a link between the use of vaping products containing cannabinoid acetates and the development of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). ARDS is a severe lung condition that can lead to rapid respiratory failure. The specific mechanisms by which cannabinoid acetates contribute to ARDS are still under study, but the correlation is concerning.

The authors of the study also note that THC-O has structural similarities with vitamin E acetate, the additive contained in unauthorized THC vape cartridges, which has already been associated with the EVALI lung disease epidemic of 2019-20. The EVALI epidemic led to several thousand cases across the United States, including over 60 deaths. The authors report that, when heated in a vape pen, both substances produce ketene – a “very potent lung toxin” and the presumed cause of EVALI.

Other Risks Associated With Cannabinoid Acetates 

Another risk associated with vaping cannabinoid acetates is the risk of lipid pneumonia. The synthetic nature of these compounds means they can mimic the properties of lipids or fats. When inhaled, they can accumulate in the lungs, leading to a form of pneumonia caused by the presence of lipids. This condition can be particularly dangerous, as it may go unnoticed until significant damage occurs.

While cannabinoids, in their natural form, have proven safe and promising for various medical applications, the introduction of cannabinoid acetates into vaping and smoking products could prove risky. The dangers associated with these synthetic compounds, ranging from respiratory problems to acute lung injuries and ketene formation, underscore the need for caution and continued research.

(Featured image by E-Liquids UK via Unsplash)

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