Converting CBD to THC: It’s Easy, Potentially Harmful & Raises Concerns About Current Approaches to Cannabis Regulation

By Philip Eldred & Larson Dick

  • Even a novice can easily convert CBD to THC in an inexpensive home lab environment

  • This conversion can create dangerous byproducts, requiring regulatory oversight to protect consumers

  • The appropriate regulatory response is to loosen restrictions on THC, focusing only on regulations necessary for consumer, worker, and environmental safety, rather than focusing on taxation

  • The success of legalization must be measured by the end of the social harms caused by prohibition, rather than by increases in tax revenues, or “legalization” will simply lead to a larger, more profitable, and more dangerous black market

CBD vs THC

Advocates of medical cannabis have made it a point to increase the popular awareness of the distinction between various cannabinoids, bringing particular attention to the distinction between CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). THC is the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana, whereas CBD, THC’s non-psychoactive sibling, is known for its broad medicinal potential.

The difference between these compounds has legal implications too. While both THC and CBD are schedule 1 controlled substances, CBD can now be produced legally in hemp — a result of the recent passage of the federal farm bill, which legalized hemp nationwide under oversight by the Department of Agriculture.

Hemp vs Marijuana

There is no taxonomic distinction between “hemp” and “marijuana,” as both refer to plants of the species Cannabis sativa. The distinction is a legal one, based on the amount of THC contained in samples of the plant. Cannabis plants containing less than 0.3% THC are legally classified as “hemp,” while plants containing more than 0.3% THC are classified as “marijuana.”

Because of this legal distinction, cannabis cultivators have recently begun breeding varieties which are legally classified as hemp, due to their low THC content, but which have high concentrations of other cannabinoids, primarily CBD. Indeed, hemp has become the largest source for CBD, as hemp has been on a road to federal legalization since the 2014 farm bill allowed states to begin “research programs” in which it could be cultivated legally. The prospect for federally legal hemp production has made it a preferential crop for breeders looking for efficient industrial pathways to large-scale CBD production.

Now that hemp has been legalized federally, CBD manufacturers are gearing up for the possibility that, pending FDA oversight, CBD could legally be produced anywhere in the country and legally shipped across state and national boundaries, without any concern for the constantly-changing patchwork of state and national regulations controlling marijuana, or cannabis containing more than 0.3% THC.

The only problem with this vision for an unrestricted CBD market is that THC and CBD are very similarly structured chemical compounds that can easily be manipulated in a synthetic fashion. In fact, even a novice can easily transform CBD into THC with readily available materials in an inexpensive home lab environment, meaning anyone, including black market operators, can easily transport products as CBD and then convert the CBD to THC for final sale to customers.

CBD to THC

All cannabinoids share a nearly identical chemical backbone. This is due to the fact that natural biosynthesis of cannabinoids begins with “building blocks” CBG (cannabigerol) and CBGV (cannabigerivarin,) which then are converted into a variety of similar compounds over the life-cycle of the cannabis plant. While the specific biosynthesis that occurs naturally in cannabis is difficult to reproduce in a laboratory setting, it is quite simple to create laboratory conditions which encourage the transformation of CBD into THC.

The creation of THC from CBD needs very little workup. The process itself only requires a strong acid and heat to start, catalyse, and maintain the reaction. An untrained, interested novice with a simple set of instructions could very easily create delta-9-THC from CBD in a home lab environment. A trained chemist would be able to dramatically increase the yield and purity of the reaction products in the same home lab environment with no additional specialized tools, chemicals, or experimental setups. An optimized version of this conversion formula already exists in the literature, and is in the public domain, ready to be used by anyone who finds it.

Given that the process occurs in relatively tame environments, the barriers to scaling the technology required to perform the conversion are low as well. Large tanks, agitators, fluid transfer pumps, reactant loaders, heat exchangers, filters and metering/monitoring systems would constitute the bulk of the required hardware, which represents a far simpler factory for process engineers to design than traditional botanical extract purification facilities.

The simplicity of the chemical process and availability of the required chemicals and environments means it’s quite probable that small to large-scale, clandestine, illicit CBD → THC conversion labs already exist and will be popping up in increasing numbers. The ever-growing availability of pure CBD from the hemp industry is set to provide a near-endless feed stock for those clandestine labs.

The Dangers of Synthesizing THC

The one truly monstrous concern associated with the creation of THC via this conversion method in an untrained home lab scenario is the accidental creation of unwanted side products alongside delta-9-THC. It is uncertain what side products would form across the many possible versions of the conversion methodology, and even less certain how safe they would be for human consumption.

This is a major potential threat to the safety of synthetic THC in the black market, and could vicariously damage the public’s new understanding of naturally-derived THC’s seemingly low toxicity. Indeed, public and political awareness that natural THC is relatively harmless, and therefore not deserving of prohibition, has risen to historic levels. Yet the industrial circumstances are developing in which an abundance of synthetic cannabinoids and their potentially harmful concomitants are set to infiltrate the largest and most established black market on the planet.

Regulatory Implications

That CBD can easily be converted to THC is not a recent discovery. But it is an open secret that the CBD industry has been keeping quiet. This secrecy is based on the fear that once the general public understands how easily legal CBD can be used to manufacture illegal THC, as well as how potentially harmful products created with synthetic THC could be to unsuspecting consumers, THC regulators will move to increase restrictions on CBD so that they more closely conform to restrictions on THC.

Somewhat ironically, the legalization of hemp, and the resulting industrial viability of synthetic THC in illegal markets, is creating the first situation in which the black market in cannabinoids represents a legitimate public health concern. While efforts to restrict and regulate the manufacture and sale of cannabinoids never have been reasonable, the threat of harmful compounds finding their way into products made with synthetic THC is real. Never before has there been a better case for the regulation of cannabinoids.

The important questions are what form should such regulations take as legalization marches on, and how should the success or failure of legalization and regulation be measured? Of course, if the goal of legalization, whether of hemp or of marijuana, is to disrupt black markets and to put an end to all of the social damage that occurs because of prohibition, then the reasonable response would not be to increase restrictions on CBD, but to loosen restrictions on THC, leaving only those regulations necessary for ensuring the safety of the industry and of the products it brings to market.

It is time for politicians and THC regulators to stop feigning ignorance and pretending that they can measure the success of legalization through the increase of tax revenues. They must acknowledge the prevailing lesson we are learning in the early years of cannabis “legalization,” that attempting to control the commercialization of THC and other cannabinoids in an effort to capture tax revenues is just as pointless, ineffective, and harmful as earlier incarnations of the war on cannabis have been. Rather, regulations should be strictly for the purpose of promoting consumer, worker, community, and environmental safety. Any barriers to the market which are not essential for public safety will represent an opportunity for illegal markets to flourish, signaling the failure of efforts to end the social harm caused by prohibition.

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