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BUSINESS

THCa looks, smells and smokes like THC. Texas might close the loophole that makes it legal

Beck Andrew Salgado
Austin American-Statesman

Cannabis consumption across the country is on the rise, and so too is the number of states that have legalized the substance to varying degrees. From Colorado to Florida, marijuana is accessible in at least some ways. However, in Texas, it is still banned outside of a very limited compassionate use program that permits low-THC cannabis to treat certain medical conditions.

That hasn’t stopped retailers who are looking to capitalize on the market from finding loopholes in legislation, such as selling hemp-derived THCa products.

Now the Texas Legislature is moving to close some of these loopholes, which could alter the cannabis industry in the state dramatically. With a decision yet to come down, here is everything you need to know about the status of legalization and popular loopholes such as THCa: 

More:Marijuana laws in Texas are confusing. Here's a guide to know what is and isn't legal

Employee Aleida Hernandez talks about delta-9 gummies for sale at Austinite Cannabis Co. in April. Legal products that are marketed as delta-9 in Texas are hemp-derived cannabinoids with less than 0.3 percent THC.

What is THCa?

THCa, or tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, is in many ways similar to the more commonly known THC products that are illegal in Texas.

THCa has a marginal difference in its chemical structure from regular THC, or delta-9, which is commonly known as marijuana, cannabis or weed. (Legal products that are marketed as delta-9 in Texas are hemp-derived cannabinoids with less than 0.3 percent THC.)

The only difference between THCa and delta-9 is the location of a double bond on the eighth carbon versus the ninth.

Because of the stark similarities between the two products it is possible to obtain a high from THCa. Once exposed to heat, THCa can transform into THC. 

CBD gummies are on display at Austinite Cannabis Co. Edibles are a popular alternative to smoking.

Is THCa legal in Texas?

Despite its similarities to THC and ability to transform into THC, the THCa flower is legal in its natural form because it is not psychoactive in that form. 

However, smoking THCa is a massive gray area within the Texas Farm Bill because, technically, once it is turned into THC, it should be illegal. Currently, there are no stipulations accounting for the modification of THCa into THC in the bill. Because of this, it is undetermined whether smoking THCa is truly illegal. 

Within this gray area, sales of THCa have skyrocketed. According to a from cannabis analytics firm Brightfield Group, the market for delta-8 THC and other hemp-derived cannabinoids has increased nearly 1,300% from $200.5 million in sales in 2020 to nearly $2.8 billion in 2023.

What is the Texas Legislature discussing?

Renewed interest in amending the ever-changing Texas Farm Bill came after attorneys general across the U.S. sent a letter to congressional agriculture committees, urging them to more specifically define hemp products in the next federal farm bill.

More:House excludes hemp from 2024 Farm Bill draft. What does this mean for delta-8 in Texas?

“As Congress prepares to embark on a new five-year reauthorization of the Farm Bill, we strongly urge your committees to address the glaring vagueness created in the 2018 Farm Bill that has led to the proliferation of intoxicating hemp products across the nation and challenges to the ability for states and localities to respond to the resulting health and safety crisis," the letter states. 

At home in Texas, state officials are exploring ways to tighten restrictions on intoxicating hemp products. While all hemp-derived products, including delta-8 and delta-9 edibles, are up for discussion, the position of THCa products designed to be smoked seems particularly precarious.

In a recent session, state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, expressed his frustration with the previous Texas Farm Bill and the budding use of the back doors it created.

"When I passed that, I said, 'If you guys screw this up by being cute and getting people high from it, there will be consequences,' and we've tried for several sessions to come up with the magic formula," Perry said. "I'm disappointed, but I'm not surprised that we are here today."

Aleida Hernandez shows THCa joints for sale at Austinite Cannabis Co. The position of THCa products designed to be smoked seems particularly precarious.

What would a ban on THCa mean in Texas?

Because of this loophole, many Texas businesses have opened with a THCa-driven focus, marketing themselves as smoke shops. According to The Texas Tribune,  the total number of registered retailers of hemp-derived products jumped from 1,948 in 2020 to more than 7,700 active ones as of last month.

Experts in the field have been blunt about what regulation could mean. Many of these new businesses, which have high hopes for the product, would be dramatically altered by a ban on THCa because it has a large number of sales.

Estella Castro, a cannabis industry veteran and co-founder of Austinite Cannabis Co., said many new businesses in the industry might lack the ability to adapt to these changes because of how much they have committed to THCa.

"We have been doing this for years and have learned to adapt to all kinds of changes," she said. "I'm worried about the businesses that don't know what that is like and have gone all in on THCa — a change like this could really hurt them.

Beck Andrew Salgado covers trending topics in the Austin business ecosystem for the American-Statesman. To share additional tips or insights with Salgado, email Bsalgado@gannett.com.