HHC stands for hexahydrocannabinol. There are diverse forms of this hydrogenated form of THC.
“HHC is an umbrella term for a set of derivative compounds of THC,” says Winston Peki, editor and founder of Herbonaut. “There are various forms of hexahydrocannabinol, which are similar but have a slightly different molecular structure.”
HHC can naturally occur in trace levels in cannabis, but is certainly not present in sufficient quantities to isolate and distil into a product. “HHC occurs naturally in very small quantities in the cannabis and hemp plant, particularly in the seeds and pollen,” says Roger Brown, the president of ACS Laboratory.
However, HHC can also be formulated in a laboratory from CBD or Delta-8 THC using a process called hydrogenation. This process means HHC is a semi-synthetic cannabinoid. HHC is formulated from the manipulation of a naturally-occurring cannabinoid, by changing its chemical structure.
HHC can also be distinguished from other cannabinoids by its specific effects. Heady psychoactive effects can occur almost instantly when HHC is vaped, compared to the onset of other cannabinoids that can take a few minutes. Those who have tried HHC often say it’s similar to Delta-8, but less potent.
Like many semi-synthetic cannabinoids, HHC is formulated in a laboratory. Chemical reactions are used to change the molecular structure of organic cannabinoids into HHC. There are a number of naturally-occurring cannabinoids that can be converted into HHC: CBD, Delta-9 THC, or Delta-8 THC.
“Although there are also ways to turn Delta-9 THC into HHCs, it’s highly unlikely that current HHC product producers use Delta-9, since it’s still a schedule 1 drug according to the DEA,” comments Peki. “It’s fairly certain that current HHC product producers use CBD as a precursor compound to produce HHC products.”
According to Peki, the process of turning cannabinoids like CBD into HHC involves chemical reactions that use acidic reagents. These reagents aren’t necessarily safe for human consumption.
“Many HHC producers don’t disclose how they produce their HHC, so caution is advised,” recommends Peki. If the reagents and solvents aren’t thoroughly ‘washed’ from the end product, the consumer may be at risk of inadvertently consuming these contaminants.
Brown emphasizes that there are several methodologies used in the hydrogenation process, and metal is usually required as a catalyst. Metal catalysts help to accelerate the chemical reaction, without damaging the cannabinoid.
“Some people use white metals, which are good catalysts, but those metals are expensive. That could be one of the reasons HHC is so costly in the marketplace right now.”
The hydrogenation of THC molecules into HHC requires the breaking of the electron bonds on the THC molecule, and inserting hydrogen atoms in its place.
“To make HHC, you have to break apart Delta-8 THC’s double bonds and insert two hydrogen atoms to make it stable and ready for use, ” says Brown. “In the end you create a cannabinoid (HHC) similar to tetrahydrocannabinols, except it doesn’t have any double bonds in its chemical structure.”
The insertion of hydrogen molecules dramatically increases the longevity of the cannabinoid. Hydrogenation isn’t just used for cannabis: it’s also the process used to convert vegetable oil to margarine. Thanks to hydrogenation, HHC can last longer than other forms of THC as the process makes the molecule significantly less susceptible to heat, UV light, or oxidization in general.
Similar to other semi-synthetic and synthetic cannabinoids emerging on the market, the legality of HHC is questionable.
The cannabinoid can be derived from CBD and Delta-8 THC found in industrial hemp (which is legal at a federal level), but could also be considered a variant of THC (which is not legal at a federal level).
According to Brown, HHC is federally legal because it is a hemp derivative, covered under the 2018 Farm Bill.
“It is federally compliant because the Farm Bill legally defines hemp as all parts of cannabis plants containing less than 0.3% Delta-9 THC, which includes isomers and derivatives. HHC is a derivative of hemp.”
However, the counter-argument that’s often made is that there’s legislation claiming otherwise that pre-dates the Farm Bill. The 1986 Federal Analogue Act states that substances that are an analog of a Schedule I drug also qualify as Schedule I drugs. HHC, which is an analog of THC, would therefore fall under Schedule I classification.
States in the US often enforce their own laws in relation to synthetic cannabinoids. Some states that have already moved to outlaw Delta-8 THC, such as Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, and Colorado. It’s possible that these states may also outlaw HHC by association, if it has been produced using Delta-8 THC. However the enforcement of such laws can be difficult.
As long as the legality of HHC is still up for debate, the choice to use HHC may involve some risk, depending on the state you live in.
It’s vital to investigate the safety of novel cannabinoids. At present, there are more unknowns about HHC than knowns, so it must be approached with caution.
Peki underlines that it’s impossible to say whether HHC is safe. “HHC hasn’t been researched in humans whatsoever. Other than that, it’s unclear what reagents producers use to convert CBD into HHCs, and whether part of those reagents remains in the end-product. Therefore I would be very careful with HHC.”
Brown echoes similar views, emphasizing the importance of purchasing HHC products that have been subjected to independent third-party testing.
“Most laboratories aren’t yet prepared to test for HHC yet. Some labs either don’t have the proper methodologies or they don’t have access to the certified reference standards,” says Brown. “It’s imperative that consumers review the Certificate of Analysis (COA) of the product they purchase to make sure it has been tested with a certified third-party testing laboratory.”
Third-party purity testing shows if there is any residue of contaminants such as heavy metals, pesticides, or chemical solvents.
Brown also points out that the final product depends on the quality of the cannabinoid that’s used in the process.
“Producers need to make sure that the conversion from Delta-8 THC to HHC is as clean as possible. If you start with good, high-quality delta-8, the conversions you get running into HHC are high-quality.”
At present, HHC is developing a reputation as a fast-acting psychoactive cannabinoid. Users describe euphoric head highs, coupled with muscle relaxation. Some also find that HHC delivers anti-inflammatory or pain-relieving effects.
“HHCs generally have psychoactive effects akin to THC,” says Peki. “HHC products are definitely psychoactive, similar to Delta 9-THC. Some HHC users report that HHC builds up tolerance quicker than other THC-like cannabinoids.”
ACS Laboratory held a focus group, and gave participants 25mg of HHC gummies and HHC vapes.
Feedback from the participants suggested that many experienced a euphoric onset similar to a psychedelic experience, but without hallucinations.
“A feeling of happiness and increased energy was experienced with both a gummy and vape, but with the vape, it was a much faster onset,” comments Brown.
“In summary, we’ve seen that HHC is euphoric without the psychoactive confusion of Delta-9 THC, and body high of Delta-8 THC.”
HHC use has also been linked to a number of side effects following use. Anxiety, coughing, chest pain, brain fogginess, headaches, and rapid tolerance are included among the side effects that users have noted.
“I haven’t extensively used HHC products, but the few times I did, I felt slightly anxious, something I don’t ever feel when using regular cannabis,” reflects Peki.
It’s vital to point out that the long-term effects of HHC are unknown at this stage. There are no safety studies that have assessed whether this semi-synthetic cannabinoid may cause acute or chronic side effects. Other synthetic cannabinoids, such as Spice, have been linked to acute kidney injury, coma, and even death.
Preliminary research has also linked synthetic cannabis use to acute psychotic episodes, or longer-lasting psychotic disturbances. While this may not necessarily be the case with HHC, it’s vital to be conscious of the possible risks based on research findings linked to other synthetic cannabinoids.
“The long term side effects of HHC are not yet known as there have not been enough research studies carried out with human subjects,” emphasizes Brown. “One of the things we are most excited about is the potential of doing PK studies, also known as human trials.”
Human trials will help clarify understanding of how HHC works on the mind and body.
Semi-synthetic and synthetic cannabinoids are often marketed as being undetectable on blood and urine drug tests. Research certainly suggests that it’s difficult to detect certain synthetic cannabis compounds using regular drug-screening techniques.
Some THC-adjacent products, like HHC, can appeal to users who want to experience psychoactive effects without the risk of failing drug tests. However, this isn’t true of all semi-synthetic cannabinoids. Anecdotal reports suggest that Delta-8 THC or Delta-10 THC may show up on a drug test, however, there’s no solid evidence to support this at present. It’s possible that detectable Delta-9 THC levels in these products may be responsible for failed tests.
From a molecular perspective, HHC is certainly more distinctive to Delta-9 THC than Delta-8 or Delta-10. It’s also possible that HHC metabolizes in the body differently to the delta forms of THC. The metabolites of HHC (which are detectable in drug tests) could also be different, making the detection of HHC challenging–but there’s no clear evidence yet.
Brown adds that the level of specificity of the test may be the deciding factor in whether the cannabinoid shows up or not. “HHC is still very new, but what we have seen from toxicology is that the drug test depends on the level of specificity,” comments Brown. “On a cup test probably not, but on a laboratory test performed with a much higher level of specificity, probably yes.”
There are currently a handful of brands manufacturing HHC. Binoid CBD, Forge Hemp, Bearly Legal Hemp, Cannaclear CBD and Delta Extrax are the main retailers of the cannabinoid at present. Colorado Chromatography is also currently working on a version of HHC that’s formulated using a patented process. At the time of writing, only some of these brands had carried out third-party testing of their HHC products.
If you’re thinking of purchasing HHC, accessing product purity reports will help you check whether the product contains any harmful levels of microbes, heavy metals, chemicals, pesticides, or other contaminants. Only 13% of CBD brands test all their products for purity, so doing your due diligence prior to purchase is critical.
Third-party potency reports will inform you how much active HHC is present in the product. When HHC is manufactured, two different types of cannabinoids can be produced: 9R HHC and 9S HHC. 9R HHC strongly activates the body’s endocannabinoid receptors, but 9S HHC isn’t so effective. The product should contain at least 50% of 9R HHC to register psychoactive effects. It’s worthwhile reading the potency reports to check–otherwise you might not get what you’re paying for.
When it comes to shipping, none of the brands mentioned above have any restrictions on shipping HHC products across state lines. However, this may quickly change if states that have already banned Delta-8 THC products move to ban HHC as well.
So, how does HHC measure up to other comparable cannabinoids? Brown from ACS Laboratory emphasized that HHC is a different type of chemical molecule to THC.
“HHC is not a tetrahydrocannabinol, like Delta 8, Delta 9, or Delta 10 THC is. This is a different chemical class. It’s known as hexahydrocannabinol,” said Brown.
Drawing parallels between HHC and Delta-9 THC (the best known form of THC) can help to engender an understanding of where HHC sits on the THC spectrum.
Delta-9 THC is a naturally-occuring, psychoactive cannabinoid that is the most abundantly available form of THC in the cannabis plant. HHC, on the other hand, has to be synthesized in a laboratory using a process called hydrogenation.
Users’ reports comparing Delta-9 THC and HHC often reflect that two cannabinoids seem to share many similarities: both deliver a body and head high, feelings of euphoria, altered perception and cognition (changes in how you see, perceive, and understand the world), and changes in heart rate and body temperature. One observation that many users share is that HHC appears to be slightly less potent than Delta-9 THC.
HHC users also often experience pain relief following use, suggesting that HHC may share certain therapeutic effects with Delta-9 THC. However, until there’s more evidence evaluating the potential therapeutic applications of HHC, this can’t be confirmed.
Brown points out that HHC has similar effects to Delta-8 THC on the endocannabinoid system. Delta-8 THC is known for its smooth, relaxing high, and is sometimes referred to as cannabis-lite.
“We know that HHC binds with both CB1 and CB2 receptors, and this information is very valuable as it gives us a good idea of what it’s capable of,” reflected Brown. “Delta-8 also binds to the same receptors. CB1 receptors exist in the nervous system, and CB2 receptors exist in the digestive and immune systems. Because HHC binds to both of these types of receptors, it can offer properties that may regulate processes associated with all 3 systems.”
While Delta-8 is a cannabinoid that occurs naturally in cannabis, it’s not usually available in sufficient concentrations for isolation and extraction. Therefore Delta-8 is often formulated synthetically, like HHC. The processes used to create the cannabinoids are distinct, however: HHC is synthesized using a process called hydrogenation, while Delta-8 THC is made through the isomerization of CBD.
Many users report that HHC is comparable to Delta-8 THC because both deliver more of a body high than a head high, inducing feelings of relaxation, sleepiness, muscle and pain relief. However, HHC is more potent than Delta-8 THC, and also has elements of a heady/cerebral high too.
Although Delta-10 THC can be found in trace concentrations in the cannabis plant, it doesn’t exist in sufficient quantities to be isolated. Similar to HHC, most Delta-10 THC is formulated in laboratory settings. However, while HHC is synthesized using hydrogenation, Delta-10 THC is formulated through the isomerization of CBD.
While both HHC and Delta-10 THC are psychoactive, HHC is the more potent of the two. Delta-10 produces an energizing, heady high that promotes creativity, euphoria, and alertness. HHC can also deliver these effects, but it has also been associated with feelings of relaxation, sedation, and pain relief, which are characteristics more typical of Delta-8 THC or certain cultivars of Delta-9 THC.
Those who have tried THC-O-acetate generally agree that it produces a more powerful high than HHC (and is also more psychoactive than, Delta-8, Delta-9, and Delta-10 THC). However, HHC has been described by users as delivering a faster, stronger, more rapid high than THC-O. In addition to lingering longer, THC-O is also more likely to deliver a cerebral (heady) high that feels somewhat psychedelic.
Brown explained that it can also be helpful to compare HHC with cannabinol, or CBN.
“If you compare HHC to CBN, another minor cannabinoid, you’ll see amazing similarities in their electron stability,” explained Brown. “They’re basically the same molecule, except CBN has alternating double bonds to make that ring system stable, while HHC is a similar structure with extra hydrogen molecules instead of the double bonds.”
The sheer newness of HHC means there’s still much to learn about its effects, safety, and possible therapeutic applications.
“We still need to do more research as it may also work with opiate receptors, helping with low dopamine levels and cravings,” says Brown. “HHC is really the next generation of compounds that could have some significant clinical and medicinal potential moving forward.”
There’s already evidence to suggest that HHC could suppress the spread of cancer cells and the growth of cancerous tumors. “In terms of potential benefits, some studies have found HHCs or their analogs have anti-tumor activity,” said Peki.
It’s possible that the coming years will see more studies into hemp-based semi-synthetic cannabinoids such as HHC, which will help to clarify its safety and potential uses.
HHC is one of many semi-synthetic cannabinoids that can be derived from industrial hemp. With its psychoactive effects, HHC often appeals to users looking to experience a cannabis high who live in states where Delta-9 THC is illegal. However, it’s vital to be aware that the legality of HHC is currently murky, and very little is known about the long-term safety (or even short-term safety) of this novel molecule.
If you’re curious about experimenting with HHC, ensure you do your due diligence before purchasing any products. Check the reputation of the brand you’re buying from, and assess their third-party lab reports.