Hemp-derived cannabinoids are popping up in dispensaries across the country. These include delta-O tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), delta 8 THC, and delta-10 THC, along with the poorly understood HHC. Just try searching HHC and you’ll see what we mean: tons of confusing and hard to verify information about effects, legality, manufacturing processes, and even whether HHC occurs naturally in the hemp plant or is instead a synthetic cannabinoid.
This isn’t just a matter of ill will or an intent to deceive. It’s legitimately complex to understand HHC and its status, partly because only a few retailers have recently brought it to market, mostly inside of HHC vape cartridges. However, HHC has a lot of promise, and you’re probably about to start hearing about it if you haven’t already.
Delta-8 THC continues to find itself in the crosshairs of federal and state agencies who seek to ban the popular hemp-derived cannabinoid, but since HHC is actually not a THC compound at all, it offers either more promise legally—or at least more attractive cover—as a synthesized substance. And while the evidence is anecdotal, HHC may also evade drug tests.
In this post we’ll explain everything you need to know about HHC: what it is, how it’s made, its effects and potency, how it compares to Delta 9 THC, its source and origins, its safety and legality, and how to buy HHC in support of your health care.
What Is HHC?
Hexahydrocannabinol (HHC) is a cannabinoid created in 1944 by chemist Roger Adams, made by adding hydrogen molecules to Delta-9 THC, converting THC to HHC in a process called hydrogenation.
This is a similar process to the one that creates margarine from vegetable oil. In fact, hydrogenation generally simply turns liquid fats like vegetable oils into solids and semi-solids.
Adams originally created his HHC from conventional THC derived from marijuana, the Cannabis sativa plant that is federally illegal. However, today typically HHC is derived from hemp, which Congress legalized at the federal level with the 2018 Farm Bill. Hemp plants under the law are low-THC cannabis plants with less than 0.3% THC.
At least 10 types of HHC exist. Hexahydrocannabinol or classic HHC as it’s understood can be found here: CAS# 6692-85-9, but there are other varieties as well, including:
- 9α-OH-HHC — 9α-hydroxyhexahydrocannabinol (CAS# 52171-85-4)
- 7-OH-HHC — 7-hydroxyhexahydrocannabinol (CAS 64663-39-4)
- HU211 — 1,1-Dimethylheptyl-11-hydroxytetrahydrocannabinol (CAS 112924-45-5)
- HU243 — 11-Hydroxy-3-(1′,1′-dimethylheptyl)hexahydrocannabinol (CAS 140835-14-9)
HHC is the THC chemical structure without any double bonds which have been broken and replaced with hydrogen in the hydrogenation process.
In this way, because CBN (cannabinol) forms as THC breaks down and gains additional double-bonds, HHC is the exact opposite molecule. This subtle difference changes the molecule’s geometry and binding affinity for TRP pain receptors and CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors.
HHC also has a much longer shelf-life in terms of potency compared to other cannabinoids. Like other hydrogenated vegetable oils, HHC is stable, and less susceptible to oxidation and breakdown from exposure to heat and UV light or improper storage thanks to the saturation of the chemical structure.
How Is HHC Made?
HHC is manufactured in many steps. First, a manufacturer extracts cannabidiol (CBD) isolate from raw hemp, and from there, things get more complex in the lab to create this semi-synthetic compound.
Basically, the lab adds a precise amount of hydrogen to the compound, which changes its chemical structure. Then a reaction is induced using a metal catalyst such as palladium, nickel, or platinum. The catalyst hastens and intensifies the chemical reaction without changing the end product and is removed at the end. It is these unique changes that create a product that cannot be found in nature and changes the molecule itself and how the body processes it.
What Are the Potency and Effects of HHC?
The jury is out on both HHC’s effects and potency. This is in part because there are really multiple different kinds of HHC molecules, which can work in the body in different ways.
9R HHC, similar to delta-8 THC, binds actively to the body’s natural endocannabinoid receptors. For this reason it produces effects that are more like THC, although it might take more of it to create the same feeling. 9S HHC, however, has a slightly different molecular structure, and so is less adept at the binding part.
So while HHC can have THC-like effects on the mind and body, milligram-per-milligram it is less potent than delta-8 THC. To put this into perspective compared with the standard delta-9 THC, delta-8 THC is itself about half as potent. Overall, some people estimate that HHC is around 20 percent less potent than THC.
In terms of actual effects, HHC is very similar to THC, uplifting, altering auditory and visual perception, producing feelings of euphoria, changing body temperature and heart rate, and altering cognition. Anecdotal evidence from various users describes the effects of HHC as leaning more towards relaxation than stimulation, much like delta 8 THC.
Although HHC is new on the research scene, it seems so far that this cannabinoid provides most of the same therapeutic benefits as other forms of THC. There have even been animal studies that showed notable pain relief effects from beta-HHC in rats.
Potential benefits of HHC include:
- May reduce inflammation
- May help manage chronic pain
- May alleviate nausea or vomiting
- May promote deeper, more restorative sleep
- May alleviate anxiety, but can also increase it
- Definitely presents with increased stability and more impressive shelf-life
In HHC, the ratios of the active and inactive molecules vary from batch to batch. However, regardless of the batch or the maker, they must be at least 50 percent active. Any producer of HHC has as their goal minimizing the amount of the less active molecules and optimizing the active ones.
HHC Vs. Delta 9 THC
HHC and THC molecules appear to be almost identical structurally to a layperson, but they have few important differences that render HHC more stable and alter how it binds with the receptors of the ECS. Those include a hydrogenated carbon, a missing ester bond, and an absent double bond in the top ring structure. That latter feature in particular is what changes how HHC binds in the body and lends it added stability.
HHC ultimately produces effects that are very similar effects to those of THC:
- Feelings of relaxation and euphoria, and occasionally sedation
- Changes in cognition, and perception of visual, auditory, and pain sensory data
- Altered body temperature and heart rate
The duration of effects appears to be nearly identical comparing HHC with Delta 9 and Delta 8 THC, although as always, method of consumption impacts duration. For example, when HHC gummies start appearing on the market, just like regular edibles, you can expect those effects to last a lot longer than, say, a vape.
Any type of THC with over three carbons in its side chain produces psychoactive effects, and those effects intensify with the number of carbons in the chain. So it should not be surprising to learn that THCC, with its single carbon, is not psychoactive.
But THCV has three carbons, making it about 25 percent as potent as regular THC, which itself has five carbons. This is true of delta 8, delta 9, and delta 10 THC, although it’s actually the delta 9 isomer that is the strongest. Also with five carbons, HHC has a potency in the realm of delta 8 or delta 9 THC.
Both THC-O-acetate and THCP are more potent still. THC-O has no additional carbons, but a higher bioavailability than natural THC. And the strongest of them all, THCP, is 5 to 33 times as potent as delta 9 THC thanks to its seven carbons.
In the Cannabis sativa plant, both marijuana and hemp varieties, delta 9 THC is by far the most abundant type of THC. As most delta 9 THC breaks down, it converts to CBN, just a small amount becoming HHC, delta 8 THC, or delta 10 THC. Because delta 9 THC occurs in the plant in abundance, it is easy to extract and concentrate with little extra effort, but other compounds such as HHC take the extra work we described above.
Because HHC is characterized by an absence of double bonds on the first ring structure, it is possible to make several variants of the THC molecule by altering this spot, from HHC with no double bonds at all, to CBN with the maximum number of double bonds, and delta 7, delta 8, delta 9, and delta 10 THC in the middle.
Does HHC Show Up On a Drug Test?
We get it, we are about to give you a very annoying answer. But: the evidence is not fully formed yet so this isn’t certain. But anecdotal evidence suggests that right now, HHC evades most drug tests. Some manufacturers argue that this is because HHC does not convert into 11-hydroxy-THC, a common metabolite that drug tests look for. This gives HHC an advantage over delta 8 and delta 10 THC, which will both pop positive on a drug test.
However, unless you’re really okay with risking your entire career or job on a drug test, don’t take the risk. This is still just a theory.
Is HHC Safe?
As with any new hemp-derived cannabinoid, there is little to no research on health effects, whether immediate or long-term, and no standard dosage information. And HHC product makers and retailers are not required to test their products for potency and purity because event in legal adult-use states with cannabis regulations, hemp-derived cannabinoids (including HHC) are not subject to those rules.
Some HHC makers do test their products, of course, although in the context of the lack of research out there it’s less than totally illuminating. Even so, HHC already has many users and is gaining in popularity. That said, no known reports of serious side effects have been seen, so it looks like HHC’s safety profile will be similar to that of high-dose THC. This means you can probably expect some of the same side effects:
- Rapid heart rate
- Increased appetite
- Dizziness and confusion
- Red eyes
- Dry mouth
Is HHC Legal?
Is HHC legal? This is not an easy question to answer.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, manufacturers of HHC products such as the company Bearly Legal say yes. That brand’s idea is that HHC is a hemp-derived product, so it’s not actually THC at all. They also state that HHC is not synthetic, since it can be found in the pollen and seeds of hemp plants.
However, other experts argue that HHC is subject to the Federal Analogue Act. That law simply states that any substance that is similar enough to be analogous to a Schedule I drug—such as garden variety THC—itself qualifies as a Schedule I drug. The argument then is that HHC is so similar to THC and the synthetic drugs Spice and K2 that it should be classified as a Schedule 1 drug.
For now that has not yet happened with HHC products. They exist in a murky legal gray area between cannabis and hemp. This confusion is likely to create at least some risk for consumers until HHC is subject to a state-regulated system.
If regulators ultimately decide that HHC is natural, as long as the starting material is derived from hemp and the final product remains below the legal threshold of 0.3% delta 9 THC, it may remain federally legal. However, if lawmakers decide that HHC is synthetic, it will be illegal.
Does Hemp Contain HHC?
HHC is a hemp-derived product, but it is also a lab-created, semi-synthetic compound. In that setting, technicians isolate hemp plant molecules and mix them with a catalyst. In this process, they actually form a new compound, although its properties are similar to those of natural hemp.
How to Buy HHC
Unfortunately, despite a growing number of manufacturers with interest in making and selling these products, at this time there are few reputable sources of high-quality HHC. Furthermore, testing and standardization practices for HHC are still under development, and its safety profile remains unconfirmed. All of these factors make producing HHC safely much more difficult.
That said, current sources of HHC include:
- Bearly Legal
- Forge Hemp
Don’t buy HHC products outside a dispensary. Numerous scam companies try to take advantage of the lack of regulation and competition by releasing new cannabinoid products before they should. They’re often substandard products with potentially harmful additives.
Final Thoughts on HHC
This is an exciting time to be a fan of unusual cannabinoids! Now that more and more people are open to the life-changing benefits of cannabis, science is catching up and bringing technology with it. HHC has the potential to offer a more shelf-stable alternative at dispensaries across the nation. Have you tried it yet?
Ed is a writer and marketer who has been involved with the cannabis industry since 2017. He is particularly passionate about helping small businesses succeed in the increasingly corporate-takeover environment of the cannabis industry, as well as helping people get started working with cannabis.