Hexahydrocannabinol (HHC) is the latest compound of interest that everyone is talking about. However, very little is known about this unique cannabinoid. 

While it is still early days and scientists are yet to analyze HHC in further detail, some known facts can be discussed. These include: what is HHC, where does it come from, and how it is made.

Are you curious to know whether this compound is safe, legal, or detectable on a drug test?

Or, if you have never tried it, you might wonder what HHC feels like. For example, is it similar to delta-9-THC? Can it make you high? 

Since there is not much information on HHC, you may have noticed that finding reasonable answers to these questions is quite challenging. If that is the case, then look no further — you have come to the right place. All of these questions will be discussed in greater detail below. 

What is HHC?

HCC is a hemp derived cannabinoid that is currently available in a range of products like vape cartridges and HHC gummies. People who buy HHC products enjoy the effects, and many are switching from THC products to HHC products instead.

HHC is not new; scientists have known about it for several decades. However, it would seem that HHC has only just been rediscovered since it has now become readily available.

 

​​Cannabis plants grown indoors
​​Cannabis plants grown indoors

Hemp derived cannabinoids

HHC is a phytocannabinoid that occurs naturally within cannabis or from hemp derived cannabinoids within the hemp plant.

Some compounds found within the cannabis plant are called phytocannabinoids, and over 60 plant-based cannabinoids have been identified (1). The most commonly known and used phytocannabinoids are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-9-THC, also known as THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). 

Compared to THC and CBD, HHC is one of the minor cannabinoids although it has recently gained more attention because it has slightly different effects and properties. As is demonstrated by the recent popularity of HHC, the variety of cannabinoids on offer is increasing, and undoubtedly, more industrial hemp products like these will become available in the future. 

HHC oil is yellow, similar in look to vegetable oil, and is incorporated into a range of HHC products such as HHC vape cartridges or HHC gummies (2). This compound has slightly different effects from THC and is considered a more stable compound since it is more resistant to heat and UV light exposure. 

Dried hemp

The cannabis plant

The cannabis plant has two main subspecies–Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. Within these two subspecies, there are many strains. 

THC is commonly derived from Cannabis sativa and is well known for its psychoactive effects; it is the compound that makes people feel high. In contrast, CBD is often derived from Cannabis indica and is better known for its calming and relaxing effects. 

THC is often derived from Cannabis sativa strains because they typically produce higher quantities of THC than other plants. As for CBD, it is often derived from Cannabis indica strains because they typically have more CBD.

THC and CBD have been incorporated into a range of products. As a result, these compounds are increasingly popular, which has led scientists to address the potential usefulness of other cannabinoids such as HHC. 

Unlike THC and CBD, no specific subspecies or strain of hemp plants produces significantly high amounts of HHC. HHC is found in some hemp plants, but only in trace concentrations.

These concentrations are so low, in fact, that not enough hemp derived HHC can be extracted to produce noticeable effects when used. Therefore, it was never considered to be worth the time and energy to extract HHC oil from raw hemp. Because of this, HCC received little attention in the past.

However, obtaining large quantities of HHC has become more economical recently with techniques that enable it to be easily created in a laboratory through a process called hydrogenation. Since HHC molecules are very similar to other related cannabinoids such as THC, concentrated THC can easily be converted to HHC.

Because HHC oil is made in a lab, many people quickly assume HHC must be deemed synthetic. However, it is more accurate to describe it as a semi-synthetic compound (3). 

HHC is a semi synthetic compound because it occurs naturally within raw hemp, similar to how THC also occurs naturally within high potency Cannabis sativa. Although HHC is not typically obtained directly from hemp plants in its natural form, it can be synthesized from other naturally occurring compounds like hemp derived cannabinoids.

Yellow HHC oil
Yellow HHC oil

How is HHC made?

As mentioned, HHC is a naturally occurring compound that is made synthetically because high enough quantities cannot be derived from any high potency Cannabis sativa plant. Although many experts in the cannabis industry still debate whether HHC is a natural or synthetic compound, some say it should be deemed synthetic.

Scientists have used several methods and some of these scientists have applied for patents to cover their particular processes. One patent covers a process called hydrogenation and involves hydrogen molecules being added to hemp derived THC and this method converts THC into HHC.

Essentially, all methods use a simple chemical reaction where one compound is converted into another by changing the chemical structure. For example, natural THC, CBD, or cannabinol (CBN), which are abundant, are converted into HHC. Also, terpenes such as citronellal might be used as the starting product instead.

Cannabinoid compounds such as THC and CBD are easily converted into HHC because the chemical structures of these compounds are very similar. HHC is just like THC or CBD, except it has fewer double bonds and more hydrogen atoms.

With these extra hydrogen atoms, HHC becomes the most stable form and will last longer because it will be more resistant to heat and UV exposure. It will also have slightly different effects to delta-8-THC and THC. However, this change is only minor, and many effects of THC and CBD will also be present. 

With the right lab equipment and a few extra materials such as a metal catalyst, the THC compound can be converted to HHC. In nature, these compounds can also become HHC, although the chances of this happening are low because the conditions are rarely favorable for natural conversion.

Under natural conditions, when THC degrades, trace amounts of this compound are converted into HHC (4). Methods that synthetically convert THC into HHC apply this same concept, except scientists have found ways to produce more HHC than what natural processes are capable of. 

Compounds for lab experiments

The hydrogenation of cannabis oil

One of these methods, which is patented, is called a process called hydrogenation (5). Since HHC has more hydrogen atoms than THC, this method adds hydrogen molecules to pressurized concentrated THC oil. As a result of this process, HHC becomes a hydrogenated derivative of THC.

Several variations of this method are in use. However, all variations apply the same principles to produce a hydrogenated form of the THC molecule.

Creating HHC in a lab

The conversion of cannabinoids with artificial gastric acid

Another less common method involves converting hemp derived CBD, THC, or CBN to HCC with artificial gastric juice (6). By subjecting these compounds to acidic conditions, the compounds can potentially be converted to a hydrogenated form such as HHC.

While two main methods for converting THC, CBD, or CBN to HHC appear to exist, the hydrogenation of cannabis oils seems to be the procedure that is more likely to be used.

The hydrogenation of terpenes

Another method in use does not involve naturally derived cannabinoids; instead, it starts with compounds called terpenes such as citronellal (7). These compounds are converted to HHC through a chemical reaction known as the hetero-Diels–Alder reaction.

Hydrogen molecules are also added to terpenes and this also creates HHC, and this procedure follows similar principles to the previous methods mentioned.

The result of these procedures is a yellow oil that contains HHC. The oil can be purified to ensure no other unwanted compounds are present.

 

Quality control

Advantages of synthetic HHC

Although using a lab-based product might sound a little unsafe, there are certain advantages. For example, you are more likely to receive a pure product, and reputable labs test each batch to ensure that they provide their clients with the exact product they expect.

What does HHC feel like?

HHC appears to be a promising compound and by now you might be wondering are there any interesting HHC effects worth noting?

Since the HHC molecule is structurally similar to THC, you will probably experience psychoactive effects comparable to that or other active compounds.

THC is often associated with feelings of euphoria or extreme happiness, relaxation, and creativity (8). People who use the compound might also experience altered visual perceptions, and changes in the perception of time and reality.

However, THC compounds are known to affect every person differently. While some people report a positive experience, others might not.

Instead of feeling happy and relaxed, other people may experience negative feelings like confusion, anxiety, or paranoia. These experiences can feel frightening for some people and might prevent them from using THC-based products again.

Regardless of the type, all cannabinoids affect every person differently. You might have already noticed this when comparing comments on THC or CBD, and because of this the effects of HHC could be slightly different for you.

Also, because some people have negative experiences from THC, this has increased the demand further for compounds such as HHC. Although HHC is similar to THC in many ways, some people may potentially respond differently to HHC.

Another point to consider is that HHC is not only similar in structure to THC, but also to CBD, and CBD is typically associated with relaxation and calmness. Thus, the feelings produced by HHC may include aspects of both THC and CBD.

Does HHC get you high?

People who have used HHC products have reported feeling high. Some have mentioned that the high from HHC is similar to the high they get from delta-8 or THC.

Again, not enough evidence is available from studies to support these claims entirely. However, based on the structure of HHC, evidence suggests that it would make you high can be found since HHC conserves many structural aspects of the THC compound.

As mentioned previously, HHC molecules are very similar to the chemical structure of THC with only a few minor differences. The only difference is that the chemical structure of HHC has a few more hydrogen atoms.

Because the chemical structure of a compound determines its effect, HHC will most likely have similar effects to THC. As a result, HHC will interact with your cells in a similar way to how THC does and will thus probably make you high to some extent.

THC works by binding to tiny proteins on the surface of cells known as receptors. When THC binds to specific receptors such as TRP pain receptors for example, it activates a biological response. Depending on which receptor a THC molecule binds to, a biological response can be induced to make you feel high.

Because HHC is structurally similar to THC, it may interact with the same receptors. Therefore, depending on the chemical interaction between HHC and the receptor, HHC could induce a similar biological response. 

Certainly some potential for HHC to make you high exists, although this also depends on other factors that influence how you respond to HHC.

Another factor that can influence whether you get high is the amount of active and inactive HHC molecules present in the product that you use. The active molecules will have a greater effect that the inactive HHC molecules.

You might respond differently to certain cannabinoids, and the effect you have may not be exactly the same as the effects other people have. Because of this, there is no way of fully predicting the HHC effects and how your body will exactly respond to HHC products.

THC oil from plant

HHC vs. delta-8, delta-9, and delta-9-THC-O

Is HHC more potent than the different cannabinoids? Potency is a measure of how well a compound works.

A highly potent compound can produce significant effects at lower concentrations. In contrast, a substance with reduced potency cannot achieve the same effects at a low concentration.  

Therefore, you might wonder how potent HHC is compared to other known cannabinoids such as delta-8-THC, delta-9-THC, and delta-9-THC-O. 

The potency of HHC might be somewhere between delta-8 and delta-9-THC (9). 

Potencies from lowest to highest:

  • Delta-8-THC
  • HHC
  • Delta-9-THC
  • Delta-9-THC-O

HHC vs. delta-8 and delta-9-THC

To start with, delta-8-THC is a considerably potent compound on its own. This is because any cannabinoid with a carbon side chain of 5–7 carbons has a greater chance of binding to your cells. In comparison, other cannabinoids with fewer carbons are less potent.  

HHC has the same number of carbons as delta-8 and delta-9-THC in its side chain. As a result, HHC will have a similar potency to these compounds.

HHC vs. delta-9-THC-O

Delta-9-THC-O remains one of the most potent cannabinoids available, and HHC would not exceed its potency (10). The reason why delta-9-THC-O is more powerful is that this compound has greater bioavailability.

A greater bioavailability means that more delta-9-THC-O will reach the bloodstream compared to other cannabinoids. From this, more delta-9-THC-O can interact with your cells, therefore having a more substantial effect. 

While higher potency or bioavailability might sound preferable, this is not always true. For example, some people find delta-9-THC too strong, so a compound with a lower potency would resolve this issue for them. 

HHC might have a slightly lower potency than THC. If this is true, then HHC might be a welcome alternative for people who find other cannabinoids too powerful. 

Although the effects of THC are great for most people, some people might not want the same experience every time. Hence, HHC might also be a welcome addition for those who want something different.

For now, experiments that directly compare the potency of HHC against other cannabinoids are limited. However, future studies will probably look into this aspect in greater detail. 

Is HHC legal?

The legal status of HHC is highly debatable. Some people claim that HHC is legal, while others claim that it is not. Although several places have made an effort to legalize cannabis, there are still unclear guidelines around cannabinoid analogues such as HHC or other THC alternatives.

So, is HHC legal? First, different states and countries have various regulations and laws around the legal status of cannabis and cannabinoid compounds. Because of this, no simple yes or no answer to this question applies to everyone.

Many companies that sell HHC products encourage their customers to check with their regional laws first before purchasing. Since there are so many different laws that apply to cannabis-based products, this is wise.

If your area has not legalized any cannabis products, then HHC is most likely illegal in your area. However, for people living in areas where cannabis products are partially or fully legal, regulations around HHC products may remain slightly unclear.

1986 Federal Analogue Act

If you live in the United States, the reason why the legal status of HHC is so vague is due to the 1986 Federal Analogue Act (11). The act states that compounds similar to Schedule I controlled substances are illegal.

According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Schedule I drugs are psychoactive substances with no medical use (12). The DEA lists cannabis as one of these drugs.

Therefore, HHC could be deemed illegal since the compound is similar to delta-8 and delta-9-THC and is not used medically. Although some states have legalized THC, experts are unsure what this means in terms of the Federal Analogue Act.

2018 Farm Bill Act

To further confuse things, other people claim that HHC is legal based on the 2018 Farm Bill Act, which legalized hemp-derived products containing less than 0.3 % THC (13). Based on this, if an HHC product has less than 0.3 % THC, it is legal since HHC occurs naturally in hemp.

The 2018 Farm Bill Act is more recent and up to date than the Federal Analogue Act, which is arguably outdated and has not kept up with current developments.

Perhaps some more explicit guidelines will be established if intervention is required in the future. For now, it is probably safe to say that HHC products containing less than 3 % THC are legal under the Farm Bill Act.

Does HHC show up on a drug test?

Some people claim that HHC can evade drug tests, although this is very unlikely.

First, HHC is a very similar compound to THC; therefore, since THC can show up on a test, HHC will not be able to elude drug tests either.

Because HHC is similar to THC, your body will metabolize HHC similarly to the way it does for THC (14). When THC is metabolized, it turns into a slightly different compound, and drug tests detect this compound.

Although THC has been legalized for recreational use in some states, many drug testing facilities still test for THC compounds and other cannabinoids because they remain illegal under federal law.

You might have also heard of claims that once HHC is metabolized, it will evade drug test or elude drug tests. However, the US Drug Test Center claims to have very sensitive tests that detect even tiny traces of any compound.

If you require a drug test, it would be best to avoid HHC as it will most likely be detected.

Traces of HHC will probably remain in your body just as long as other compounds like delta-8-THC, delta-9-THC, and delta-9-THC-O. However, the duration ultimately depends on how often you use these compounds and the amount you use.

On average, traces of these compounds can remain in your body for 30 days (15). Although, much longer durations have been documented. 

Is HHC safe?

HHC probably has a similar safety profile to THC. However, no official claims about whether HHC is safe or unsafe have been made. Since it has only been available for a short time no studies on the long-term effects of HHC in humans have been published.

If a company sells HHC, they are cautious around making statements about safety. In other words, you purchase HHC and use it at your own risk.

Currently, not enough medical or scientific research has evaluated the safety or toxicity of HHC and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to evaluate whether HHC is safe. Most of the information available is anecdotal evidence - facts which are related to personal accounts from people who have used HHC.

If you are concerned about safety and toxicity from HHC, then ensure that you source your HHC from a place that uses a third-party lab for testing.

Doing so will reduce the chances of toxicity by ensuring that you are getting the correct dose. These labs also test the quality of the product and provide a report of what is in it.

Other sources of HHC could be less reliable, and you have no way of knowing whether you have the right product just from looking at it.

In general, the warnings that apply to other cannabinoid-based products also apply to HHC. 

You should avoid any cannabinoid-based product if you are:  

  • pregnant or breastfeeding
  • chronically ill
  • under the age of 21
  • elderly 

 Before using these products, you should also consult your doctor.

You should also avoid cannabinoid products if you have had any reactions to them in the past and discontinue them if they make you feel unwell.

How is HHC consumed?

After HHC is synthesized, the oil can be added to a range of products.

A common HHC product is HHC infused vapes. Other products that include infused HHC are:

  • HHC flower
  • HHC cigarettes
  • HHC gummies

If you are trying edible HHC, it might take longer to work. In contrast, inhaling HHC has a much quicker effect because it can enter your bloodstream more quickly.

HHC cannot be consumed directly from the cannabis plant since high enough concentrations of HHC can only be derived in a lab.

The bottom line

HHC is available in a range of cannabinoid-based products, and many people are switching from THC to products that contain HHC instead. 

Because HHC is relatively new, not enough evidence about the effects and safety of this compound has been accumulated. Future studies might look into these aspects. 

HHC containing less than 3 % THC is probably legal under the 2018 Farm Bill Act. However, there is still an element of uncertainty since this specific compound has not been fully assessed legally. 

Undoubtedly, more compounds like HHC will become readily available in the future. 


References

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  8.     Bow, E., & Rimoldi, J. (2016). The Structure–Function Relationships of Classical Cannabinoids: CB1/CB2 Modulation. Perspectives In Medicinal Chemistry, 8.
  9.     Hoffmann, G., Daniliuc, C., & Studer, A. (2018). Synthesis of Para (−)-Δ8-THC Triflate as a Building Block for the Preparation of THC Derivatives Bearing Different Side Chains. Organic Letters, 21(2), 563-566.
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