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The 2018 federal legalization of hemp opened a new world of possibilities for plant enthusiasts and cannabinoid lovers. While CBD immediately skyrocketed to popularity, there are hundreds of cannabinoids tucked in the hemp plant, waiting for their moment to shine.
Delta-8 THC, delta-10, and THCO-A have emerged this year as popular hemp derivatives, but there’s a new cannabinoid ready for the spotlight: hexahydrocannabinol. Hexahydrocannabinol, or HHC for short, is a bit of a mouthful, but it opens the door to an entirely new class of chemical compounds, free from state and federal interference (for now).
To break down exactly what HHC is, we sat down with Matthew Guenther, Founder of the American Cannabinoid Association and Delta-8 Science. He’s excited about the rising popularity of HHC but believes the industry must set responsible standards for production.
Here’s what you need to know about HHC, how it’s made, what it feels like, and what Matthew thinks brands need to do to bring the highest quality HHC products to market.
MG: HHC is a hemp derivative. It also occurs naturally in small quantities in the cannabis and hemp plant, particularly in the pollen.
HHC was first discovered in the 1940s. There are conflicting reports about exactly when, between 1944 and 1947, but it was the mid-1940’s. HHC can be made via a fully synthetic route, but as it pertains to the hemp industry, what’s occurring is the hydrogenation of delta-8 THC.
MG: There are a couple of different methodologies to hydrogenate delta-8 into HHC, and it usually requires metal as a catalyst. Some people are using expensive 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.
To fully explain hydrogenation, we have to talk about THC molecules (tetrahydrocannabinols) like delta-8 and delta-9 first. The difference between these two compounds is the position of their double bond electrons. But they are all tetrahydrocannabinols with a double bond and four hydrogen atoms. To make HHC, you have to break apart delta-8’s double bonds and insert two hydrogen atoms to make it stable and ready for use. In the end you create a cannabinoid (HHC) similar to tetrahydrocannabinols, except it doesn’t have any double bonds in its chemical structure.
MG: If you compare HHC to CBN, you’ll see amazing similarities in their electron stability. 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.
MG: First, HHC is not a tetrahydrocannabinod, like delta-8, delta-9, delta-10 THC is. This is a different chemical class. It’s known as hexahydrocannabinol.
HHC is federally legal because it is a hemp derivative, covered under the 2018 Farm Bill language. 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.
But it’s not necessarily 50 state legal due to changes in language in bills at the state level. The Federal Analogue Act protects substantial deviations in chemical structure as well as pharmacological effects, but specific State Analogue Act language or language targeting production methodologies may prohibit HHC under certain modifications.
MG: At first glance, the layperson may not think there’s a substantial difference between delta-8 and HHC, but when you get into the chemistry and the electron structures, these relatively small substitutions really impact the pharmacology. HHC is really the next generation of compounds that could have some significant clinical and medicinal potential moving forward.
In the production of HHC, there’s a mixture of diastereomers. In current production methods, they’re usually close to 50-50 split. One of them is allegedly more psychoactive than the other, but preliminary research indicates they both have significant medical potential.
So when we get down into the nitty-gritty and separate out the different forms of HHC to see what those can do in a clinical setting, I think that’s exciting. And some of the information that we gather on HHC is going to help us determine a long list of cannabinoids in the future that can have impactful medicinal potential.
MG: No, but most labs aren’t prepared to test for HHC yet. Additionally, not all lab producers and formulators are made the same. Some labs either don’t have the proper methodologies, or they don’t have access to the best reference standards to accurate potency results. The current challenge is that it’s new and it takes time to develop the proper methodologies in a proper fashion.
In terms of safety, producers need to make sure that conversion from CBD to delta-8 is as clean as possible. If you start with good, high-quality delta-8, the conversions you get running into HHC are pretty high-quality. Not many people are producing HHC right now, but the people I’ve encountered are doing it correctly, so that’s good news.
Then there’s the concern about creating accidental cannabinoid by-products in the manufacturing process. I will say this, in the HHC that I’ve seen tested on the market, it’s highly pure stuff. The hydrogenation process does its job well. I don’t see a lot of by-products; I don’t see a lot of other cannabinoids.
MG: You have two full spectrum HHC products on the market right now; edibles and vape cartridges. I enjoy HHC as an edible myself, but I’ve got a lot of friends that swear by the vape cartridges.
I’m sure there are other innovations coming down the road as the price points go down. As brands start producing HHC commercially, you’ll start to see more and more people formulating with it, resulting in more and more products.
MG: Everybody’s biochemistry and neurology are unique, so some people maybe report more of an impact than others will. That said, HHC has a unique onset, different from both delta-8 and delta-9.
It has a more gradual onset followed by a calming and smooth experience, longer than delta-8 and shorter than delta-9. Many people state that it’s a less energetic feeling than delta-8, more cerebral, not as strong as delta-9, but a little more other-worldly as opposed to more clarity and focus. But I’ve personally heard others report the exact opposite and say that it is more of an energetic thing.
The effects could be determined by the different concentrations of diastereomers contained within the HHC distillate. A 60-40 version of that mixture one way versus the 40-60 of another could make a big impact. More research is needed.
MG: I wouldn’t say very different. I don’t know if it would be life-altering one way or another, but the idea that you could smoke or ingest one batch in the form of your choosing, and with a 60-40 mix one way as opposed to a 40-60 mix the other way, I find that well within the realm of possibilities that you could get different feelings.
MG: There are a few brands putting out HHC products right now, mostly online, including Delta-8 Science, Bearly Legal, and Industrial Hemp Farms. I haven’t seen too many products locally.
To make HHC, you need chemical reactions as well as a catalyst. While I’ve seen very clean solutions, it’s important to remember that If you don’t produce the product with the utmost care, you can end up with a formula that leaves harmful chemicals behind. Before products go to market, verified laboratories like ACS must create verifiable reference standards to ensure purity, potency, and safety.