Hair analysis for Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid A—New insights into the mechanism of drug incorporation of cannabinoids into hair
Differentiation between external contamination and incorporation of drugs or their metabolites from inside the body via blood, sweat or sebum is a general issue in hair analysis and of high concern when interpreting analytical results. In hair analysis for cannabinoids the most common target is Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), sometimes cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) are determined additionally. After repeated external contamination by cannabis smoke these analytes are known to be found in hair even after performing multiple washing steps. A widely accepted strategy to unequivocally prove active cannabis consumption is the analysis of hair extracts for the oxidative metabolite 11-nor-9-carboxy-THC (THC-COOH). Although the acidic nature of this metabolite suggests a lower rate of incorporation into the hair matrix compared to THC, it is not fully understood up to now why hair concentrations of THC-COOH are generally found to be much lower (mostly <10 pg/mg) than the corresponding THC concentrations. Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid A (THCA A) is the preliminary end product of the THC biosynthesis in the cannabis plant. Unlike THC it is non-psychoactive and can be regarded as a ‘precursor’ of THC being largely decarboxylated when heated or smoked. The presented work shows for the first time that THCA A is not only detectable in blood and urine of cannabis consumers but also in THC positive hair samples. A pilot experiment performed within this study showed that after oral intake of THCA A on a regular basis no relevant incorporation into hair occurred. It can be concluded that THCA A in hair almost exclusively derives from external contamination e.g. by side stream smoke. Elevated temperatures during the analytical procedure, particularly under alkaline conditions, can lead to decarboxylation of THCA A and accordingly increase THC concentrations in hair. Additionally, it has to be kept in mind that in hair samples tested positive for THCA A at least a part of the ‘non-artefact’ THC probably derives from external contamination as well, because in condensate of cannabis smoke both THC and THCA A are present in relevant amounts. External contamination by side stream smoke could therefore explain the great differences in THC and THC-COOH hair concentrations commonly found in cannabis users.