A new study offers more data on the role cannabinoids play in the brain’s ability to extinguish traumatic memories. (AdobeStock)
The ability to forget fear is vital in allowing us to live normal lives. If we remembered every ounce of fear we’d ever felt, we wouldn’t be able to function. One of the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is impaired fear extinction—the process that helps our brains forget traumatic events.
A new study out of Leiden University in the Netherlands explores anandamide, a cannabinoid produced naturally by the human body, and its role in fear extinction. They did so by pioneering a technique that inhibits anandamide production in the brain.
The study could have profound implications for the use of cannabis in treating PTSD. Millions of military veterans and other trauma survivors already use medical cannabis to manage PTSD, but scientists are still exploring the mechanisms involved in the healing process.
At a basic level the endocannabinoid system is how THC gets you high. The intoxicating compound found in cannabis causes its iconic effects by binding to the cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1). THC’s more subtle effects, like immune modulation, are caused by its interaction with cannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2).
The identification of CB1 and CB2 receptors in the early 1990s led to the discovery of compounds in our bodies that stimulate them naturally. These compounds are known as endocannabinoids—cannabinoids produced by our bodies. Over a dozen endocannabinoids have been identified. The two most commonly studied are anandamide (AEA) and 2-AG.
If you’ve ever worked out so hard that you feel totally blissed out for a few minutes, you’ve felt anandamide at work. That feeling is the reason anandamide was named after the Sanskrit word for ‘bliss.’ This light euphoria, sometimes called the runner’s high, lasts just a short period of time because anandamide is co-released with fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), an enzyme that breaks down anandamide.
Think of the anandamide-FAAH relationship like the elements in a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos. If there aren’t that many FAAH hippos munching, the bliss-causing marbles of anandamide remain on the table a lot longer.
There’s a significant body of work that shows reducing FAAH expression makes all sorts of feel-good effects last longer. Anandamide makes us feel good by triggering the reward center of our brains, and the longer it sticks around, the longer we feel good.
The team at Leiden University, led by Mario van der Stelt, wondered what would happen if they did the opposite—if they reduced the amount of anandamide produced by the brain instead of reducing FAAH. Finding a specific tool to reduce anandamide production would paint a more detailed picture of what role it plays in our bodies. So that’s exactly what they did.
Van der Stelt’s team identified a chemical that reduces the production of anandamide by inhibiting the production of one of the enzymes that triggers its production. It didn’t block production completely, because the body produces anandamide in a number of ways. But by partially blocking anandamide production, they could test what role the endocannabinoid plays.
The researchers then compared behavior in normal mice and anandamide-suppressed mice. Mice with blocked anandamide production were way more stressed out—as evidenced by higher cortisol levels—than normal mice. The anandamide-suppressed mice also held onto conditioned fear for much longer than normal mice. The compound van der Stelt’s team developed isn’t targeted specifically at anandamide–it suppresses other endocannabinoids (OEA and PEA) as well. This means that their behavioral observations could be due to changes in any one of those closely related compounds, though anandamide seems the most likely culprit.
This is a highly technical discovery, but an important one. It’s the first study of its kind to prove that lowering anandamide levels has negative consequences on emotional behavior. This could explain why PTSD develops—those brains don’t produce enough anandamide to remain emotionally balanced. It could also explain why flashbacks feel so visceral to people with PTSD, they literally lack the mechanism to forget those traumatic memories.
Understanding anandamide’s role gives us more insight into why cannabis, with its ability to mimic the effects of anandamide, could help PTSD patients.
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With the extract market burgeoning, there’s an increased focus on how those products are produced. Solvent extraction methods have advanced quickly over the past few years, with popular solvents including ethanol, CO2, and hydrocarbons—organic compounds containing only hydrogen and carbon atoms—which in cannabis are usually butane and propane. If you’ve used vape oil, edibles, or any number of products that incorporate extracts, you could well have been sampling the fruit of hydrocarbon extraction.
While they don’t sound like compounds you want to be ingesting, hydrocarbons have been used in food extraction for over five decades, for example, in the production of flavors and colorings. More recently, compounds like butane and propane are used to produce cannabis extracts with specific profiles. The purity and potency of hydrocarbon extracts vary greatly, but you can find THC-rich extracts that contain up to 90% of the plant’s original cannabinoids.
If carried out correctly, hydrocarbon extracts can be safe, both in terms of minimizing production risks and creating a product fit for consumption. Here we’ll talk about the details of hydrocarbon extraction processes, including their benefits and drawbacks, and we’ll also discuss which products are manufactured in this manner.
Hydrocarbon extracts can come in a variety of forms, including oil, glass, shatter, wax, and hash. These extracts are sometimes synonymous with Butane Hash Oil (BHO), which is often heated and inhaled in a process known as dabbing. That said, hydrocarbon extracts can be used in many other types of products, including edibles, vape cartridges, capsules, and topicals (including transdermal patches).
For extracts to be of high quality, you still need to start with a quality product. For example, nug runs—concentrates that use cannabis flower—are considered of higher quality than trim runs. Plus, the extraction process used, including any refinement steps, will determine the profile and quality of the final product.
Hydrocarbon extraction usually involves butane as the primary solvent, although other hydrocarbons or a blend of two or more may be used. When combined with cannabis plant material, the hydrocarbon dissolves desirable compounds present in the plants.
Butane is an ideal solvent for cannabis extraction—it has a low boiling point of 30.2°F (-1°C) and is used in extraction as a liquified gas. This allows you to avoid exposing temperature-sensitive terpenes and other delicate components to heat.
The boiling point of propane is even lower than that of butane at -43.6°F (-42°C). It’s common to see a blend of both used. Propane may provide benefits by stripping additional desirable compounds, such as terpenes, from the plant. It also allows for a more effective purging of leftover solvent.
Here are the general steps for hydrocarbon extraction:
- Cold, liquified butane (or hydrocarbon blend) is used to wash the plant matter, dissolving cannabinoids (such as THC and CBD) and terpenes (which provide aroma and flavor), often along with lipids and waxes.
- The resulting solution may then be refined using a number of methods, depending on the final product. For example, centrifugation can be used to remove terpenes and winterization can remove lipids from the concentrate. Dewaxing and decarboxylation are other common refinement steps.
- After refinement, the resulting solution is passed through a collection chamber to remove the majority of the residual solvent. The butane is often transported back to the start of the process to be reused.
Finally, the concentrated solution is further purged to get rid of any excess hydrocarbons. The process will depend on the final product but may involve drying in a vacuum oven or whipping.
While hydrocarbon extractions can technically be carried out anywhere, the dangers of dealing with butane gas can often produce disastrous results. Producers of legal extracts work in compliant environments and use equipment specially designed for this application. Do not try this at home.
Hydrocarbon extraction isn’t the only technique out there, and other extraction processes may be preferable depending on the desired outcome. Here are the main pros and cons of hydrocarbon extraction:
You can maintain the authenticity of the strain. Each strain has a unique chemical profile which other extraction methods can render unrecognizable. Hydrocarbon extraction can maintain the delicate makeup of the plant so that the original combination of cannabinoids and terpenes remains in the final product.
It offers versatility. There is a range of extract types that can be produced using hydrocarbon extraction because the levels of butane and propane can be tweaked to create the desired profile. Depending on the strain and how involved the production method is, you’ll find products at a broad range of price points.
You can use up trim. Due to the nature of hydrocarbon extraction, you can make use of the less desirable parts of the plant. For example, trim from cannabis harvests might otherwise be discarded as waste. However, these loose leaves still bear lots of resin that is rich in cannabinoids. These and other components can be extracted using hydrocarbon extraction, producing products known as trim runs.
Extractions can pose risks. If not carried out properly, hydrocarbon extraction methods can be very dangerous. Butane and propane are highly flammable so the equipment and environment must meet strict standards before being considered safe.
It’s possible to produce hazardous products. Similarly, if hydrocarbon extraction is not conducted properly, the consumer could be at risk. For example, some amateur products will use low-quality solvents that contain unknown contaminants. They might also fail to purge the final product of solvents at the end of the extraction, and sell items with residual solvent levels far above what is considered safe. This is one of the reasons it’s important to only purchase lab-tested products, so you know exactly what you’re getting.
We are currently living through anxiety provoking times. The coronavirus is the perfect recipe to turn even the most laid back and centred among us into worrying wrecks, imagining the most catastrophic (although unlikely) outcomes for ourselves and our loved ones.
And that, dear friends, is the day-to-day life of someone living with anxiety. I know because for the last fifteen years it’s an inner world I’ve inhabited. Only for me, it’s not a pandemic I’m freaking out about, but lesser evils such as whether I’m going to make a complete idiot of myself in some social gathering or my own favorite anxiety rabbit hole – feeling anxious about feeling anxious.
While there’s no magic bullet to banish anxiety for good, managing anxiety symptoms is a commonly stated reason why people take cannabis – medical or otherwise – with CBD showing particular promise in preliminary studies.
Anxiety disorders are a collection of mental health conditions characterized by disproportionate worrying about future events that brings about physiological responses in the body such as tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, muscle tension, sleep disturbance, excessive sweating, agitation, restlessness, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.
Avoidance behavior are common strategies amongst anxiety sufferers. If you’ve had a panic attack crossing a bridge, there’s a fair chance you’ll never make it to the other side of that river again. And for the socially anxious amongst us, myself included, not turning up to that party or after work drinks or a friend’s wedding are tactics regularly employed.
However, the more situations we avoid, the smaller our worlds eventually become, and it’s often at this point when an anxiety disorder is diagnosed. Right now, it’s estimated 264 million1 people worldwide have some kind of anxiety disorder, with approximately 40 million2 of them residing in the United States.
Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) when anxiety is felt about a wide range of situations or issues; social anxiety disorder (SAD) – the fear of being negatively judged or rejected in social situations; panic disorder – sudden feelings of terror resulting in panic attacks; obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – unwelcomed repetitive thoughts and behaviour; phobias – an extreme fear triggered by a situation or object; and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – anxiety including flashbacks that develop after some kind of traumatic event.
Due to their complex and often individualized nature, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to treating anxiety disorders. Talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), are often combined with anti-anxiety drugs like SSRI antidepressants or benzodiazepines for a more immediate calming effect. Also known as tranquilizers, benzodiazepines include the likes of Xanax and Valium, and while they may lull patients into a state of anxiety-free calm, taken long term they can result in addiction.
It’s clear, therefore, that a new class of anti-anxiety medication, without risk of abuse or dependence and free from side effects, must be developed. And the big ‘green’ hope is that the cannabis plant might hold the key.
Stress, Anxiety & the Endocannabinoid System
Coping with stress or unwinding from a hectic day, is one of the major reasons millions of people consume cannabis. While your average recreational user isn’t interested in the biological mechanisms behind why they feel more relaxed after smoking a joint, the reason is almost certainly due to the direct activation of their endocannabinoid system (ECS).
The ECS comprises fatty ligands called endocannabinoids which bind to a vast network of cannabinoid receptor sites (CB1 and CB2) throughout the brain, central nervous system, immune system, and organs. Dynamic in nature, it is constantly working to ensure all our physiological systems remain in balance.
Life is filled with external stressors – pollution, poor sleep, that argument with your boss, the 24/7 news reports about the millions of people dying worldwide from the coronavirus. Thankfully the ECS works as a buffer to ensure our organisms don’t develop some kind of illness as a result. It also plays a crucial role in regulating fear, anxiety and how we cope with stress.3
Activating CB1 receptors in the brain and central nervous system has been found to calm feelings of anxiety, which explains why consuming cannabis tends to chill people out.4 However, it’s not a case of the more you smoke, the less anxious you feel as higher doses of THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, can actually be anxiety inducing.5
Enhanced signaling between CB1 receptors and the endocannabinoid anandamide in the amygdala, an area of the brain key to processing fear, has been shown to help mice forget frightening experiences.6 That’s something of clinical interest for the treatment of anxiety disorders where frightening events of the past become indelibly marked in a patient’s memory, fueling future feelings of anxiety.
However, chronic stress itself can eventually impair our endocannabinoid system. Prolonged exposure to stress downregulates CB1 receptor signaling in brain regions involved in emotional processing.4 Chronic stress also increases levels of fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), the enzyme that breaks anandamide down in the body, resulting in lower concentrations of the feel-good endocannabinoid.7
With weakened endocannabinoid signaling, we are more vulnerable to developing anxiety and depression. Indeed, one study showed a clear inverse relationship between anandamide levels and anxiety severity in women with major depression;8So in basic terms, the more anandamide deficient we are, the more anxious we may become.
Thus, boosting CB1 signaling could be a potential therapeutic target for both protecting against and treating anxiety disorders – a theory explored in a preclinical study on mice with low anandamide levels caused by stress-induced anxiety. Researchers observed how inhibiting FAAH reversed the animals’ anandamide deficiency, which in turn reduced their anxious behaviour.9
CBD: A Multi-Targeted Approach to Anxiety
While drug companies around the world are experimenting with synthetic FAAH inhibitors,10 hoping they’ll become the next big thing in anti-anxiety medication, cannabidiol (CBD), the non-intoxicating compound found in cannabis, has been shown to inhibit anandamide reuptake and delay its metabolism by FAAH.11 Several studies confirm that administering CBD enhances CB1 signaling, in turn promoting the creation of new neurons in the hippocampus,12 which scientists believe further contributes towards the compound’s anxiolytic effect.
However, CBD’s anti-anxiety action extends beyond increasing endocannabinoid signaling. Animal studies show how CBD interacts with serotonin 5-HT1A receptors in the brain, which are tried and tested targets for anti-anxiety medication.
In one study, administering CBD to rats submitted to 60 minutes of enforced restraint not only lowered their heart rate and mean arterial pressure, but also reduced anxiety levels. However, these results were not replicated when the rats were given a 5-HT1A antagonist, which blocked CBD from interacting with the serotonin receptors,13 What remains unclear is whether CBD elicits this effect by directly binding with 5-HT1A14 receptors or by indirectly facilitating 5-HT1A serotonin signaling.15
Neuroimaging in healthy subjects given 400mg of a CBD isolate suggested that the relaxation they reportedly experienced may have been caused by activity in the limbic and paralimbic brain system, areas of the brain associated with emotional processing, memory, and cognitive processes.16
CBD & Anxiety: Outside the Lab
While more still remains to be discovered about the mechanisms behind CBD’s anxiolytic effect, in certain US states and countries where medicinal use of cannabis is legal, doctors are treating their patients with CBD-rich cannabis strains for anxiety disorders. For the rest of us still condemned to the dark ages of prohibition, CBD oil derived from hemp has been our anti-anxiety salvation.
Consider the case of Emily Wilson, a 30-year-old British aid worker living in Greece. For the last three years, Emily has been education coordinator at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Athens, where 2800 displaced persons from countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran live side by side in converted shipping containers, many still suffering from severe trauma.
With limited resources, Emily was often left feeling stressed and frustrated by the limitations of the work she could do. After two years working at the refugee camp, her naturally buoyant and positive nature was no longer a protection against the physical and mental strain she endured on a daily basis.
“I remember a few times,” Emily recounted, “where I’d just be walking and I’d start to think about work and my chest would tighten and I’d have to start taking deep breaths because my chest was tightening so much and my eyes were watering like I was crying. But it was tears of frustration and tears of panic. This happened about once or twice a week for about three or four weeks until I realized there was something really wrong. It was so crippling that I didn’t go to work because I couldn’t get out of bed.”
Emily started taking full spectrum CBD oil, and after gradually building up the dose from one drop to three drops, three times a day, she started to feel her anxiety levels subside.
“I think the major benefit of it for me,” says Emily, “was it prevented the anxiety from becoming all encompassing. It didn’t take away the problems, but meant that they were there, I acknowledged them, I knew that I had to work through them, but they weren’t in my chest, they weren’t in my throat, and weren’t stopping me doing things. So there was a distance from them. I also felt a deep sense of calm and a deep sense of, OK, well, everything can be solved.”
Evidence With Limitations
Thousands of glowing anecdotal accounts are one thing, but without some randomised clinical trials, mainstream medical institutions will never take CBD seriously as an anti-anxiety treatment. Unfortunately, as with most areas of cannabinoid research, clinical research into CBD for anxiety still falls rather short.
Because anxiety is such a broad term, most research conducted so far has concentrated on just one type of anxiety disorder, namely social anxiety disorder. A well-established protocol for measuring the effectiveness of an anti-anxiety drug is its administration to socially anxious individuals before they take part in a public speaking test.
In one study, healthy and socially anxious subjects were both asked to perform a simulated public speaking test.17 Those with social anxiety disorder were either given a one-off dose of 600mg pure CBD or a placebo. The healthy subjects performed the test without any medication.
This hefty dose of CBD allowed the socially anxious participants to perform the task with “significantly reduced anxiety, cognitive impairment and discomfort in their speech performance,” as well as reducing their stress levels prior to the test. In comparison, the placebo group fared less well experiencing high levels of anxiety. No difference in anxiety or performance was noted between the CBD group and the healthy subjects, suggesting a one-off, high dose of CBD before public speaking may allow the socially anxious to perform just as well as someone without social anxiety disorder.
However, giving a single 600mg dose of purified CBD does not reflect the clinical experiences of doctors recommending medical cannabis to patients with anxiety or that of the millions of people around the world taking hemp-based CBD oil for anxiety-related conditions.
Purified Versus Whole Plant CBD
With a race on to find a new anti-anxiety drug potentially worth billions of dollars,18 there’s little financial gain to be enjoyed from developing medication based on whole plant cannabis. But purified CBD, while potentially more lucrative and easier to study in clinical trials, has its own therapeutic drawbacks that aren’t present in full spectrum CBD-rich cannabis extracts.
Anyone who’s tried a CBD isolate will vouch for the fact that a high dose is generally needed to get any therapeutic effect. This common experience was confirmed in a meta-analysis comparing CBD-rich products with purified CBD in patients with epilepsy.19 The study found much lower doses of CBD-rich cannabis were taken by patients to successfully control their seizures compared to the high amounts of purified CBD used in Epidiolex clinical trials.
Not only that, animal studies demonstrate how purified CBD has a ‘bell shaped dose-response’,20 whereby it only shows significant therapeutic benefit at a substantial dose, with little efficacy at lower or higher doses.
This inverted bell shaped dose-response was confirmed in the context of social anxiety when healthy volunteers undertaking a simulated public speaking test only experienced a reduction in anxiety when given 300mg of CBD, but no change with either 150mg or 600mg, suggesting a narrower therapeutic window compared to CBD-rich cannabis.21
Until recently, there’s been little evidence from human studies about the anti-anxiety effects of taking CBD over a prolonged period of time. However, just last year, a randomised placebo study was published in which Japanese teenagers with social anxiety and avoidant personality disorder were given 300mg of pure CBD or a placebo daily over four weeks.22 Not only did CBD significantly decrease their anxiety, but half of the participants given CBD expressed a wish to seek therapy or further treatment at the end of the study, while none of the placebo group mentioned such a desire.
In an open label retrospective study also published in 2019, 72 psychiatric patients with anxiety or sleep disorders were given between 25-175mg of CBD a day, alongside existing psychiatric medications.23 After two months of treatment, 78.1% of patients reported feeling less anxious and 56.1% experienced improved sleep.
A Clinician’s Experience
These encouraging results validate the experiences of clinicians who regularly prescribe medical cannabis to patients with anxiety. “For me, it’s a really good choice for treating anxiety in people,” says Dr. Rebecca Moore, a UK-based consultant psychiatrist who sees patients at The Medical Cannabis Clinics in London.
“I’ve seen some amazingly wonderful results. People who’ve had lifelong anxiety, who are doing all the right things in terms of their diet, their exercise, their supplements, but still have a fairly crippling anxiety, and within a couple of months they don’t have any anxiety at all and can’t quite believe what’s happened to themselves.
“One lady told me that she had been able to pick up a book and read for the first time in 20 years, focus and enjoy it. And another said she was planning her first holiday in 10 years. You know, it’s just life-changing differences for people.”
Dr. Moore has found medical cannabis – in particular CBD-rich oil, but also including small amounts of THC – to benefit patients with all types of anxiety disorders. In general, patients need far smaller doses than used in published preliminary studies, with some benefitting from as little as 30mg of CBD a day.
Patients usually arrive at Dr. Moore’s clinic because they find the anti-anxiety drugs they have been prescribed over the years don’t work well, and they struggle with the harsh side effects. “I’ve had people come in,” says Dr Moore, “on four or five different medications, who have managed to stop them all and just be on CBD. People who were on two antidepressants, plus a benzodiazepine, plus a sleeping tablet at night, plus an anti-hypertensive, and they stopped all of them.”
It’s in her treatment of PTSD using cannabinoids where Dr. Moore has seen some of the most fascinating changes in patients: “I think particularly with trauma memories, it’s so interesting the way it seems to impact on people’s recollection of their memory. People talk about feeling like their trauma memories are being deleted. And then I’ve had lots of people say they actually then start to remember positive memories, which they weren’t able to access before.”
Right now, a number of clinical trials to study the effectiveness of CBD for anxiety are in the process of recruiting, including one using 25mg of full spectrum CBD soft gel capsules over a period of twelve weeks;24 and a phase II clinical trial evaluating the efficacy of CBD for social anxiety, which will also measure changes in endocannabinoid levels.25 And a Harvard Medical School research project will compare whole-plant and single-extract CBD solutions for anxiety.
Unfortunately, though, with clinical research moving at a slow pace, we’re a long way from official approval of CBD as an anti-anxiety medicine.
In the meantime, in a bid to minimise any damage to our endocannabinoid system caused by current coronavirus stress which may make us more vulnerable to anxiety disorders now and in the future, we could do a lot worse than incorporating high quality, CBD-rich cannabis or a CBD oil into our self-care routine.
Mary Biles, a Project CBD contributing writer, is a journalist, blogger and educator with a background in holistic health. Based between the UK and Spain, she is committed to accurately reporting advances in medical cannabis research.
Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.
A few years ago, I cultivated a CBD-rich medicinal cannabis garden in Sonoma County, California, on a parcel that was once part of an experimental farm owned and operated by the famed horticulturalist Luther Burbank. Known as a “plant wizard” and a creator of novel botanicals, Burbank purchased the property in 1885 to expand his plant-breeding work.
More than 130 years later, I became an unlikely beneficiary of Burbank’s wise decision to plant on this terrain. The land was blessed with a mild Mediterranean climate and well-drained, loamy soil — “the chosen spot of all this earth as far as Nature is concerned,” as Burbank described it — and perfect, it turns out, for growing ganja.
Burbank knew this firsthand. He was a big fan of cannabis sativa, breeding it and promoting its many uses. Yet, this aspect of Burbank’s legendary career as a pioneer horticulturist has largely been ignored by historians and is not well known. It should be. Many people have eaten Luther Burbank’s Russet Potato or his Bartlett Pear, but few know much about the man himself or his connection to cannabis.
Burbank’s life spanned America’s first golden age of medicinal cannabis. When he was in his prime, cannabis was listed in The U.S. Pharmacopeia and The National Formulary as a remedy for numerous ailments. From the mid-1800’s until the late 1930’s cannabis tinctures and poultices were popular over-the-counter remedies for treating pain, headaches, anxiety, insomnia, colds and flu, seizures, and lack of sexual desire, to name just a few indications. Apothecaries sold cannabis cigarettes for asthma, and “hasheesh” candies were retailed by the likes of Sears, Roebuck and Company.
Burbank was particularly interested in the industrial applications of cannabis. He developed a cultivar for superior fiber content, envisioning it as an alternative to the dwindling supply of wood pulp for paper. “The experimental work is only at its beginnings, but it seems to be of considerable promise,” Burbank wrote. He also encouraged the use of hempseed oil for a variety of products, noting its widespread applications in other countries, while bemoaning the waste of agricultural resources he had observed in the United States.
Apples and Ganja
My cannabis garden was set amongst some of Burbank’s still-producing apple trees, with south-facing terraces that made full use of the sun. It also benefited from the afternoon sea breezes, which modulated and circulated the warmed summer air, a natural convection action that also helped to stave off mold infestation so devastating to ripening marijuana plants.
The growing season would begin in the early spring. As the buds on Burbank’s centenarian apple trees were swelling nearby, I’d clean and organize the greenhouse, root clones, germinate seeds. When the apples were in full flower, it was time for me to turn and replenish the soil.
In early June, I planted my foot-high cannabis starts, and for the next several months I would nurture them as they grew into humungous powerhouses bursting with potent, resin-heavy flowers. I cultivated cannabis as if I was caring for my own body. I emphasized the building of robust health as the best strategy to help my plants fend off pests and disease and reach their full potential.
I pinched and “super-cropped” them to encourage branching. I fed them side-dressings of compost and misted them with home-brewed “tea” rich with micronutrients and beneficial bacteria. I released thousands of ladybugs and praying mantises into the garden to beat back insect invaders. And I played music in between the rows while I worked — Mississippi Delta blues, Afro-Cuban rhythms, and favorite indie bands like Built to Spill and Califone.
The landowner of the property was a friend, affectionally nicknamed “The Naked Jew” for his nocturnal tromps out to the garden in nothing but a pair of rubber boots (an occurrence triggered by a sudden bump-in-the-night that had him imagining a pack of errant teenagers sneaking into my ganja grove to score some fresh schwag). On breezy late afternoons, he would wander over to “the field” as he called it, modestly clad in a sarong, to see how “the girls” were doing and bring me a cold mug of kombucha. We’d chat about our children and the current state of the apples, the world, and the weed. The ever-changing garden was our meeting place, the plants our silent witnesses.
Wonder, Beauty & Delight
My days were long and physically exhausting, but I never tired of the labor. Working in my cannabis garden refilled me in countless way and taught me lessons that I still carry with me. “Nature is the most logical school of learning,” Burbank once wrote. “The truth is that life is not material and that the life-stream is not a substance. Life is a force — electrical, magnetic, a quality, not a quantity; and if we start there we can understand a lot of things about man and his works and orders and processes.”
Gate to Burbank’s farm
A lithe, boyish man with placid blue eyes, Burbank was known for his rumpled yet elegant sartorialism, due to his habit of wearing a suit, hat and gloves to work in the garden. This made him “more picturesque than ordinary” with an “indubitable air of gallantry and personableness,” according to his friend and biographer William Hall.
“Merry, humorous, whimsical, loving life and loving laughter, he radiated a personality that drew him toward everyone he encountered,” Hall wrote in the long out-of-print biography, Harvest of the Years. Burbank’s belief that “life overflowed with wonder, beauty and delight” reflected his curiosity about science and the natural world. He held little interest in religious dogma or ideas of Heaven and Hell. Instead, Burbank felt that “good work well done, sincere motives, and loyalty to high ideals formed the whole duty of man; to these Burbank added, for the creation of heaven on earth, the single essential, Love,” Hall recounts.
Near summer’s end, my cannabis flowers would start to thicken just as Burbank’s apples were filling out. After a day’s work, I’d often take a walk, passing by the senior housing complex next door, also on land formerly part of Burbank’s farm. I’d see the residents gathered in their community garden — planting, watering, weeding or just resting on benches, enjoying the greenery.
A bit further on I would arrive at Burbank’s old caretaker cottage and the beds filled with his amazing cultivars. I had long admired his inventions: his sweet-tart Santa Rosa Plum, Spineless Cactus, and the White Blackberry, bred to keep ladies’ gloves from staining. My favorites of his floral hybrids are the variations on his Shasta Daisy. Like white-haired ladies, each wore a different hairstyle: some petals curled, others tidy, another a wild and exuberant mane. “Flowers,” Burbank once wrote, “always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine to the mind.”
The Last Harvest
My cannabis flowers would be close to harvest by late September, and putting on an extravagant show, their beauty a heady mix of mystery and hidden potential. The ripening colas were so dense and heavy they needed constant tying and staking; their provocative fragrance floated on the breeze all the way down the road. When you spend so many hours doing a certain kind of work, it can infuse your dreams, and mine were populated with mischievous green witches and voluptuous Viking queens wearing crowns of serrated leaves.
Burbank considered humans and plants as “part of the same onward-moving procession, each helping the other to do better things.” In Burbank’s mind, we were meant not only to cultivate plants, but to form actual relationships with them. Those of us who’ve spent a significant amount of time growing cannabis understand this intimately, as the work offers something uniquely its own. Being a “grower” is an act of affirmation, a yes to the mystery and exploration of the body, mind and beyond, with cannabis as our willing ally.
By mid-October, the harvest would be under way. Before sunrise I’d be out in the garden, cutting branches laden with sticky clusters of ripe buds. The apples would be ripe as well, and I’d fill baskets of them for the trimmers to munch on. I was fortunate to hire a crew of Tibetans to manicure my weed, which they did with unshakable calmness, chanting Buddhist sutras as they worked to trim, dry, and cure the flowers. Once a week they’d make homemade momos — a type of Tibetan dumpling served with a tongue-lashing chili sauce — and I’d pitch in, practicing the thumb twist they taught me to seal the edges of this delicacy.
My final, deeply satisfying task of the season was to deliver my CBD-rich medicine to state-licensed medical cannabis dispensaries in California, where patients with conditions ranging from multiple sclerosis to cancer to neuropathic pain would gratefully purchase amounts to treat themselves.
This was the last time I would grow cannabis alongside Burbank’s apple trees. On January 1, 2017, cannabis became legal for adult use in California. But under the new zoning regulations, the rural residential parcel where I had cultivated my crop was now off-limits for growing more than six plants for personal use. I was forced to close down my medicinal garden, which I did with a heavy heart. (Sadly, many other skilled cannabis cultivators and small-is-beautiful farmers in Sonoma County were also regulated out of existence.) It was the end of an era, and I would miss it.
A Radical Freethinker
Who knows what Luther Burbank would have thought about the current cannabis revolution, the commercially driven green rush, the resurgence of interest in the plant’s medical uses? He died not long before cannabis was maligned by reefer madness and the devil weed’s became the mascot for eight decades of federal prohibition.
A radical free thinker, Burbank was interested in “the wonders of the mind of man and the subjects that we now consider mystical.” He counted among his friends Paramahansa Yogananda, the Hindu spiritual teacher, who called Burbank “an American saint.” In his book Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda describes how Burbank once told him he “sometimes felt close to the Infinite Power,” and often talked to his plants “to create a vibration of love.”
Burbank’s final year was overshadowed by the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in which high school teacher John Scopes was found guilty of heresy by the State of Tennessee, for the crime of teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Burbank was appalled. “I am an infidel,” he asserted. “A doubter, a questioner, a skeptic. The scientist is a lover of truth for the very love of truth itself, wherever it may lead.” In his memorable address in a San Francisco church, Burbank argued for “righteous behaviour and the highest spiritual development,” while expressing his “utter disbelief in the mockery of dogma.”
Burbank’s outspoken views stood out at a time when religious fundamentalism and xenophobia were on the upswing. His radical honesty triggered a global backlash steeped in ignorance and bigotry. Once loved the world over, Burbank had become a pariah. Undaunted, he strove to answer the thousands of hateful letters he received, responding to each with reason and compassion. But it was too much. Those close to him believed that the heavy stress and heartbreak led to his illness and ultimately to his death from a stomach virus. Burbank, age 77, died at home in Santa Rosa on April 11, 1926. He was buried in an unmarked grave under a Cedar of Lebanon tree he had planted near his greenhouse.
And yet, nearly a century after his death, Burbank’s words are still as fresh and novel as a new peach cultivar, as relevant a balm to the current burdens of modern society as they were on the day he wrote them: “What is civilization?” he asked. “What is idealism? Which way does our future lie?” If we look at textbooks or history for the answers, he argued, we will be baffled, “but if we go to Nature and inquire into her processes we discern more than a glimmer of light.”
“In every man,” Burbank maintained, “no matter how ignorant or how hurried or how driven or how successful in other lines, there is a dormant love of Nature and natural things; it would take very little of the time you crowd so full of everything else for you to breathe some of the incense of gardens, to feast your eyes on the calm and changeless beauty of the hills, to rest your bodies on the quiet beauty of the earth, and to heal your souls in the perfect serenity of some unbroken wilderness.”
Melinda Misuraca is a Project CBD contributing writer with a past life as an old-school cannabis farmer specializing in CBD-rich cultivars.
Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.
Burbank, Luther and Hall, William. The Harvest of the Years. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1927.
Luther Burbank on cannabis/hemp breeding: https://www.hempbasics.com/hhusb/hh4bot.htm (reference #29, from an article in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences).
Glaucoma is a common eye condition that often causes optical nerve damage and when left untreated can lead to blindness. In the US, about three million Americans live with glaucoma; globally, the figure is close to 60 million. Glaucoma is recognized as one of the leading causes of irreversible blindness.
Since 1980, surgical procedures and treatments have improved significantly, cutting the risk of developing blindness nearly in half. Nonetheless, while treatment has improved, the number of effective topical drugs remains limited.
Almost universally recognized in medical marijuana states as a qualifying condition, increasing numbers of people have turned to cannabis to help their condition. But is marijuana actually good for glaucoma?
Given the improvement of existing glaucoma treatments, do the benefits of medical cannabis outweigh the potential side effects or risks? Likewise, given the vital role the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays in disease, what promise does the future hold for developing cannabinoid-derived medications to help with glaucoma?
Evidence increasingly suggests glaucoma—now widely considered to be a neurodegenerative condition—has a connection to other neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. Glaucoma appears to be a significant predictor of Alzheimer’s. A precise cause of glaucoma, however, remains a mystery and continues to elude the scientific community.
Because intraocular pressure (IOP) influences the onset and progression of glaucoma, ophthalmologists prescribe treatments that target intraocular pressure. In fact, the only way to prevent vision loss or eventual blindness is to lower IOP levels.
Depending on the severity and progression, ophthalmologists may treat glaucoma with medications such as prescription eye drops, or, if necessary, surgery.
Going back to the 1970s, studies have shown that cannabinoids can alleviate glaucoma-related symptoms because they lower intraocular pressure (IOP) and have neuroprotective actions. For example, this 1971 study found that ingestion of cannabis lowers IOP by 25-30%.
Despite the findings from early research, few ophthalmologists support the use of medical marijuana for patients with early to mid-stage glaucoma. The main issue ophthalmologists have is that potential adverse effects—particularly when smoking weed—might outweigh short-term benefits. For example, smoking can lead to unstable intraocular pressure, thereby increasing the risk of permanent vision loss.
Further, because its therapeutic effects on glaucoma are short-term, patients would have to consume cannabis frequently—once every three to four hours.
Doctors claim that because glaucoma needs to be treated 24 hours a day, patients would need to consume cannabis six to eight times over the course of a day to achieve consistently lowered IOP levels. Such frequency is hard to maintain and could increase the risk of developing a cannabis use disorder.
However, when it comes to late-stage glaucoma, ophthalmologists are more inclined to embrace cannabis to help with the condition. In later stages of glaucoma, it’s less about directly targeting glaucoma and more about alleviating the accompanying symptoms.
According to ophthalmologist Andrew Bainnson, MD, “We’ve known for some time that medical marijuana is very effective for treating nausea and pain, but not so much for glaucoma. There are some patients with end-stage pain and nausea who may benefit [from medical marijuana], but not from the glaucoma point of view.”
The body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), is one of our most important physiological systems. Nearly every aspect of our health—including inflammation, immune response, neuroprotection, and pain modulation—are all dependent on the ECS. Given the vital role of the ECS, particularly in neuroprotection and inflammation, cannabinoid-based medications could be immensely useful in treating and preventing glaucoma.
Cannabinoid receptors are prominent in ocular tissues responsible for regulating intraocular pressure. Cannabinoid-derived medications could be developed to serve two roles: lower IOP and protect retinal cells.
Evidence suggests two cannabinoid agonists—WIN55212-2 and anandamide—and several cannabinoids, including CBD and CBG, may be good candidates to develop as therapeutic agents, particularly because even when administered topically (directly to the eye), they are well tolerated.
Challenges with treating glaucoma with cannabis
However, challenges persist: Oral preparations are not good because bioavailability is poor and absorption unpredictable. Inhalation isn’t ideal because effects don’t last long enough.
That leaves topical preparations. But cannabis eye drops—while superior to oral and inhalation administration—do a poor job penetrating intraocular tissues.
The future of medical marijuana and glaucoma
While cannabis, as it is administered today, may not be an ideal treatment for glaucoma, the development of cannabinoid-derived medications represent a promising future direction. And, whether or not cannabis is an ideal glaucoma treatment, there are some people who swear by it as a godsend for their condition, while others consume it as an adjunct to therapy, but not as their primary treatment.
If you or someone you know has successfully used cannabis to treat glaucoma, share your experience with us in the comments section.
This post was originally published on September 22, 2016. It was most recently updated on March 13, 2020.
Cannabis and health
When it comes to ease of use, portability, and functionality, one cannabis product stands tall above the rest—vapes. You may know them as vape carts or pre-loaded cannabis oil vape cartridges, and they have quickly become the go-to concentrate-based product for both cannabis novices and enthusiasts.
However, when it comes to choosing the right vape pen, various factors come into play. Many of these products seem similar at first glance, but there are many nuances that distinguish them. Understanding the differences between these disposable pens can help you make an educated decision on which product is right for you.
Jump to a section in this article:
- What is a vape cartridge?
- How do vape pens work?
- Why choose an oil vape cartridge?
- What are the drawbacks of vapes?
- How to use a vape pen
- Types of vape cartridges available
- How long does a vape cartridge last?
A vape cart is a glass cartridge pre-filled with a gram or half-gram of cannabis oil. This oil contain various combinations of cannabinoids and terpenes extracted from cannabis.
Most oil vape carts are high in THC, however, more and more CBD-dominant vape cartridges are entering the market, as are 1:1 THC:CBD products. Vape cartridges come in many forms: 510-threaded cartridges (the most common), as well as some proprietary forms like Pax Era Pods and Airo Pro oil cartridges.
Vape cartridges work in conjunction with vape pen batteries. The vape battery will power an atomizer in the cartridge that heats up the oil, activating the various chemical components in it. You then inhale the vape smoke, which produces the effects of cannabis. Some vape batteries have multiple functions that enable temperature customization and dose management.
Here are some of the benefits to using oil vape cartridges.
Ease of use
Vape cartridges take the guesswork completely out of the equation. Contrary to other methods of consuming oil, such as a dab rig and nail setup, carts require little to no effort—just press a button and inhale.
Oil vape carts are the easiest method of enjoying cannabis while on the go. Their sleek and minimalist design allows for discreet vaping, free of the distracting traits of larger setups, and they don’t produce noticeable smoke or odor.
For uninitiated cannabis concentrate consumers, dosing can be a major concern. Nobody wants an overwhelming experience when attempting to enjoy cannabis. Unlike dabbing, using a pre-loaded vape pen allows for a highly controlled dose with each inhalation, giving you more control over how much or how little you consume.
While vape cartridges are great for ease of use, portability, and dosing, there are a few drawbacks over other consumptions methods.
Vape carts can be pretty pricey, with costs between $20-60 or more per half-gram or gram of hash oil, depending on the market and extraction method. When you can get a gram of flower for a lot cheaper than a one-gram vape cartridge, it makes it a little tougher to choose the latter.
Vape cartridges tend to provide a shorter-lasting high than other methods like joints, dabs, and edibles because you consume them in smaller doses. However, while the effects may last shorter, they can also hit harder if overconsumed, so make sure to monitor dosing appropriately.
Having to monitor a vape battery’s usage and power levels can be pretty annoying as frequent usage can drain them pretty quickly. To avoid this nuisance it’s best to charge your vape battery each night before bed or have a backup on hand that’s fully charged.
It’s pretty simple: Just attach your cart to the battery and start puffing. If there’s an On/Off button, use it.
Here are a few quicks tips to remember when smoking an oil vape cartridge:
- If your device has an On/Off button, chances are you turn it on by clicking 5 times. The same number turns it off.
- Make sure your cart is completely attached to its battery to avoid any oil leakage.
- Keep your vape pen upright to avoid oil leakage.
- Start slow with dosing as it is very easy to overconsume with vape carts.
- Monitor temperature to make sure your cart isn’t burning too hot, which could alter some of the oil’s chemical components—usually 3 clicks will adjust the temp.
Remember to always buy carts from a reputable vendor for the safest products!
Familiarize yourself with the many types of oil vape cartridges on the market so you can purchase the one that best fits your needs or preferences.
Cartridge/battery combos vs. disposables
Most products typically come with a standard 510 thread that a battery screws into. The exception is a pre-loaded cart designed by a specific company to be used with their own vaporizer/battery systems—an example is PAX Era Pods.
Alternatively, some vape pens are available as “disposables,” which contain a pre-charged battery designed to support the device until the cart empties. These pens require no charging and are meant to be disposed of after use. They contain no threading and are not meant to be separated from their battery.
What is a 510 cartridge?
A 510-thread cartridge is the most common type of vape cartridge. 510 describes the type of threading that is used to screw the bottom of the cartridge to the appropriate vape battery.
Distillate cartridges vs. CO2 oil
For a vaporizer cartridge to function properly, its contents must have the proper viscosity, otherwise the oils will either be too thick or too thin to properly vaporize within the device. Depending on the starting material used, cartridge manufacturers use several methods in order to create the perfect oil for their pens.
CO2 oil. Certain high-grade winterized CO2 oils are uniquely compatible with vaporizer cartridges due to the fact that they do not require additives of any kind to meet the viscosity levels needed to vaporize in an atomizer. If made properly, these oils are able to retain modest levels of plant-based terpenes, which act as natural thinning agents as well as give the oil their signature strain-specific flavor.
Distillates. A cannabis distillate cart is a highly refined oil containing pure cannabinoids and almost nothing else. The upside to using distillates in vaporizer cartridges is that the oil can be produced from a range of starting materials. Virtually any cannabis oil variety from CO2 to BHO and everything in between can be purified into a distillate with the right equipment.
The downside to using distillates in vape cartridges is that because there are no residual terpenes left behind, there is nothing to cut the viscosity of the material. In order for a distillate to be used in cartridges, a thinning agent of some kind is often required.
Additives. These are sometimes used in vape cartridge oils as a supplemental thinning agent. In some cases, methods have been taken to cut or infuse various cannabis oils with certain substances such as polyethylene glycol (PEG), propylene glycol (PG), vegetable glycerin (VG), or even medium chain triglycerides (MCT), such as coconut oil, in order to maintain a less viscous and lasting oil consistency conducive to standard atomizer functionality.
This process has become highly controversial due to raised health concerns, and products containing these thinning agents are showing up less on the market.
One way that vaporizer cartridge manufacturers have been able to steer away from artificial cutting agents is by using terpenes.
Terpene infusions and strain-specific flavorings
The use of terpenes in vape cartridges has been found to help lower the viscosity of cannabis oil as well as increase flavor and aromas, making them a potentially safer alternative to other cutting agents.
Terpenes not only add flavor and aromatics to the experience, they can also help alter the effects of a product due to their ability to influence how cannabinoids interact with our bodies.
There are several ways to use terpenes with vape cartridges. Some manufactures rely on CO2-based extractions—when refined with ethanol, they can actually retain plant-based terpenes at a percentage conducive to achieving proper viscosity. This is how manufacturers are able to sell flavors based on natural strain profiles.
Natural cannabis-derived terpenes that have been fractioned through refinement can be re-added to cannabis oils in small percentages, creating a spectrum of flavors and effects while also giving an oil the correct consistency required to function in a cartridge.
Products labeled by effect
Sometimes, oil vape cartridges are labeled and marketed by their supposed effect on the consumer. Products of this variety tend to claim they provide “relaxing” or “energetic” effects, with some are labeled as indica, sativa, or hybrid.
Many of these vape cartridges incorporate carefully mixed combinations similar to what would be traced in a strain or strain type. How well these infusions imitate a specific strain is debatable.
CBD-specific vape cartridges
Although many oil vape pens are labeled by flavor or effect, some focus on cannabinoid concentration. Aside from the typical high-THC product that most pens offer, some manufacturers offer products containing elevated levels of cannabidiol (CBD).
High-CBD pens may or may not contain added flavors, but they do guarantee a ratio of THC to CBD that can range from 2:1 all the way to 20:1 and greater. These types of pens offer great wellness benefits for those looking for CBD in an easy-to-consume product.
Full-spectrum vape cartridges
The pinnacle of oil vape cartridges in terms of overall quality rests with full-spectrum extracts. These products are created using the entire spectrum of bioavailable molecules found within a given cannabis strain. A full-spectrum oil does not add, reintroduce, or remove any active compound within a strain and offers flavors and effects with more depth than most other products.
Full-spectrum cartridges are hard to come by and are only offered in certain markets, and their price tends to reflect their rarity as well. If you’re fortunate enough to live where these products are available, we recommend forking up the extra cash to give one a shot. In terms of strain comparability, the flavor of a full-spectrum cart is incredibly similar to what you would experience with flower.
How long a vape cartridge lasts entirely depends on an individual’s rate of consumption. The only thing we do know for sure is that a one gram cartridge will last you a lot longer than a half-gram cartridge.
How to refill a vape pen cartridge
Some vape cartridges can be refilled with fresh oil from a syringe. It’s important to use a syringe as it reduces the potential for making an oily mess. Proprietary carts like Pax Pods are not refillable, so you have to dispose of them and buy a new one.
All in all, there are many types of oil vape cartridges to consider, each one with pros and cons. If you’re interested in learning more about these types of products, always ask your local budtender before committing to a purchase.
Often, labels only offer a fraction of the information compared to the knowledge and expertise of a cannabis professional like a budtender. Regardless of your taste, there’s bound to be a cannabis oil cartridge available to suit your individual needs.
This post was originally published on October 17, 2017. It was most recently updated on March 10, 2020.
If you’ve ever smoked weed from a pipe, you’ve seen the black greasy gunk form inside it. This substance is called resin, and it’s the residue left behind after you smoke cannabis flower. A similar substance forms inside your dab rig when you smoke concentrates, only instead of resin, this yellow/gold/brown sticky substance is called reclaim.
Reclaim is best described as the re-condensed form of cannabis concentrates left behind after a dab sesh. Think of it as the cold solid that remains from the hot oily liquid. Reclaim coats the walls and base of your dab rig and dropdown, and also collects in the water. Cannabis extracts are oils, and as we all learned in 2nd grade science class, oil and water do not mix.
Great question. The short answer is: yes, it is safe to consume reclaim, and yes, you will get high from it. According to MCR Labs, a state-certified cannabis testing lab in Massachusetts, reclaim still has the main active cannabinoids that promote physiological changes.
The long answer is: yes, you can get high from smoking reclaim, but it will not be the tastiest or most enjoyable experience because truly, reclaim is oily sloppy seconds with zero terpenes and no taste or smell.
Also, quality matters, so the higher the quality of the original concentrate, the higher the quality of the reclaim. But overall, it’s still going to have a pretty gross taste as the terpenes were zapped during the original burn.
There are couple ways to collect reclaim from your dab rig, both pretty simple.
The first way is to pour the water out of your rig and then pick out the little goldish clumps. Chances are there won’t be many as the majority of reclaim will be stuck to the inside of your device.
The second way to collect reclaim is to melt it out. All you need is a torch and some wax paper:
- Pour the water out of your rig
- Let it dry (you don’t want water in your dabs/reclaim)
- Remove the banger and hold the connector/dropdown over the wax paper
- Torch the reclaim enough to liquify, and it will drip onto the wax paper
Just don’t let it get too hot because you don’t want to burn out the cannabinoids.
There are 3 possible ways to use reclaim after collection: dab it, eat it, or trash it.
If you dab it, just be aware that it will not taste anywhere near as good as your original dab.
Since reclaim has already been decarboxylated, you can just straight up eat it as is and you’ll be fine. However, we suggest consuming reclaim alongside something flavorful like a handful of grapes or a Reese’s cup to mask that dirty hash taste. To completely avoid that taste you can also infuse food with reclaim.
If consuming reclaim doesn’t appeal to you, but having a squeaky clean bong does you can also just collect your reclaim and toss it into the trash.
Full-spectrum extracts, often called whole plant extracts, maintain the full profile of the cannabis plant. They contain a variety of cannabinoids, including THC, THCa, CBD, CBDa, CBG, and CBN, as well as terpenes and other compounds such as flavonoids, proteins, phenols, sterols, and esters.
These extracts are desirable for several reasons. From an experiential standpoint, they replicate the flavor and aroma profile of the plant. From a therapeutic or medicinal standpoint, you get the full benefits of the entourage effect—the theory that the various components of the plant work synergistically to enhance the action of the active substances, such as THC and CBD.
Full-spectrum extracts are notoriously difficult to produce. While you need to keep as many of the desirable compounds as possible, you also want to rid the extract of unnecessary components. Some extraction methods filter the latter out using a variety of refinement techniques.
However, those very techniques often strip extracts of some of the more delicate compounds such as terpenes and flavonoids.
The processes used to create full-spectrum extracts must dance a fine line to keep the wanted compounds in and the unwanted out.
Note that the full spectrum of compounds of a given strain is relative to the point at which the extraction is performed. For example, a live resin extract taken from a fresh plant will have a different profile than an extract of dried plant material. This is because some compounds change during the drying process.
What’s more, the profile of a plant can depend on various other factors, including the part of the plant, its age, and environmental factors. As such, you could have multiple full-spectrum extracts of the same strain that all have different profiles.
Hydrocarbon extraction uses butane or a butane-propane blend to create full-spectrum extracts. This method allows for the profile of an extract to be tweaked.
In this type of extraction, hydrocarbon gas is cooled and liquefied before being passed over raw plant matter. The desirable compounds from the plant are dissolved and the resulting solution is refined using various techniques, such as winterization and dewaxing. Both of these processes use additional solvents and low temperatures to remove wax and lipids from the final product.
Full-spectrum extracts can be finicky, so the process parameters must be exact. Small changes in solvent composition and temperature can result in a different product. For example, a small increase in temperature might volatilize certain terpenes, changing the flavor profile of the extract.
Supercritical CO2 extraction
In supercritical CO2 extraction, temperature and pressure are used to create phase changes in CO2. It goes from being a gas to displaying properties of both a gas and a liquid. It has a gas-like viscosity and low surface tension, so it more easily penetrates porous solids than a liquid does. This results in a substance that forces out compounds of plant matter based on their weights.
By adjusting the temperature and pressure, you can “tune” the CO2 to create a very precise environment whereby the supercritical fluid will only extract the most desirable components. While CO2 extraction involves complex pieces of equipment, it requires little or no post-processing, unlike other extraction methods.
The idea behind full-spectrum extracts is that unwanted components are removed. For example, some plant lipids can lead to poor flavor or a harsh vapor. That said, certain concentrates containing these lipids, such as rosin, are sometimes considered full-spectrum. Rosin is made by squeezing resin from the starting material (such as dry sift) using heat and pressure, often with a special rosin press.
The main benefit here is that processing doesn’t require the use of a solvent and it is relatively safe. However, because heat is involved, there is a concern that some of the desirable components of the plant, such as terpenes, are lost in the process.
There is little regulation to determine what constitutes a full-spectrum extract, and some products are labeled as such even when they don’t meet the general definition. The only real way to tell is to examine the lab test results for the extract.
Here are some product names to look out for when selecting a full-spectrum extract.
Live resin is produced using fresh (sometimes frozen) cannabis plants instead of dried plant material. Not all live resins are full-spectrum extracts, and their composition will depend on how they are processed.
If it’s extracted using one of the above methods, then you could obtain a full-spectrum extract. But, for example, if you use a process that involves heat, you’ll lose certain compounds from the plant profile, such as terpenes.
High terpene full-spectrum extract (HTFSE)
The extraction process for this product is designed to yield a high level of terpenes, sometimes up to 40%. It is viscous and clear with a consistency similar to honey. Some HTFSEs are labeled as “sauce” or “terp sauce,” names that indicate the high terpene content. However, not all sauce is full-spectrum.
High cannabinoid full-spectrum extract (HCFSE)
For HCFSE, processes are tweaked so that the final product has a high cannabinoid concentration. The result is a crystalline structure, similar to sugar or diamonds. Although HTFSE and HCFSE can be produced from the same plant, they are both considered full-spectrum extracts since they still contain the full roster of desirable compounds present in the raw material, albeit at different levels.
Almost 60% of US healthcare providers feel negatively about medical cannabis, while less than 12% view it positively. These results, the product of a survey reported in the forthcoming March 2020 issue of Preventative Medicine, provide a startling insight into the relationship between medical cannabis and those who can prescribe it.
The survey, which investigated the opinions of 1,439 licensed clinicians anonymously from 2011 through to 2017, hints at some of the hurdles cannabis needs to clear for doctors to warm to it. The survey’s authors found that provider advice tended to discourage cannabis use, while the most positive clinician views toward cannabis were for palliative use.
Notably, the findings also reported that the proportion of positive sentiment toward cannabis did increase over time. With the survey wrapping up in 2017, one could hope that contemporary clinicians are better-versed in the therapeutic applications of cannabis.
For those familiar with the current lay of the medical landscape, however, that’s not the case. Leafly turned to Joe Dolce to help unpack this clinician reticence toward cannabis. Dolce is author of Brave New Weed and co-founder of MedicalCannabisMentor.com, an online learning platform that provides evidence-based, research-grounded courses for healthcare providers, dispensary personnel, and in the not-too-distant future, patients. He works alongside Dr. Junella Chin, an expert cannabinoid-prescribing physician who has treated more than 10,000 patients.
For Dolce, the obstacles hindering physicians from getting behind cannabis are clear and need to be urgently addressed. While healthcare providers may be digging their heels in, patients are leveling up with their knowledge of cannabis.
“The problem for patients is that they are often ahead of their providers when it comes to cannabinoid meds, and they often have no one they can turn to for trusted advice on dosing and how to use them for optimal efficacy,” said Dolce.
One glaring omission that disadvantages doctors can be traced back to med school. “The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is not taught in most medical schools, so healthcare providers have no knowledge of what it does, nor that it is the master regulator of all the other receptor systems,” said Dolce. “Because neither the ECS nor cannabinoid medicine are taught in med school, healthcare providers are largely uneducated about it and quite naturally don’t trust it.”
The ECS isn’t new knowledge, though. Scientists have known about the existence of the endocannabinoid system for more than 25 years. More recently, researchers hypothesized that this internal signaling system started evolving over 600 million years ago, dating back to prehistoric forms of life no more complex than sponges.
Today, studies have demonstrated that cannabinoid receptors are present in skin, immune cells, bones, fatty tissue, pancreas, the liver, the heart, blood vessels, and the gastro-intestinal tract. We also know that the endocannabinoid system participates in multiple processes such as pain, memory, mood, appetite, sleep, stress, immune function, metabolism, and reproductive function.
You could justifiably argue—and some experts have—that the endocannabinoid system is one of the most critical physiologic systems implicated in the establishment and maintenance of human health, operating as a bridge between the body and mind.
But among the least educated are those who need to be the most informed. Many healthcare providers are still unfamiliar with the ECS—at last count, in 2013, only 13% of med schools taught the ECS in any capacity. A recent Leafly report suggests that very little has changed.
According to Dolce, there are additional barriers that impact clinician sentiment toward cannabis. “Physicians are used to single-action targeted pharmaceutical meds. Cannabis is a botanical medicine composed of over 165 active compounds that work synergistically,” he said. “Botanical meds require more patient education and often, hand-holding. The way most clinics work doesn’t allow enough time for this.”
Dolce also points out that it can be challenging for healthcare providers to allow time to familiarize themselves with something new. “Being a doctor is a stressful and high-pressured job,” said Dolce. “They work a lot, and there is always more to learn and read. Convincing a doctor to spend more time learning about a medicine that is still federally illegal is not the easiest task.”
Prescribing medical cannabis also requires patience and time. Dolce, and many cannabis medicine experts, emphasize that it can take some patients weeks, or even months, to reach their optimal cannabis dose. Learning to dose medicine incrementally to find the sweet spot can be empowering for a patient but can absorb more time in consultation.
“All this being said, teaching patients to self-administer meds is not unfamiliar to clinicians. They do it with diabetic patients using insulin or patients in pain who must self-titrate Gabapentin (Neurontin). And don’t forget those SSRIs,” he said.
Finally, the risk of liability represents a further deterrent. “No insurance company will cover healthcare providers for prescribing cannabinoid meds, so there are structural and systemic reasons docs stay away from it,” said Dolce.
Clearly, providers need to familiarize themselves with the unique therapeutic profile of cannabis and stay current with research to support patients who wish to try it. According to Dolce, the release of cannabis from the shackles of a Schedule 1 status at the federal level—which restricts cannabis research—is critical to achieving this. But other initiatives could also shift the sentiment of hesitant healthcare providers.
“We need to encourage more high-profile physicians to publicly talk about how cannabis is as effective as over-the-counter meds for pain, insomnia, and stress/anxiety, not to mention relief from nausea associated with chemotherapy,” said Dolce. “I also feel that nurses, nurse practitioners, and health coaches would be well-served to learn about cannabinoid meds so they could then act as necessary support to docs who are already suffering under time and administrative pressures.”
Overall, however, Dolce maintains a somewhat optimistic outlook. “There is a certain amount of hubris that some doctors have about using botanical or so-called alternative medicines,” he said. “But a small percentage of doctors we encounter are increasingly open and willing to learn about cannabinoid therapies, especially because their patients are telling them that they work. Once they become open to it, they’re often sold.”
Project CBD: Welcome to another edition of Cannabis Conversations. I’m Martin Lee with Project CBD and today I’m delighted to have as our guest Ryan Lee, an expert cannabis botanist who works with a company called Chemovar Health as one of the founders. It’s based in British Columbia. Ryan, thanks for joining us.
Lee: Thanks for having me.
Project CBD: Tell us a little bit about your background as a cannabis botanist. How does one become a cannabis botanist?
Lee: It was really through personal interest. There hasn’t been a lot of educational courses in this space. You know, I was a cannabis cultivator when I was going through university and really enjoyed the plant and enjoyed the diversity of the plant. And I started growing and studying genetics at university, and that really just pushed me down a path where I was able to learn some things through school that I guess weren’t really available in the cannabis community. I became very lucky to meet our mutual friends Rob Clarke and David Watson – they really kind of took me under their wing and introduced me to a lot of folks and gave me a hands-on experience.
Project CBD: I think Dave Watson and Rob Clarke would be professors at a cannabis cultivation university, if there ever was one. But you mentioned university — where did you go to school?
Lee: In Ottawa. I actually started in the kind of bio-psychology, neuroscience field. I was really interested in drugs and behavior. Studying cannabis at that time wasn’t really possible, pre-the acceptance of medical cannabis. None of the professors were really too interested in it. I also have family members with addiction issues. And so just understanding drugs and behavior was an interesting thing for me. I really used that opportunity to learn about the endocannabinoid system. Every time I had a project that I had to study, a personal study project, I would investigate the cannabinoid system in some way, or the endocannabinoid system, which was really just starting to be discovered.
Project CBD: Now we’re talking late ’80s.
Lee: Early ’90s really was when it was.
Domestic cannabis cultivation
Project CBD: Let’s roll back the clock a little bit to the time when I, as a teenager, was first exposed to cannabis. We didn’t really call it cannabis — it was just weed or grass or marijuana. But in those days, when we got some stuff, a dime bag, a nickel bag (and we’re talking about a few decades back), we had access to cultivars called Panama Red, Acapulco Gold, and later came Thai Stick and Colombian and Jamaican. It was always a name associated with a place. And yet these days, it’s quite different. You’ve all kinds of crazy names for cultivars, but not typically associated with a place. What happened there? What’s the difference between the cultivars of old, those place-located cultivars, and today?
Lee: Well obviously those place-located cultivars involved smuggling, right. I think back in the 70s and the 80s that was a very different world: People bringing in boatloads of cannabis and hashish from various countries into the States. The States has always had the largest market for cannabis consumption. As that market shifted to more of domestic production, people realized that the seeds that came from those populations that were brought in didn’t really perform in the same way that they might have grown in their native environments in Columbia or Mexico or Thailand. And so there had to be this adaptation process of the cultivars to be able to grow in the California environment. Then subsequently as the pressures came on from projects like CAMP [Campaign Against Marijuana Cultivation], the eradication projects all over the world (mostly the States, but also state-sponsored all over the world) that really forced growers indoors. Again, the type of plant that’s needed to grow indoors is very different than outdoors. So domestic home breeders have actually made some quite significant progress in being able to create varieties that are suitable to cultivate indoors and that also have increased market appeal.
Project CBD: So, would you say that compared to the old landrace strains that we’ve got something up on them these days? Or that we’ve improved upon these landrace strains? Or the place-located strains or cultivars, they weren’t as good as what we’ve got today? Because you know we hear this phrase “right now the weed is so strong, it’s not like your grandmother’s or your grandfather’s marijuana.” Was the cannabis of old, as it were, was it weaker? What’s the difference?
Lee: On average, population average, the cannabinoid content was lower. There was probably individuals in those populations that had high THC content, or higher THC content, even the varying THC contents that we see today. But most of the imports were probably in the 5-10% THC range.
Project CBD: And does that suggest that its quality is not as good? What does that say about that?
Lee: That depends on who you ask. I know a lot of folks from your generation that they just don’t want to smoke the cannabis today because it’s too damn strong. They prefer something in that 7-10 percent [THC] range. We’ve done a lot of lab testing and characterized a lot of varieties, and some of these populations and families were created by people through what we call organic elective sampling. You evaluate the plant based on its characteristics, sense characteristics, with our five senses. I guess the sixth sense being how the cannabis makes you feel. We’ve come to see something, there’s this kind of weird biphasic curb where at low to moderate doses THC can actually feel quite invigorating, but if you turn the volume up and make these very strong THC varieties they can actually be quite sedating. And a lot of people will have a couple of puffs on these very strong cannabis, and they’re not regular users with tolerance, and they just end up stoned and staring at the wall or kind of zonked out on the couch. That’s not very social cannabis, you know. I think there’s really something to be said about the interplay between tolerance and the level of THC. Unfortunately, our market and production statistics, everybody wants to see, you know the most amount of not only grams per square foot, but also the total cannabinoid content per square foot.
Interpreting THC percentages
Project CBD: If it’s a THC-rich strain, the cannabinoid content is going to be mainly THC. So if someone walks into a dispensary these days in California, typically the products are labeled with numbers. Different cultivars have different numbers. Should we assume that the higher number for THC means it’s better?
Lee: It definitely isn’t. I mean in terms of enjoyable experience. I think that that’s the dogma that we operate under but I make this comparison with the wine industry: You don’t go into a liquor store and ask for — if you’re trying to buy a nice bottle of wine — you don’t ask for the highest alcohol content wine. And even with whisky, you don’t do that. There’s so much more to the user experience than just the sheer strength of the product. If it wasn’t like that, everybody would be drinking this grain straight alcohol, the almost pure ethanol, Everclear, that type of thing. That’s just not a user preference. Yeah, it’s a thing that exists on the market but it’s not the largest selling SKU.
Project CBD: You know, when I see some of the numbers associated with the THC-rich cultivars, it seems a little bit crazy to me sometimes. They say 20 percent, 22 percent, sometimes up to 30 percent – is that really what’s going on here? I don’t want to say the maximum – what is a realistic number in terms of cannabinoid content for a cultivar that would be a cannabinoid-rich cultivar? What’s the sort of the top that we’re looking at, that if we exceeded it, it would kind of make you wonder was this the correct lab test, or this is a marketing ploy?
Lee: It’s always very important to, not just say the number because when we’re talking about THC the plant actually doesn’t contain — it contains very little THC — as you know it contains a molecule called the THC-acid [THC-A]. That’s the pre-decarboxylated state of the molecule. When you convert THC-acid to THC, they’re not a 1:1 ratio because THC-acid obviously is a heavier molecule so as a percentage of the total compounds in the flower it makes up a larger ratio. And when you convert it into THC, the number is different. So, it’s always, it’s kind of like saying, it’s like a vector without a direction. You know, it’s like saying we’re traveling 100 but we don’t say it as miles an hour or kilometers per hour. It’s not just the number. It’s always important to have a context with the number. We do see plants that are above 30% total cannabinoid acids. The highest one I’ve seen is about 34-35 percent.
Project CBD: And that’s the plant itself, not the extract?
Lee: That’s a single plant. That’s a flower from a single plant. So you can have these higher numbers. When a laboratory has a result that’s above 30% THC-acid, that really merits what we call a re-prep, where they re-run the sample through the laboratory to make sure that there wasn’t a problem either with the calibration of the machine or the measuring of the sample before it’s put in.
Project CBD: Let’s talk about CBD for a moment. Back in the old days people didn’t really know much about CBD. But some of these cultivars coming in from Nepal or from Morocco or these different places – and this is before we did a lot of domestic breeding – did these have CBD in them? Because the CBD, if it was there, it seems to have disappeared for a while and it had to be rediscovered about 10 years ago in northern California. What happened with CBD? Did it disappear, and if so why?
Lee: CBD was essentially effectively bred out of the plant by humans.
Project CBD: Was that intentional?
Lee: Again, you have to remember, at this point in time we weren’t doing the laboratory analysis.
Project CBD: What time are we talking about here?
Lee: I guess really domestic cannabis production, I would say, really took a boom in the 80s. But even in the 70s, I think even the native populations that were growing these location-of-origin genetics, were able to through sampling and cross-breeding — you know people would always save the seeds from the most beautiful smelling or the largest yielding plant, to plant for next year’s crop. Through doing that over a couple of generations, especially if you’re limiting the pollen contributors from that family, you’re actually quite easily able to shift the population to either THC-dominant or CBD-dominant, just by sampling the plants that make you the highest. And I think that that’s probably what happened. You know, we weren’t going after these compounds through chemical analysis. We just weren’t monitoring these things. So, all of that type of selection pressure was really done by consumption and determining how the plants made us feel. As you know, a mixed CBD and THC plant might have a different effect from a THC plant. And so people that were really focused on that strength of effect could effectively segregate those THC plants from the population. And when you breed them between themselves you effectively purge the CBD from the population.
The art of breeding cannabis
Project CBD: Final question, about breeding. You are an expert breeder. When one breeds, how much of it is just rolling the dice and chance and, hey, you come up with something interesting? Or how much is intentional, that you’re looking to get somewhere with the work?
Lee: You can do it both ways. To me breeding is both a science and an art. So if you bring in tools from a scientific understanding and you use your passions that you have for the plant, I think that’s the most effective way. Humanity and breeders have been using just art and no science for years, and you can make certain gains to a degree. But we’re at this point now where cannabis is becoming a legitimate agricultural crop and that kind of production merits the scientific investigation and actual expenditure of resources to use science to improve the crop. And we just haven’t been able to do that through prohibition.
Project CBD: Well thank you Ryan Lee for joining us on Cannabis Conversations. We’ll see you next time.
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