Medical Cannabis 101
People have been utilizing cannabis for its medicinal benefits for centuries. Among one of humanity’s oldest cultivated crops spanning as far back as 12,000 years, the plant has been used for textiles, food, fiber, as an anesthetic during surgical procedures and as a pain reliever since 4000 B.C.
Modern-day medical cannabis is now one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S. With medical benefits ranging from stress and pain relief to treating patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe nausea.
Medical Cannabis helps patients suffering from:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Chronic Pain
- Severe Nausea
The Cannabinoid System
Cannabis produces 113 naturally occurring chemical compounds called cannabinoids, which can affect a person’s central nervous and immune system when ingested, inhaled, or absorbed. Cannabis receptors are located throughout the human body and interact with cannabinoids much like a lock (receptor) and key (cannabinoid), a system known as the endocannabinoid system.
- CB1 Receptors: Located throughout the brain, central nervous system and lungs, these receptors harmoniously bind with cannabinoids such as THC and can provide patients with relief from nausea, depression and pain.
- CB2 Receptors: Located throughout the immune system and in areas such as the spleen and tonsils, these receptors are also found in greater concentrations throughout the human gastrointestinal system. Patients with conditions such as Crohn’s disease generally find relief because of CB2’s ability to regulate intestinal inflammation.
Cannabis is a diverse plant with thousands of different varieties called ‘strains’. Each strain can affect a person differently because our individual endocannabinoid systems are unique, much like a fingerprint. Strains contain different levels of cannabinoids, which produce different effects on a patient that can be beneficial for different conditions.
Since cannabis can vary so greatly from strain to strain, it is always recommended to speak with your certifying physician and local dispensary about proper dosage and the correct strain for your diagnosis.
Cannabis belongs to a small family of flowering plants called cannabaceae, within the genus are two main varieties: C. Sativa and C. Indica.
- Cannabis Indica: Describes the varieties discovered in India that were used for fiber and hashish. These plants were harvested for their psychoactive uses.
- Cannabis Sativa: Described hemp plants that were found in Eurasia, these plants were used for fiber and seeds for food.
- Best suited for day use
- Energy inducing
- Best suited for night use
- Best suited for any time of the day
- Balanced experience
- Cross between Indica/Sativa
Processing, Extraction and Refining of Cannabis
Cannabinoids are compounds mostly found in cannabis as well as a few other plants. THC and CBD are the most commonly produced of the cannabinoids since they are responsible for many of the therapeutic effects sought by consumers. Other cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids can have a significant impact on the effects of THC and CBD.
The highest concentration of cannabinoids is found in the mature flowers or “buds” of the female cannabis plant, although they are also present in lesser concentrations in the leaves and stalks of the plant. The buds (and other areas of the cannabis plant) contain dense concentrations of “trichomes”.
Trichomes are hairlike outgrowths found the plant, and they are where cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids are produced—most of the active compounds of the cannabis plant. In many ways, processing and extraction is simply the process of separating the trichomes from the plant material and refining the oils derived from extraction to produce a product that contains more concentrated levels of sought after components or compounds of cannabis.
Processing the Plant
Once the plant has been harvested, dried, and sorted, the buds are separated from the stems and stalks, and all excess leaves are trimmed (usually by hand). Finally, the flower is cured to allow any remaining moisture to equalize and flavors develop. Some of the most common and popular end-products that consumers and wholesalers seek out are found in this initial “raw” stage. This includes “flower” or “buds”, which consumers typically grind or package into a pipe or bong or roll into a joint or blunt. It is also frequently sold as pre-rolled joints or “pre-rolls.” A second “raw” product is “trim”. Trim is composed of the tiny leaves that are cut off from the flower before it’s cured. Many of these leaves are coated in trichomes, making trim a valuable byproduct. Trim does not typically include the large fan leaves, stalks, or stems removed earlier in the process. In order to maximize value, trim is commonly utilized in place of flower in later stages of processing.
Extraction – Initial Phase
As mentioned above, extraction is simply the process of separating the trichomes from the plant material and capturing significant components for further refining or use. Extraction can be performed using either solvent or non-solvent based techniques to produce the primary component sought from the cannabis plant. Solvent based extraction uses a media such as ethanol, carbon dioxide or hydrocarbons (butane, propane or methane) to strip desired cannabinoids (terpenes, THC and CBD) from plant material. The initial phase of the extraction process produces a number of components that can be consumed or further refined for a number of products. Initial phase extraction produces:
- Terpenes - the compounds that give cannabis and its derivatives their distinctive aromas and contribute to their varied flavors. Different combinations of terpenes are widely considered to be a driving factor in the type of high that consumers experience. Terpenes are included in nearly all cannabis -related end-products (flower, vapes, edibles, drops, dabbles, edibles, topicals, etc.) except for isolates.
- Crude Oil - a dark, highly viscous substance similar in texture to very thick molasses. Although it is very cannabinoid-rich, it also still contains undesirable components such as plant particulates, solids, and waxes. Removing these undesirable components requires that crude oil be further refined. Crude oil is one of the major building blocks of the cannabis industry because most end-products start off as crude before being further refined and purified.
- Cured Resin - is composed of the valuable oily compounds contained in trichomes including terpenes, flavonoids, and high concentrations of cannabinoids like THC. It can be further refined to remove unwanted elements like waxes and chlorophyll. Resin is typically further processed into dabbable concentrates.
- Live Resin - is produced by taking freshly harvested cannabis and freezing it to a subcritical temperature prior to the extraction process. By skipping the pre-processing drying and curing phases the fragile but flavor-rich “live” terpenes are retained. Live resin is typically consumed in the form of vapes and dabbable concentrates.
Refining – Second Phase
The second stage of extraction involves refining the products derived from the Initial Phase. This second phase refining increases output potency and eliminates undesirable compounds from the product. Second phase refining generally includes the following processes:
- Winterization - removes the fats, waxes, lipids from crude oil, producing winterized oil that is used in full spectrum end-products such as vape pens, tinctures, topicals, capsules, and sublingual products.
- Filtration - removes suspended particulates/adsorbents, resulting in a lighter-colored cannabinoid-saturated solution that is ready to go into the evaporator.
- Solvent Evaporation - process by which the solvent used to extract cannabinoids is removed from crude oil via evaporation.
- Vacuum Oven Treatment (for hydrocarbon solvents only) - used to separate out hydrocarbon solvents from the initial extraction, as well as influence the texture of the final concentrate.
- Crystallization is the process by which THCA and crystallized dabbable concentrates are extracted by inducing crystallization process to crude oil and resin/live resin, respectively to produce Sugar, Diamond, Sauce, etc.
This second phase refining produces products such as refined oil for use in end-products that are enriched by a full spectrum extract such as vape cartridges, tinctures, edibles, topicals, capsules, and sublingual products. This process also produces crytallized and non-crystallized concentrate products such as shatter, budder/wax, crumble, sugar, diamond and sauce. These products can have a cannabinoid concentration of approximately 40-75%.
Further Refining – Third Phase
The third phase of cannabis refinement increases the cannabinoid potency of the extracts to 70-95%. This third stage of refinement utilizes a variety of processes:
- Decarboxylation - used to convert acid forms of cannabinoids, like THCa and CBDa, to their more popular neutral forms, like THC and CBD.
- Distillation - used to achieve molecular separation of target compounds from crude oil to produce a more purified and potent cannabinoid concentrate known as distillate. Distillate may still contain some non-target compounds, differentiating it from the further refined isolate.
- Remediation - process of removing certain undesirable compounds from cannabis distillate.
- Recombination - may include the addition of terpenes to winterized oil or distillate, depending on the desired end-product. Recombination is most commonly used to create full spectrum extracts.
Stage 3 distillates are used in most end-product applications and may also be further refined into crystallized isolates in further processing. Distillates are typically used in the manufacturing of most cannabis end-products such as vape cartridges, edibles and beverages, tinctures, topicals, capsules, and sublingual products. Recombined distillates with terpenes added are typically used for vape pen cartridges.
Processing and extraction produces concentrated components of the cannabis plant for inclusion in products for consumers. The derived products can take the form of oils, live and cured resins, distillates and other concentrates. These concentrates are used in numerous cannabis consumer products such as Sugar, Crumble, Batter, Shatter, Vape cartridges, as well as an ingredient of various edible products containing cannabis components, such as gummies, candies and baked goods.