There are a lot of questions regarding the Cannabis plant, which is the point of this article – to clear up some of the confusion and share the truth about cannabis oil. My request is that you read this with an open mind and an open heart.
Cannabis oil has received a large amount of attention recently. There are many online testimonials that claim it can cure cancer and a number of other diseases.
What Is Cannabis Oil?
Comparing hemp to marijuana is the key to understanding the truth about cannabis oil. Both are made up of the cannabis sativa plant.
- Marijuana is a breed of the cannabis plant that contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentrated in the buds, which is the chemical that produces the psychotropic effects that get people ‘high’.
- Hemp is also a breed of the cannabis plant but it’s bred without THC-containing plants. It is farmed for its height due to the usefulness of its stalks and is rich in cannabidiol (CBD), which is the ‘major non-psychoactive component of cannabis sativa’.1
- Both have a rich history and are praised for their practical utility, particularly their medicinal benefits.
The breeding practices and uses of the plant actually determine which term we should use:
Marijuana is the correct term to use when describing a cannabis plant that is bred for its medicinal or recreational use. It is known for it psychotropic effects due to the high amounts of THC that are extracted from the resinous glands (known as trichomes).
Cannabis plants engineered as marijuana (not hemp) contain levels of THC ranging from 3% – 15%, while plants grown for industrial hemp contain less than 1%.
Marijuana is cultivated and manufactured in 3 main ways:
1. Herbal – the dried flowering tops and leaves.
2. Resin – a compressed solid made from the resinous parts of the plant.
3. Oil – a solvent extract of cannabis (more on that below).
Hemp is the proper term to use for cannabis strains that have been cultivated for their fiber and/or seeds, which are used to make a wide variety of products. Cannabis grown this way contains trace amounts of THC and CBD, which has been shown to block the effects of THC on the nervous system. It has been suggested that ‘low THC levels and high CBD levels in hemp plants negate any psychoactive effects.'2
Understanding Cannabis Oil
Cannabis oil is not an essential oil so the name can be misleading. Here’s a breakdown of the different products:
- Hemp oil is easily obtained online as a food product and praised for its 1:1 omega-3/omega-6 ratio. It is made from hemp.
- CBD oil (also known as CBD hemp oil) contains high levels of cannabidiol (CBD) and low THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) levels. These levels are regarded as medicinal, but not psychotropic. It is also made from hemp.
- Cannabis oil is essentially an extract and is typically taken orally – consuming a few drops several times per day. It is made from marijuana.
Based on personal reports and not clinical trials, we can conclude that – conventional cannabis oil (being rich in THC) gets people ‘high’, whereas CBD oil cannot.
Absolutes And Extracts
Rick Simpson is one of the reasons why we’re hearing so much about cannabis oil. In 2003, Rick utilized a homemade cannabis concoction as a cure for skin cancer. When he shared his success with his doctors and some cancer organizations, no one paid much attention to his story. He responded by growing his own plants and produced his own cannabis extract which he called cannabis oil. He reported that over 5,000 people were healed and he gave it away for free to people in need.
This is where it gets a little confusing because Rick Simpson did not make cannabis oil, he made a cannabis extract or an absolute. There’s a big difference. Technically-speaking, whether we’re talking about conventional ‘cannabis oil’ or CBD oil, both are extracts or absolutes, NOT essential oils. So, referring to them as “oils” is misleading.
The term cannabis oil has been talked about on the Internet for the last few years. Declared to cure everything from cancer to glaucoma, activists are using research and countless miracle testimonials to convince legislatures nationwide to legalize marijuana for medicinal use.
When we study aromatherapy, we discover that essential oils are manufactured primarily through steam distillation or cold pressing. Another technique is referred to as solvent extraction.
The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy explains these processes:3
“Some plant material is too fragile to be distilled and an alternative method must be employed. Solvent extraction is the use of solvents – such as petroleum ether, methanol, ethanol, or hexane – to extract the odoriferous lipophilic material from the plant. The solvent will also pull out the chlorophyll and other plant tissue, resulting in a highly colored or thick/viscous extract. The first product made via solvent extraction is known as a concrete. A concrete is a concentrated extract that contains the waxes and/or fats as well as the odoriferous material from the plant. The concrete is then mixed with alcohol, which serves to extract the aromatic principle of the material. The final product is known as an absolute.”
Understanding the difference between essential oils, extracts, or absolutes is very important. Each contains different chemical compositions. This means they all have different effects on the body and each has different safety concerns.
When discussing cannabis, many times these terms are used interchangeably in the scientific literature. This adds additional confusion to our understanding because the research is somewhat unclear as to what substance(s) is/are being addressed and conclusions are oftentimes taken out of the context of the actual chemicals being evaluated.
Why Use Cannabis Oil As Medicine
A 2007-article in the journal Dialogues in Clinical Neurosciences states, “Despite the mild addiction to cannabis and the possible enhancement of addiction to other substances of abuse – when combined with cannabis – the therapeutic value of cannabinoids is too high to be put aside.”4
Current studies show that the compounds in cannabis can:
- Reduce pain (analgesia).
- Help reduce side-effects related to chemotherapy in cancer patients (especially pain and vomiting).
- Reduce muscle spasms and neurological over-activity in MS and cerebral palsy patients.
- Help reduce ocular pressure in glaucoma patients.
- Lower blood pressure.
- Relieve symptoms of asthma, constipation, depression, epilepsy, and insomnia.
The reason why cannabis is such an effective healing agent is because it contains ‘an enormous variety of chemicals’. Some of the 483 compounds identified are unique to cannabis – for example – more than 60 cannabinoids, whereas the terpenes – with about 140 members forming the most abundant class – are widespread in the plant kingdom.
Regarding cannabinoids, they are “a class of diverse chemical compounds that act on cannabinoid receptors on cells that repress neurotransmitter release in the brain.”
Essentially, TCH “potently activates the G-protein-coupled cannabinoid receptor CB1 and also modulates the cannabinoid receptor CB2.”5 Few substances on the planet can do this.
An article in the journal Trends in Pharmacological Sciences points that, “The well-known psychotropic effects of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol – which are mediated by activation of brain CB1 receptors – have greatly limited its clinical use. However, the plant cannabis contains many cannabinoids with weak or no psychoactivity that, therapeutically, might be more promising than Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol.”6
Interestingly, research has shown that several other non-cannabinoid plant constituents have been reported to bind to and functionally interact with CB receptors. Certain natural products from other plants also target other proteins of the endocannabinoid system, such as hydrolytic enzymes that control endocannabinoid levels. For example:
- Coumarin derivative rutamarin from the medicinal rue plant (Ruta graveolens),
- Diindolylmethane (DIM), which is found in broccoli and has anti-cancer properties,
- And indole-3-carbinol is commonly found in cruciferous vegetables like bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, kale, radish, and others.
There are a variety of ways people make cannabis oil. The most popular method has been outlined by Rick Simpson – who recommends using naphtha or petroleum ether as a solvent. This is where the danger lies.
According to Dr. Arno Hazekamp, a phytochemical researcher at the Department of Plant Metabolomics of Leiden University, The Netherlands:
“All the solvent components should be considered harmful and flammable, and some of them – such as hexane and benzene – may be neurotoxic. Both naphtha and petroleum ether are considered potential cancer hazards according to their manufacturers. Moreover, products sold as naphtha may contain added impurities, which may have harmful properties of their own.”7
Regarding solvent residues, Hazekamp points out that, “Although cannabis oils are usually concentrated by evaporating the solvents that were used for extraction, this does not completely eliminate residual solvents. As a result of sample viscosity, the more concentrated an extract becomes, the more difficult it will be to remove the residual solvent from it. In such a case, applying more heat will increase solvent evaporation, but simultaneously more beneficial components (such as cannabinoids or terpenes) may be lost as well.”8
Hazekamp tells to use safer solvents such as ethanol or prevent exposure to organic solvents altogether by using olive oil. He states, “Of the solvents tested, this leaves olive oil as the most optimal choice for preparation of cannabis oils for self-medication. Olive oil is cheap, not flammable or toxic, and the oil needs to be heated up only to the boiling point of water (by placing a glass container with the product in a pan of boiling water), so no overheating of the oil may occur. After cooling down and filtering the oil – e.g. by using a French coffee press – the product is immediately ready for consumption. As a trade-off, however, olive oil extract cannot be concentrated by evaporation, which means patients will need to consume a larger volume of it in order to get the same therapeutic effects.”9
Knowing that cannabis use can lead to a variety of potential health risks – it is important for anyone interested in using this plant as medicine – to read and study the topic thoroughly.
|↑1||Welty, Timothy E., Adrienne Luebke, and Barry E. Gidal. “Cannabidiol: promise and pitfalls.” Epilepsy currents 14, no. 5 (2014): 250-252.|
|↑2||Instead of Soybeans…Hemp and Kenaf. The Weston A. Price Foundation|
|↑3||Exploring Aromatherapy. National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy|
|↑4||Kogan, Natalya M., and Raphael Mechoulam. “Cannabinoids in health and disease.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience 9, no. 4 (2007): 413.|
|↑5||Gertsch, Jürg, Roger G. Pertwee, and Vincenzo Di Marzo. “Phytocannabinoids beyond the Cannabis plant–do they exist?.” British journal of pharmacology 160, no. 3 (2010): 523-529.|
|↑6||Izzo, Angelo A., Francesca Borrelli, Raffaele Capasso, Vincenzo Di Marzo, and Raphael Mechoulam. “Non-psychotropic plant cannabinoids: new therapeutic opportunities from an ancient herb.” Trends in pharmacological sciences 30, no. 10 (2009): 515-527.|
|↑7, ↑9||Cannabis Strains: Do Cannabis Strains Differ?. Cannabinoid Medicines International Association For Cannabinoid Medicines|
|↑8||Romano, Luigi L., and Arno Hazekamp. “Cannabis Oil: chemical evaluation of an upcoming cannabis-based medicine.” Cannabinoids 1, no. 1 (2013): 1-11.|