With the passing of the 2018 US federal farm bill, hemp CBD has been removed from the Controlled Substances Act. This has made it legal to ship to all 50 states. Today, everyone and their mama is making cannabidiol (CBD) products, including Martha Stewart and even Kim Kardashian. As the market gets saturated, remember that not all CBD is made the same. And most importantly, when purchasing CBD, there are important factors to consider.
Being an educated consumer means the difference between receiving an array of benefits from this compound — found in Cannabis sativa L. plant species — and wasting your money on snake oil. For such a sacred plant compound, there’s a lot of slime, greed, and ignorance in the industry. Meanwhile, there is also a lack of transparency and regulation in the marketplace that makes things worse.
“Barely in its infancy, the CBD medical market is still largely unregulated; quality control is meager at best, and consumers are largely unaware of what to look for when shopping,” explains Carlos Frias of the Texas Wellness Center. Frias, who has been with the cannabis industry for more than 15 years, has seen, firsthand, the shadiness that exists in the CBD market.
1. Extraction Methods
To obtain CBD-rich oil, you need to extract it from the cannabis plant. There are a handful of methods used, but typically this isn’t something customers know to ask about.
Not surprisingly, many companies cut corners and use cheap methods that involve nasty toxic solvents. This includes propane, hexane, pentane, and butane, which are flammable hydrocarbon gases found in petroleum.
“Cannabis oil made with neurotoxic solvents like butane and hexane may leave unsafe residues that compromise immune function and impede healing,” explains Constance Finley, founder and CEO of Constance Therapeutics.
When purchasing CBD, beware of companies who try to convince you that using a hydrocarbon method stays the most true to the plant. Butane is illegal for a reason.
“Butane extraction is cheap and efficient but is toxic to make and use,” adds cannabis and medicinal plant expert Medicine Hunter Chris Kilham. “Inhalation of butane residue can cause cardiac and respiratory problems.”
Many of the larger extraction companies and processors use supercritical (or subcritical) CO2 extraction. This method uses carbon dioxide under high pressure and extremely low temperatures to isolate and capture CBD. This method is less expensive and requires less expertise. It produces a less potent and complex hemp extract, but is very effective for basic extraction of CBD.
Optimal Hemp Extraction
Expert cannabinoid and terpene scientists claim that organic, pharmaceutical-grade ethanol is optimal for hemp extraction. Pharmaceutical-grade ethanol, a grain alcohol, eliminates certain toxins and residues in the raw plant material itself. This extraction method yields a high amount of cannabinoids. Additionally, it captures and retains the highly sought cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavinoids found in the plant’s trichomes. Alcohol extraction also removes undesirable waxes and chlorophyll, resulting in a highly-potent entourage of plant compounds. This is done through using complex systems of cold solvent and time-consuming filtration methods.
“The CBD oil obtained through sophisticated alcohol extraction systems is a full-spectrum cannabinoid-rich product,” says Elizabeth Moriarty, Clinical Herbalist and Formulator at Luminary Medicine Company. “This method also produces a cleaner taste, and meanwhile, mycotoxins cannot survive this process.”
Finally, olive oil or coconut oil can also be used to extract cannabis oil. According to Dr. Arno Hazekamp, director of phytochemical research at Bedrocan BV, which supplies medical cannabis for the Dutch Health Ministry, this method is both safe and inexpensive. “You won’t blow yourself up making cannabis-infused olive oil.”
With that said, if purchasing CBD that is cannabis-infused olive oil, note that it is perishable and should be stored in a cool, dark place.
2. Sourcing And The Importance Of Organic
When purchasing CBD, the quality of CBD oil is really based on its source; where was it grown, how it was grown, and the species of cannabis (e.g., sativa, ruderalis, or indica). When it comes to the “best” genotype, it really depends upon what one is hoping to treat or effect.
“The soil, climate, plants growing on the farm next door, the flowers in the farmer’s garden, etc., are all reflected in the final essence of the plant,” adds Finley.
Consider that hemp’s cultivation environment is particularly important because the cannabis plant is a “bioaccumulator”. This means it easily absorbs contaminants from the soil while it grows. As if the plant wasn’t miraculous enough, hemp is used in bioremediation. This is a cost-effective plant-based approach to clean the environment of toxic heavy metals and organic pollutants. Hemp was used to clean contaminated fields in Chernobyl.
This is one of the reasons it’s important to know how the hemp used in medicine was grown, says Finley.
If the soil is polluted, then that plant will likely contain high levels of heavy metals such as lead or mercury. According to Frias, there have been instances where children have almost died taking hemp extracts that were high in lead.
Essentially, she adds, “those companies have given the rest of the CBD industry a black eye because they were more interested in profiting off the sick instead of creating a quality product and testing it.”
While certainly a subject of debate among hemp experts, the general consensus is that the best hemp extracts are found in plants hemp that have been grown legally around for generations and where the environment is well-preserved, ensuring plants are free of toxins.
Hemp Farming U.S.A
The passage of the Farm Bill should dramatically increase hemp farming in the U.S., explains Jonathan Miller, who worked directly with Senator Mitch McConnell to get the hemp provision included in the farm bill.
“The 2014 Farm Bill permitted growing hemp for CBD as part of state pilot programs. The 2018 Farm Bill makes this arrangement permanent,” adds Miller, who is also general counsel for the U.S. Hemp Roundtable.
Hemp farming is now allowed in at least 41 states, including Alabama, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, and Florida. Miller says that farmers will still have to apply through their state agriculture programs. He also notes that “the USDA will likely develop regulations for growing outside of state programs in 2020.”
The passage of the federal bill effectively makes it possible for any domestic brands of CBD products that used imported hemp to now turn to domestic sources, adds Allison Taylor, Vice President of Marketing at Receptra Naturals – a family-owned Colorado hemp CBD extract company serving the health and wellness and pet communities. The bill gives every U.S. company the ability to make a high-quality, consistent product. Most importantly, they are able to control production every step of the way.
“It will be interesting to see which of these brands choose to follow best practices, now that they have the option,” says Taylor.
Organic Is Best
So what should you look when purchasing CBD products? Look for brands that source their cannabinoids from organic-certified, hemp-grown farms in pristine regions. Also, look for ingredients that are certified organic and wildcrafted.
“As a hemp farmer, achieving organic certification for one of my hemp crops in 2018 was a great moment for myself and my colleagues: we saw a plant go from Schedule 1 to accepted as organic in a few short years,” says Doug Fine, hemp farmer, researcher and author of the book Hemp Bound. “With hemp, as with anything you put on or in your body, knowing the source is essential. I also prefer to cultivate and patronize farmers who cultivate outdoors. This is the best way to build soil and sequester carbon. And I think it results in the best crops.”
Reputable CBD companies have lab results from independent labs available on their websites, this can also be used as an indicator for consumers about which companies are providing high-quality CBD. When sussing out a brand, look into independent testing by accredited laboratories with globally accepted analytical methods. This ensures the organic extract is intact from pesticides, heavy metals, or microbiological contaminants.
CBD is everywhere, but with so little regulation, labels will lie. Unfortunately, there are many instances/brands where products do not have the amount of CBD that they claim. This gives the industry yet another proverbial black eye.
If you’re purchasing CBD “infused” products, it doesn’t mean that amount actually enters the body and central nervous system. In food products, cannabinoids are subject to degradation and reduced bioavailability, depending on overall formulation/delivery.
Driven by the desire to turn a quick buck, producers use misleading marketing and deceptive advertising. This allows them to bank on the fact that people are ignorant and in need. Beer and coffee laced with CBD is mostly marketing hype.
“CBD can be an amazing, but a very expensive solution for those that need it, so maximizing bioavailability is going to be essential to lower the cost,” explains Joe Santucci of Solstice, a commercial cannabis production company.
While bills for more stringent regulations are in the works, it’s important to know what to look for and what to avoid.
“In terms of ingestion, the general consensus is that sublingual (under the tongue) and/or rectal delivery provide the highest levels of bioavailability,” says Ettenson of Elixinol. Some believe that vaping also produces high bioavailability as well. “Topical and ingestion (through soft gels for example) have lower levels of absorption.”
If you are vaporizing CBD-dominant strains of cannabis, bioavailability is through the alveoli, tiny sacs in the lungs, clarifies Kilham. If you are taking CBD strain capsules, he suggests eating fats or oils to improve absorption and bioavailability. A handful of nuts or some full-fat yogurt are great options. Cannabinoids are fat-loving molecules and are taken up readily into the small intestine with a bit of dietary fat.
“The need for enhanced bioavailability of the CBD phytonutrient is paramount,” adds Moriarity, “but tricky to accomplish without synthetic chemicals.” Most CBD products do not offer any bioavailability optimization. This means that 90 percent of the CBD is lost to first-pass effect. This is a drug metabolism phenomenon whereby drug concentration is greatly reduced before it reaches systemic circulation.
Meanwhile, the products that do engage in optimization efforts “are generally using a synthetic chemical soup of solvents, surfactants, and emulsifiers — none of which must be disclosed on the label since they are characterized as ‘processing aids,’” says Moriarty.
An optimized formulation, however, offers delivery via mucosal membrane permeability in tandem with precision production/formulation methods. Reducing the particle size of the cannabinoids and immersing them in a matrix of exclusively natural ingredients is ideal. Especially if you want to synergize and enhance absorption through oral membranes. When cannabinoids are transported through membranes and directly into the bloodstream, the phytonutrients are delivered more quickly, and crucially, avoiding first-pass degradation in the liver.
“We know the manufacturing process can also influence bioavailability,” says Ettenson. “For example, reducing the size of the CBD compound through the use of liposomes improves absorption and bioavailability.”
If a bottle says 250 mg of CBD, then that product should contain 250 mg of actual active CBD. However, a lot of companies currently in the market will list the milligram (mg) dosage of their CBD hemp oil without publishing the strength of their actual active CBD.
Ideally, when purchasing CBD items look for CBD products that proportionately offer 4 or more parts CBD to 1 part THC, for maximum relief and minimal or no storage issues.
4. Greenwashing Tactics
Upon investigation, there are companies that engage in the use of “window dressing.” One popular brand, for example, brags that they use the superfood moringa. This of course lures people in. But keep in mind that for added antioxidant benefit, you would need to ingest 7.5 g (7,500 mg) of moringa within the context of a meal or beverage. The entire 30 ml bottle of said brand contains 33.3 mg; so at the recommended dose of 1 ml daily, the daily dose of moringa would only be 1.11 mg; therefore, it’s doubtful the addition of this antioxidant will have any impact.
“The truth is that the gray zone of medicinal cannabis invites lots of shady characters into the burgeoning industry,” says Finley. “A lack of critical thinking, quality business practices, transparency about products and plants, all have been part of the black market.”
Now that companies can have more control about sourcing hemp, they’ll need to develop best practices to ensure high-quality products.
“When the conditions are “primed” in these four areas, “you set a high standard of quality for the whole plant efficacy, and CBD can provide outstanding health benefits for longevity and wellness in high grade medicinals used for health repair,” says Cherie Arnold, Founder and CEO of MediQI Energetics.
Always look for hemp plants cultivated onsite and carefully overseen by experienced farmers who understand the intricacies of the organic growing practices.
5. Purchasing CBD: Isolate Vs Full Spectrum
The process of isolating, as the name implies, isolates cannabidiol (CBD the cannabinoid). This is done through a refining process that strips out any additional cannabinoids, terpenes (unsaturated hydrocarbons that exist in the essential oils of plants), and plant components found in the hemp plant. The final product is a fine white powder that contains 99 percent cannabidiol. This is CBD in its purest form. But this may not be the best way to process it, as it takes away a lot of the beneficial parts of the hemp plant
Whole plant hemp extract CBD, on the other hand, keeps the full properties of the hemp plant intact. In addition to CBD the cannabinoid, this extraction methods results in the inclusion of terpenes, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, phytonutrients, and any other materials, along with other cannabinoids that provide their own unique benefits.
A growing body of evidence shows a greater efficacy of whole plant medicines over isolates thanks to the “entourage effect”. Herbalists and holistic practitioners have already known this for a long time.
But because of stringent FDA rules and the inability to make claims, those in the dietary CBD industry feel they cannot say a fraction of what whole spectrum plant medicine can do.
“I prefer whole plant modes to isolate, for the same reason that I prefer to eat whole foods rather than isolated nutrients. I believe it results in the most nutritive bioavailability in the body,” adds Fine.
“The research community is notorious for focusing on isolates,” says Moriarty. “It’s easier, and drug-development is entirely focused on isolated compounds. The money thus supports research into isolated compounds and feeds the misperception that science supports isolate use. When we focus exclusively on isolate, we have pharmaceuticalized the plant.”
“Big Pharma does not understand botanical medicine,” said Ethan Russo in an Undark article. Russo is a neurologist and former medical adviser at GW Pharmaceuticals. He now serves as director of research and development at the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute. Undark focuses on the intersection of science and society. “I can tell you having worked with GW, they were sure aware of (the entourage effect).”
But apparently they chose to ignore it.