The cannabidiol (CBD) trend is reaching into almost every industry — beer, manicures, and any other consumer products imaginable. This is just the tip of the iceberg and as products, services, and regulations rapidly change, it's important to realize that not all CBD is created equal.
In order to understand what differentiates one brand and product from another, consider how the CBD product was made — the What, Where and How of the entire process.
There are key differences at each level of production, from growing and harvesting through extraction and refinement, all of which significantly affect the final product. Complicated federal and state regulations also have a part to play, giving some areas a commercial advantage.
While there is still so much to learn, there is also so much new information to help consumers understand how to navigate the growing sea of CBD products.
What: Hemp vs. Marijuana
Let's start from the source.
Cannabis is a genus of plant to which both hemp and marijuana belong. Legally speaking, hemp is cannabis that contains less than 0.3% of the intoxicating cannabinoid THC. Marijuana is any variety of cannabis that contains more THC than that amount.
Marijuana has been used recreationally and medicinally since prehistoric times. Science may be just uncovering evidence-based benefits of cannabis, but like many other plants and natural remedies, it has been part of folk medicine for millennia. In addition to recreational and medicinal uses, fast growing and durable strains of hemp are used for clothing and industrial materials such as sponges and ropes.
So does it matter which one CBD is extracted from? Yes and no.
Both hemp-derived and marijuana-derived contain CBD, but from a federal point of view, it's only legal to sell hemp-derived CBD in all 50 states. Hemp-derived CBD must be tested to confirm a THC level below 0.3%. Beside legal regulations, it doesn't really matter which plant CBD comes from if it is being isolated during production; once it is isolated it is just the pure chemical. Even marijuana-derived CBD would have no intoxicating effects if isolated, so the law is really just another barrier to growing marijuana in general. But isolating CBD is just one option when it comes to processing, and not necessarily the ideal type of CBD product.
Isolates contain just CBD, while other types of products include cannabinoids and terpenes and are called broad spectrum or full spectrum. The terms have no legal definitions and can sometimes be used interchangeably, though in general broad spectrum does not include THC, whereas full spectrum does.
Legalities aside, what matters more than hemp or marijuana is how the plant is grown and processed.
Where: Plant Material
Selecting the source material is the first important step in determining the final product. First, producers need to decide if they will use the entire plant including stems, leaf, and flower, or only the flower. The flower is the most potent part of the plant, containing the most cannabinoids and terpenes. Opting for flower only, though, will substantially reduce the yield.
Another consideration is how the plant is farmed. Just like other crops, some cannabis is grown to organic standards (cannabis can't be sold as organic, however, because of its illegal status at the federal level) while others are not. Since all of the production methods are ultimately concentrating the plant, residual components including pesticides and heavy metals would be processed, too.
“I worry about heavy metals and pesticides potentially being in the products as cannabis is a bioaccumulator and can work to remediate soils, but we don't want those used to clean up soils to be used as a medicinal herb,” said Brie Malarkey, Founder and CEO of Sun Breeze Inc. and Sun God Herbals LLC, herbal product companies based in southern Oregon.
Many companies rely on lab tests as material comes into their processing facility and at various stages throughout to ensure they do not contain high levels of toxic compounds.
There is also an aspect of terroir — just like wines, cannabis reflects its growing and handling conditions.
“CBD is an ingredient extract[ed] from a plant, so it's fully dependent on the growing processes including where it's produced, what type of soil it's grown in, and the CBD content itself,” said Alec Burkin, Director of Business Development for CBDMedic, a maker of CBD topical products.
Small operations may have a more artisanal approach to cultivating their cannabis, prioritizing potential flavors and aromas, while larger industrial farms may be focused on higher yields. Like any other crop, cannabis has both small craft and big business farmers.
Regionality plays a part as well, though it's not as simple as saying that cannabis grown in states that have legalized recreational use are better. Like any burgeoning industry, the most impressive advancements are coming from communities that can enjoy open communication and exchange of information.
“Especially [in] southern Oregon we have a region that has been cultivating cannabis for a long, long time … there are many 'old-timers' here that cultivate with the health of the end user in mind,” Malarkey said. According to Malarkey, wherever these communities are found, such as Colorado, Oregon, or New York, is where the highest-quality raw plant material can be found.
How: CBD Processing
There are three leading methods for turning cannabis into CBD oil: supercritical carbon dioxide (CO2) extraction, hydrocarbon extraction, and ethanol extraction.
There are pros and cons to each method: carbon footprint, production cost, yield efficiency, and potency. Technology for extracting and processing cannabis is evolving rapidly, with new machines that put their own spin on each method. Depending on the product desired and other priorities, it may be important to choose one preferred method, or even a combination of methods.
“Supercritical” simply means that carbon dioxide is at a temperature in which it's functioning as a gas and a liquid at the same time. The plant material is loaded into chambers that are then pressurized and filled with supercritical carbon dioxide that extracts CBD. The resulting material looks like butter and is considered crude oil, containing byproducts such as fats and waxes. The carbon dioxide evaporates as soon as the crude oil hits the air, leaving behind pure plant extract. The final step is refining the crude oil to isolate to remove waxes and terpenes and create a high-potency product. Refining can be done by mixing the crude oil with alcohol and freezing it, in a process called winterization, to easily extract other components, or by distilling it in a process called short path distillation.
Hydrocarbon extraction uses butane or propane to extract CBD from the raw plant material. The chemicals wash over the plant material in stainless steel containers, dissolving the CBD to create a liquid extract. The extract is then gently heated to evaporate the butane or propane. The process uses lower temperatures than supercritical CO2, and may not require further refining to remove waxes and lipids, though winterization is sometimes combined with this method.
Ethanol extraction is done by soaking the plant material in ethanol, and like hydrocarbon, does not require heat during the extraction, though different levels of heat may be used to purify the final product. While there are some machines that speed up the process. In the simplest model, cannabis is steeped like a giant tea bag in ethanol to obtain a liquid extract. Depending on the temperature of the ethanol used for extraction, there may be no need for further processing to remove byproducts, but since ethanol picks up water-soluble components, there may be a need to remove chlorophyll. In all cases, the ethanol is evaporated off in a vacuum to reduce the amount of heat that needs to be applied.
The main considerations are the flavor and composition of the final product. Lower temperatures overall will preserve terpenes that contribute aroma and flavor, which might not always be desirable. Solvent extraction with ethanol, butane, or propane will extract and preserve other cannabinoids aside from CBD, giving the option to produce a full-spectrum or broad-spectrum cannabis oil. Many producers and consumers are moving toward products that contain broad-spectrum cannabinoids to produce an entourage effect, which refers to the enhanced effectiveness of cannabinoids when consumed together.
Malarkey sees a clear distinction between processing methods: “We prefer to use traditional methods used by herbalists for a thousand years [to obtain a] whole-plant extract [including] the fats and lipids and everything else that the wonderful plant has to offer.”
Ret Taylor and Adriaan Zimmerman, founders of HelloNed, explain that “cold ethanol extraction maintains the biological integrity of the plant so the genetic profile changes the least.” For this reason, it seems to be the preferred method for those with a holistic approach that includes the full spectrum of cannabinoids (though hydrocarbons are also capable of producing full spectrum): “We're trusting nature to provide us with the best structure and compounds … it's not just the full spectrum of cannabinoids, but the full spectrum of the plant…we really know so little even though it is the most researched plant in the world, and it is shocking how much we are learning all the time.”
Regulations, or Lack Thereof
The lack of legal terminology and regulations beyond the most basic health concerns leaves gray areas. For consumers and businesses alike, it is a tricky time for cannabis: “It's been a day-to-day battle, with two steps forward and one step back, as state and federal governments continue to refine their approach to hemp products,” said Burkin of CBDMedic.
The rapidly evolving sector has left lawmakers and regulators scrambling to catch up to the realities of CBD products. Third-party testing is crucial to determine the absence of harmful chemicals, the content of CBD and other plant compounds, to ensuring levels of THC are below the legal maximum.
“We test our products with third-party labs three times. Once in the field to ensure it is compliant; post-extraction for solvents, heavy metals, microbial activity, pesticides, and concentration; as well as a post-formulation tests to ensure potency, consistency and safety,” said Gabe Kennedy, co-founder of Plant People, a full-spectrum hemp products company.
Transparency of where and how the plants are grown, processed, and tested will continue to be a major focus for consumers and drive the way companies interact with consumers across all platforms, including online presence, educational materials, and events.
How To Choose Your CBD
The best way to choose a CBD product is to do some research on where it comes from, how it is processed, and what parts of the hemp or marijuana plant it includes. For the time being, if you know what to look for, there are plenty of companies voluntarily sharing the information.
There is no “best” way to grow or process cannabis for CBD, leaving plenty of room for every producer to be honest about its practices. As technology advances and the general level of consumer understanding grows, informed decisions would be possible.
Find the top CBD brands on Weedmaps with self-care products ranging from CBD oils, vapes, edibles to topicals, flower, and more.
Feature image by Matteo Pagane/Unsplash