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Decarboxylation: What Makes Cannabis Effective as a Medicine

People tend to talk about Medical Cannabis in a very general sense. In other words, they discuss cannabis as though it is, in and of itself, a medicinal product. It is not. Cannabis is a plant. We extract certain compounds from the plant and use them as medicines. A critical step in the process is something known as decarboxylation.

Decarboxylation is that which makes cannabis effective as a medicine. If you attempt to use cannabis without decarboxylating it first, it isn’t going to do you much good. Why? Without getting too scientific, it is all about the natural state of the compounds in the plant.

A Lot Going On

The starting point for understanding decarboxylation is knowing that there is a lot going on inside a cannabis plant. A typical cannabis plant contains more than five hundred different chemicals. Just over 140 of them are cannabinoids. That’s what we’re after in terms of manufacturing Medical Cannabis products. We want cannabinoids like THC and CBD.

All the cannabinoids that naturally occur in plant material are actually in the form of acids. In that form, they do not interact with the human endocannabinoid system, which pretty much makes them of no medicinal value. We have to change their state to make them useful. That is what decarboxylation accomplishes.

Decarboxylation simultaneously separates an acid’s carboxyl group and releases carbon dioxide. You are left with an active cannabinoid that the human body can more readily interact with.

How It’s Done

As far as how decarboxylation is accomplished, there are different ways to do it. The easiest and most common method is applying heat. For instance, a Medical Cannabis processor uses one of several methods to extract cannabinoids and terpenes from plant material. Extracts are then distilled in order to separate the individual components.

This is where it gets interesting. Distillation is accomplished by heating up the extract to boiling point. While the various components are being distilled the cannabinoids are also being decarboxylated. It’s a two-for-one that gives processors the cannabinoids they need to make Medical Cannabis products.

If you were to make your own edibles at home using raw flower, you would accomplish decarboxylation by heating the plant material. A lot of recipes call for breaking up plant material and adding it directly to the rest of the ingredients. Cooking those ingredients decarboxylates the cannabis. Plant material can then be strained away afterwards.

Just for the record, burning cannabis decarboxylate cannabinoids on the fly. That is why you can dry-heat unprocessed flower and still derive medical benefits from it. Dry heating doesn’t actually burn the material. Rather, it heats it to a temperature just below combustion.

It Applies to All Cannabinoids

Decarboxylation is frequently associated with turning inactive THCA into active THC. But the need to decarboxylate applies to all cannabinoids. So even if your medicines are primarily CBD products, a processor had to decarboxylate the CBDA to get useful CBD from it.

Now that you know the basics about decarboxylation, it should be easier for you to understand why Medical Cannabis processors in Utah are such a critical link in the chain. Utah law prohibits smoking marijuana, so patients need other delivery methods. All those other methods, with the exception of dry heating, require that cannabinoid acids be decarboxylated during processing.

Decarboxylation is the process that transforms cannabinoid acids into active cannabinoids. Although the cannabis plant has other uses, decarboxylation makes it an effective tool in treating medical conditions like pain and PTSD.

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Published April 22, 2022

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