Juice The benefits of juicing raw cannabis have been widely proclaimed over the last few years, but very little empirical data has been published that addresses the claims made by the various supporters of raw cannabis. However, the anecdotal evidence is mounting up, and many swear by it—but are there inherent risks, and if so, what?
What’s Behind the Hype?
A more apt question could be ‘who’s behind the hype?’ as it is largely due to the promotional efforts of one man—Dr William Courtney, a California-based physician who holds a B.S. in Microbiology from Michigan University, an M.D. from Wayne State University and a Post Doctorate in Forensic Examination and Forensic Medicine.
Dr Courtney’s wife Kristen successfully fought symptoms of lupus by using fresh cannabis juice, and since then, the couple has enthusiastically promoted the treatment, claiming its benefit in a range of illnesses for which its efficacy has not yet been assessed.
Many of Dr Courtney’s claims are unsubstantiated and easy to debunk, and the trend for juicing cannabis is in grave danger of being dismissed as a fad—but is there any basis to the claims? There are very few reputable sources from which to draw a conclusion; the majority of articles available are from alternative-lifestyle and counter-culture blogs, and not based on empirical studies.
Cannabinoid Acids Explained
On the growing plant, up to 90% of ?9-THC is actually present in the form of ?9-THCA, a carboxylic acid (hereafter referred to as simply THCA). Cannabidiol (CBD) is present in the form of CBDA, cannabigerol (CBG) as CBGA, cannabichromene (CBC) as CBCA, and so on.
Carboxylic acids (the most abundant group of organic acids) are defined as such by the presence of at least one carboxyl group linked by a single covalent bond to another functional group. In organic chemistry, a functional group simply refers to a group of atoms within a molecule that is responsible for characteristic reactions of the molecule.
A carboxyl group is comprised of a carbonyl group (C=O; a carbon atom linked by a double covalent bond to a hydrogen atom) and a hydroxyl group (O-H; an oxygen atom linked by a single covalent bond to a hydrogen atom)—which overall is usually expressed as -COOH or -CO2H. For simplicity, THCA is expressed as THC-CO2H (although its chemical formula is C22H30O4; that of THC itself is C21H30O2), CBDA is CBD-CO2H and CBG is CBG-CO2H.
When cannabis is dried or subjected to heat, the acids transmute into their neutral, psychoactive forms, in a reaction known as decarboxylation.
Decarboxylation of Carboxylic Acids
When decarboxylation occurs, carbon dioxide (CO2) is lost, breaking up the carboxyl group. The leftover hydrogen atom forms a single covalent bond with the remaining part of the molecule, thus supplying an extra proton (a hydrogen atom consists of one proton and one electron; the electron is shared to form the covalent bond).
With cannabinoid acids, the process of decarboxylation occurs very rapidly through exposure to heat (for example, through the action of smoking or heating to make cannabis butter). It also occurs very slowly at room temperature, although by the time the cannabis has dried the process may be far from complete.
Several weeks’ curing post-drying should allow sufficient time for decarboxylation to fully occur, but may also allow THC to degrade to CBN. To avoid this, cannabis should not be exposed to air or sunlight while curing.
How Decarboxylation Occurs
If handled roughly when fresh, the resin glands break and the process of decarboxylation begins, albeit slowly—hence, hand-rubbed hash and extracts made from fresh plants will cause intoxication, but require weeks of drying and curing before being ready for consumption. In some (particularly hot, tropical) climates, decarboxylation of cannabinoid acids may even begin while the plant grows, as it approaches maturity.
It is possible to speed up the process by gently heating cannabis in an electric oven at a temperature of around 110-120°C for 30-60 minutes. This is sufficiently hot for decarboxylation to occur, but not hot enough to cause degradation of cannabinoids, flavonoids and terpenoids.
Cannabinoid Acids in the Body
The biomechanism of cannabinoid acids in the body is not well understood; the actions of the cannabinoids themselves are of far greater interest to researchers.
Conversion from THCA to THC in the body is apparently very limited, so if an individual consumes fresh, undried cannabis, there should be little to no psychoactive effect (although terpenoids and flavonoids may produce some change in mood).
According to one study, not all of the THCA present in the fresh plant is decarboxylated to THC; as much as 30% may remain as THCA and may be ingested or smoked. Therefore, one idea postulated by Dr Courtney—that one sacrifices abundant THCA-induced interactions in the body by consuming dried or heated cannabis—is highly questionable.
Metabolism of THCA in the Body
One study has shown that THCA is present in the blood and urine (in concentrations 5.0-18.6% that of THC) after ingesting cannabis. The study also indicated that the body eliminates THCA faster than THC, as the highest ratios of THCA to THC were found in individuals that had most recently smoked cannabis.
Another study investigated rats that had been orally administered THCA, analysing urine samples for metabolites that would indicate a biochemical pathway. They found that THCA undergoes hydroxylation to form a substance known as 11-OH-THCA, which then oxidises to form 11-COOH-THCA (similarly, THC hydroxylates to 11-OH-THC, which then oxidises to 11-COOH-THC).
Potential Benefits of Consuming Raw Cannabis
It has been shown that THCA and THC both exert a neuroprotective effect, and may help to prevent degeneration of the dopaminergic (dopamine-transmitting) neurons in parkinsonism (a set of symptoms most often, but not always, caused by Parkinson’s disease).
Raw cannabis still contains all the terpenoids, flavonoids and plant alkaloids that otherwise would have been lost during heating or drying, as well as abundant chlorophyll. Research into health benefits potentially conferred by these compounds is not extensive, but there are indications that terpenoids and flavonoids may increase cerebral blood flow and enhance cortical activity (useful for conditions such as Alzheimer’s), as well as killing respiratory pathogens and exerting a generally anti-inflammatory effect. Although not generally considered psychoactive, they may also exhibit some sedative effect.
Drawbacks & Risks of Consuming Raw Cannabis
Cannabis leaves contain variable cannabinoid acid content, and without time-consuming testing it is almost impossible to establish if the correct dose has been achieved. Dr Courtney has stated that a ‘dietary dose’ of 600-1000mg of THCA should be consumed, but in practice this amount of cannabinoids would necessitate consuming vast quantities of fan leaf or significant amounts of bud.
Dr Courtney has stated that people with gall bladder or kidney problems should not consume raw cannabis; nor should individuals prescribed with blood-thinning drugs, due to its vitamin K content (vitamin K is the only vitamin found in cannabis, and it can prevent metabolism of such drugs in the liver).
Raw cannabis may also harbour bacteria and other pathogens that can cause illness if ingested—salmonella and E. coli have both been found on herbal cannabis—while pesticides and foliar feeds may leave traces of harmful chemicals on the harvested cannabis. For these reasons, it is advisable to only juice veganically-grown cannabis (organically grown, without the use of animal products such as manure).
Is it Safe to Consume Raw Cannabis?
Further empirical testing should establish the relative efficacy of raw cannabis over any other form. It does not appear that there are any serious risks, save for those with the aforementioned conditions. Certainly, raw cannabis preparations have been in use for thousands of years, and if any severe risk could result, it would likely have been established by now.
There are undoubtedly benefits to be gained from consuming raw, organic fruit and vegetables for most healthy individuals, and there seems to be no reason that cannabis should not be included—but for treating illness and disease, relying on raw cannabis to provide a cure may not be the best bet for the vast majority of medical cannabis patients.